Gardening in itself can be an art form. To capture photographs illustrating the very essence of a garden is artistic mastery. We can perceive with our own eyes the sweeping vista of spring flowers in a garden but to photograph that scene successfully and reproduce that vastness of flowering landscape is difficult to accomplish. The sheer expanse of swathes of wild flowers or the exquisite detail of a fern unfurling can be lost in a photograph when to the naked eye it appears as something quite remarkable. Producing exceptional garden photos not only requires artistic talent but technical aptitude with photographic equipment, an understanding of meteorology, an ability to read landscapes and a fair amount of patience. The expertise involved in garden photography can be off-putting to those new to the discipline but following certain basic principles can produce some surprising results.
The early bird or night owl
Garden photographers almost always work during dawn or dusk when the light is considered to be better. This then directly translates into photographs creating exquisite atmosphere and impression. For me, this is not good news. I am certainly not a ‘happy’ early riser so any photographs I take, will tend to be those favouring the dusk end of the day. However in his opinion, garden photographer Jason Ingram shoots some of his best photos during the dawn hours.
For the last two years Jason has photographed Folly Farm in Berkshire, an arts and crafts garden originally designed by Lutyens and Jekyll and beautifully restored by it’s owners and garden designer Dan Pearson. At Folly Farm, Jason has had the pleasure of photographing the changing seasons, and different light and atmosphere, all of which are hugely influential on how the garden appears in photographs. He considers some of his best photos of Folly Farm to be taken at dawn.
“Photographing Folly Farm has been a real privilege as more often than not I rarely spend very long in a garden,” Jason explained, “and I certainly never see a garden multiple times during the year. This is a project that is going to run for about 10 years and will culminate in an extensive photographic record of the garden.”
For a photographer picking the right moment to take a shot is critical. If photographs are taken when the sun it at its highest point in the sky then the light is often too hard, heavy shadows can dominate the garden and images can appear oversaturated. Effectively, where the sun is in the sky needs to be taken fully into consideration, as the same picture taken at midday and at dusk can evoke a very different feeling.
Jason said, “In March last year, I was taking photographs on the wonderful estate of Boughton House in Northamptonshire. The sun was low in the sky creating a wonderful glow, the sky a vivid blue and there was a beautiful frost, all of which combined to make some great photos. That same photo taken at midday would have looked completely different and nowhere near as atmospheric. ”
Whatever the weather
Often I visit gardens regardless of the weather. Rain, hail, snow, wind and blistering heat do not deter me. However, bad weather conditions for garden photographers can often delay shoots and worst-case scenarios mean waiting another year to take photographs.
“A photographer always consults the weather forecasts,” said Jason. “There is no point in photographing a garden when all the detail is lost under a metre of snow, a smattering of snow is perfect but not masses of it. I often consider myself a part time meteorologist as well as a photographer! Most people think that rainy days are the worst days to take images but winds can ruin any chance of a good photo.”
Photographs taken in the snow or on a frosty morning can be elegantly stark as they often appear monochrome in appearance and help to dramatize the form, shape and structure of gardens. Mists and heavy dews rising off landscapes can accentuate light when captured at the critical time and create a magical glow to a photograph. For many of Jason’s photographs, he uses a neutral density (ND) filter and this greatly accentuates the beauty of the skies in his images. An ND filter basically reduces the intensity of light entering the lens, increasing exposure without affecting the colour of the image. This is important where the sky appears much brighter than the landscape. Using an ND filter can reduce the brightness of the sky but retain good exposure of the land. But even more importantly, it can be extremely effective during dawn and dusk shoots. Jason also uses a transparent filter. This serves to block ultraviolet light, reducing haziness and the purple fringing that often occurs at the edges of digital photographs. They can be really effective in darkening skies and making them more atmospheric.
Working at speed
Often photographers need to work quickly to capture a perfect shot. Being in the right place at the right time is important but Jason explained the importance of the photographer ‘getting their eye in’ first. A good photographer will often have ‘a good eye’, that is they can see beyond the first glance, examining both the composition and the effects of light. They can often see what will make an effective photo very quickly. However there are times when a photographer needs to slow down and even pause for a while.
Jason explained, “Sometimes a garden is simply overwhelming in its beauty, it’s photographic breadth limitless. When that happens it is best to take a break and walk the space.”
If mists are featuring in a shoot then a photographer needs to more even quicker as the mists will quickly disperse. However, it is a fine balance. Too much mist and the details within the image are lost and too little and you lose the atmospheric quality. A small amount is perfect to allow the sun’s rays to break through. Frosts will alter through the duration of the day too and as a photographer you want to capture a garden under a curtain of frost with a small amount of melt to achieve the desired effect. Photograph too late in the day and all of the frost may have melted.
Getting into position
Most people assume that to take photographs you need the sun behind you but many of Jason’s photos are taken looking into the sun. In fact, many garden photographers use this approach.
“I think that photos look much better if they are shot into the sun. You screen and filter the direct glare of the sun by using foliage and features in the garden,” Jason explained. “It can then be really effective in backlighting plants, giving them an ephemeral glow. If the sun is directly behind you the best shots are at ‘ten to’ and ‘ten past’ the hour generally. ”
Positioning yourself in the garden is also important as it affects the angle at which the garden is viewed. Jason always takes a set of stepladders with him to a shoot as he often needs to get a shot looking down into a garden. This gives a great vantage point and captures the garden at quite a different angle to how most people would visualise it. Jason has even taken photos from standing on a chicken house to rooftops of houses to get the best shot. Often the camera can be orientated upwards instead, to help accentuate height and give an airy feeling to photographs.
It’s all in the detail
Some of my favourite photographs in gardens are those of plant portraits and macro images. The beauty of the shot lies in the detail of the plant, the veins tracing a delicate leaf or clusters of pollen on the stamens of a flower. For Jason, he gets at eye level with the plants and more often than not this means getting really low to the ground especially when shooting tiny bulbs. Quite often for plant portraits, a set needs to be created to get the perfect image and this can involve all manner of clamps to tease the plants into the required shape, and usually the presence of a diffuser to cast the correct amount of shade. Although a plant portrait can look like an easy shot, it requires a great deal of technical skill and patience as it can take days to get the desired photo.
Jason offered up some final pieces of advice to aspiring photographers, “Take as many photographs as you can. If you see a good photo take it to avoid a missed opportunity. Always look behind you because more often than not there’s a great image there.”
Jason Ingram is a garden, landscape, interiors and food photographer who regularly contributes to Gardens Illustrated, The English Garden and other magazines as well as national newspapers. He studied photography at Salisbury College of Art and during his career has won many prestigious photography awards.