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Canon UK

Clive Nichols

Award Winning Garden Photographer Reveals A Few Secrets




When deciding on what camera to use for your garden and plant photography, always remember that as a general rule of thumbs, the less complicated a camera is, the easier it is to operate. This may seem obvious but you would be amazed just how many times I have been photographing in a garden and been asked by the owner "Do you know how to operate this thing because I don’t?"


The problem is exacerbated by the fact that camera manufacturers are constantly bringing out new models with more and more ‘features’ designed to make the camera special. While some of these features are undoubtedly of use to the flower and garden photographer, there are many which merely serve to complicate the picture-taking process.


Undoubtedly the easiest cameras to operate are the ‘point and press’ compact cameras, which are fully automatic and fit easily into your pocket. For general garden scenes and plant association pictures, a compact camera should be perfectly adequate. If, on the other hand, you want to be more adventurous with your compositions, you will need a single-lens reflex (SLR) camera.


The major advantage of SLR cameras is that they are able to accept more than one lens – indeed, some makes have as many a sixty or more interchangeable lenses to choose from. Also, most SLRs have through-the-lens (TTL) metering. TTL meters are built into the camera, so a separate hand-held light meter is not needed. TTL meters ‘read’ the light that actually passes through the camera lens, they are able to adjust automatically with changes in angle of view, lighting conditions and filters fitted to the lens.



Lenses should be purchased with care, since more than any other factor it is the choice of lens which determines the look and quality of your garden images. For this reason, if you are attempting to take garden pictures for the first time, resist the temptation to rush out and buy all sorts of different lenses for your camera. It is always best to try out just one or two to begin with so that you can discover their merits and their foibles. New purchases can then be made as your range of subjects increases.



Composition is simply the way in which we arrange and organise subject matter from a given scene within the picture. What you choose to exclude from a composition can often be as important as what you decide to leave in. So many garden pictures turn out to be a failure because the photographer has included too much of a scene and has not noticed distracting elements within the frame.


The reason for this is that our eyes ‘see’ what they want to see, whereas the camera is not nearly as subjective and will faithfully record everything that is contained within the viewfinder. We may point our cameras at a border stacked full of beautiful blooms, only to discover when we examine our processed films that the picture has been spoiled by a distracting plant label in the foreground or an ugly garden fence in the background.


One of the best ways to avoid making this kind of mistake when composing a picture is to ask yourself the simple question "What exactly do I want to show in this picture?’ In the above example, it may have been a particular combination of plants within the border itself that made you stop and set up your camera. So, rather than use a wide-angle lens that takes in the whole of the border, it may be better to use a telephoto or zoom lens to isolate and fill the frame with only those plants that first caught your eye (see page 51 in the book). In this way, parts of the scene which do not contribute to the finished picture (such as the ugly fence) can be easily excluded, making the composition more pleasing.


Another simple way to improve your garden pictures is to look for patterns, both natural and man-made (see page 50 and 54 in the book). Many floral subjects seem to possess their own ‘natural’ rhythm and symmetry which you can use to strengthen the impact of your composition. Think, for example, of the chequerboard pattern on the petals of the snake’s head fritillary, or the way in which the delicate petals of a rose radiate in a pinwheel outward from the flower’s centre. Learning to discover and gardens will vastly improve your chances of producing satisfying images.



Light is the dominant element in any garden photograph. More than any other factor, it is the quality of light within a composition that can make the difference between a picture that works and one that does not. An awareness and understanding of the subtle yet elusive qualities of light and how they can be used to enhance or create atmosphere in your garden pictures is something that can only be learnt through experience (see page 54).


Intense sunlight is often thought to be the best light for garden photography. Personally, I think this has something to do with the fact that most if us get maximum enjoyment from our gardens when the sun is shining brightly and the colours of flowers and foliage seems most intense. Brilliant sunshine makes us feel happy, so out come our cameras to record a moment of this happiness. In practice, however, photographs taken in such conditions can often be a disappointment. The reason for this is that no film is able to record the extremes of contrast which harsh sunlight creates. The result is that pictures are often marred by the presence of washed-out highlights or cavernous, inky black shadows.


