These simple techniques make garden photography easier than you think


A bright, sunny garden is one of the trickiest places to take pictures. Your eyes can see a much greater range from bright to dark than film or digital images can capture without losing something in the brightest highlights or the darkest shadows. That’s why photos taken at noon on a sunny day leave intense colors looking washed out and shadows looking dark and murky. Instead, shoot on an overcast day, when clouds do a good job of diffusing light. Direct sunlight also creates pictures with harsh contrasts. In the morning and evening, the light looks longer, and it seems to caress whatever it touches.

Another key to making great pictures is understanding how your camera works. It really does pay to read the manual. The simple point-and-shoot camera that I sometimes use has dozens of focus and exposure modes that let me use different combinations of ambient (or natural) light and flash. For example, if I can’t keep myself from shooting on a sunny day, the “fill flash” mode fires the flash to fill in just enough of the shadows to keep them from going black in the photo. Sometimes I think that little camera is smarter than me, but it wouldn’t be able to do its tricks without me pushing the buttons in the right order.

Lighting can help accentuate the best elements of your subject. Angled light will bring out the details of texture in blossoms and foliage. A single flower in the light, seen against a dark background, pops off the page. One trick is to emulate the photography that you see in old Hollywood movies. Often the leading man (read: a rugged cactus) would be lit with bold shadows, while the leading lady (a single rose) would be lit with soft, gentle light. Another tip from the golden age of Hollywood: Black-and-white pictures have a timeless elegance. Shoot a roll of Kodak’s Portra 400 BW or Ilford’s XP2 film and see for yourself.

Bright sunlight (center) often results in overly bright light colors and deep shadows, giving a photo harsh contrasts. Diffused light, such as that found on an overcast day, softens the shadows and lets true colors shine through. Morning light (left) and evening light (right) are long and gentle, which helps fill in shadows.

Capture the essence of your garden

There are two types of garden photographs. The first gives an overall feeling of the garden and captures a sense of space. The eyes should be able to wander through the photograph like a visitor wandering into your garden. Use the design and function of your garden, and its shapes and lines, to guide your composition. Paths draw the eye in, dark branches envelop and frame a subject, and stems and leaves point toward the flowers at the heart of the image.

Fill the frame with elements that are essential to the picture. It’s better to have your garden bursting out of the image than to leave a few interesting things stranded in the middle of a sparse frame. If your garden is small, step right up. If your garden is too big to fit in one shot from the farthest place you can stand, stitch together a panorama from a series of pictures.