It is much easier to take successful garden pictures on a cloudy day, when contrast is reduced so that the more subtle details of plants can be recorded. Even light rain or drizzle can be perfect for shooting subjects such as plant portraits, especially when there is little or no breeze. Petals become speckled with tiny beads of moisture and every detail of the flower and its surrounding foliage can be recorded with great clarity.


On cloudless summer days, there is little option but to restrict photography to very early in the morning or late in the afternoon. At these times the sun is at a tangent to the earth and low in the sky. The sun’s rays are weaker because they have to pass through an extra layer of the earth’s atmosphere. As a consequence, contrast is reduced between highlights and shadows. The low-angled lighting at dawn and dusk also produces raking shadows which reveal texture and accentuate the three-dimensional quality of a garden. In addition, the dense atmosphere layer absorbs much of the ultra-violet and blue light, so that garden scenes are washed in a rich, warm light which is highly flattering to garden subjects.


When light levels are low in a garden you may be tempted to reach into your camera-bag for a flashgun. However, because a burst of electronic flash is so brief, its effect cannot be seen by the naked eye. For this reason, flash is a particularly difficult kind of light to control when working outdoors and pictures taken with flashlight often turn out to be a disappointment. My advice would be to avoid flash photography in the garden. Even in poor lighting conditions, provided the subject you are shooting is still, a long exposure using the available light, perhaps boosted by a large white card reflector is often preferable to the more unpredictable light of electronic flash.


Zoom Lenses Pull the View In – Zoom lenses perform more or less the same function as telephoto lenses but they have variable rather than fixed focal lengths. This is a positive advantage for the plant and garden photographer, as once the subject is in focus, the lens can be pulled in or out so that the subject in the viewfinder appears larger or smaller, making it possible to shoot several different compositions of that subject from a fixed viewpoint. Time is not wasted on changing from one lens to another, an important factor in garden photography where the light is often changing constantly.



Macro lenses are optically designed to be at their best when focused on objects at very close range. They come in focal lengths from 55mm to 200mm, but unlike other lenses of comparable focal length, they have built-in extensions which allow the lens to be moved further away from the film plane and closer to the subject being photographed. When fully extended, most macro lenses are capable of producing an image which is at least half life-size. In other words, a single poppy flower which is 5 cm (2in) in diameter in reality will be recorded as an image 2.5 cm (1in) in diameter on the negative or transparency.


Macro lenses can also be used to obtain extreme close-ups with magnifications greater than half life-size by adding hollow metal rings (extension tubes) between the lens and the camera body.

As well as producing superb close-ups (see page 50), macro lenses are capable of delivering sharp pictures at longer range, making them a perfectly acceptable substitute for comparable focal length lenses. The 55mm macro lens, for example, can double as a standard lens and would strongly advise anyone who is thinking of purchasing an SLR for the first time to consider buying a 55mm macro lens with the camera body instead of the usual standard lens that is on offer.


In many ways, macro lenses are the most difficult lenses to use. A great deal of patience and concentration is often required in setting up an outdoor macro close-up. A tripod is a must, as the slightest movement of the camera will record as a blur on the negative or transparency. Furthermore, because depth of field (the amount of the subject that is in sharp focus) is severely limited at close focusing distances, careful focusing and small apertures (e.g. f16, f22) are often required.



Tripods are an essential tool for the garden photographer. Tripods hold the key to obtaining pin-sharp, well composed photographs. They help you to frame the picture in exactly the way you want and eliminate the risk of camera shake during exposure. Once the camera is firmly screwed down on to the tripod and carefully focused, you are free to concentrate on exactly the right moment to press the shutter.

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