How to Take More Artful Garden Photos
Take amazing pics of your green space and record your yard's transformation. Bonus: You'll be all set with images to enter in TOH's America's Best Remodel Contest
With all the smarts built into cameras (and even cell phones) these days, it's never been easier to photograph your garden. You just point and shoot, right?
Well, sometimes it really is just that simple—but even then, there are tricks of the trade that can make a huge difference in the quality of your shots.
For example, have you ever thought of holding your camera down so low that you can't even look through the viewfinder? Photographer Matthew Benson, a frequent This Old House contributor and the author of the new book The Photographic Garden (Rodale), sometimes does just that. A particularly striking example of the result is his portrait of a lotus (shown), which was taken by holding the camera at water level, capturing the underside of the leaves backlit against the sky. A delicate white blossom tinged with purple rises above olive-green leaves that look almost muscular, their veins bulging.
"I may end up with a lot of useless pixels," Benson says of his experiments with unconventional camera angles, "but something magical can also happen: I get a unique perspective that makes for a compelling image."
What's the best camera to use?
"My advice is always the same: the one you have with you. If you find an expensive camera with interchangeable lenses too cumbersome to take with you, then it's the wrong camera. If you can't be bothered with choices and parts, a quality point-and-shoot will do."
—Matthew Benson, photographer
And that's just the start of his practical tips for transforming garden photography from simple snapshots into images that really tell a story. Coming up: this accomplished pro's top five techniques to try.
Eager to capture the first light of day filtering through leaves wet with dew, Benson usually starts just before dawn so that he can figure out where the light will break through and can be ready to capture it. There is no better time to photograph the overall sweep of a garden, he says. "Light at midday compromises the beauty of the garden, turning delicate plantings into stark shadow and glare." But at the beginning—and end—of the day, shadows and beams of light lengthen, and colors almost glow.
Taking family snapshots, you've probably had your subjects squint into the sun to avoid shadows on their faces. For great garden photographs, it's just the opposite. "The most important change you can make to improve your garden photography is to learn to shoot into the light," Benson says, because backlighting brings out details, emphasizes shapes, and makes everything seem alive. Position yourself so that beds, borders, and petals are between you and the sun. You'll need to overrule the automatic exposure control on your camera, though, and set the shutter speed to match the light on the plants, not the sky. If your camera has a program mode, use that. If not, you might be able to focus on a dark area, depress the shutter halfway to lock in the exposure reading, then move the camera (without lifting your finger) to frame the shot you want before pressing down the shutter the rest of the way.
Frame an image with an object or objects in the foreground so that people viewing the photograph feel as if they were moving through the frame to something beyond. For instance, use a pergola or an arbor to frame a picture of a perennial bed on the other side of it. Another example: Benson shot this magnolia grove (shown) with out-of-focus magnolia blossoms in the foreground framing branches filled with sharply in-focus blooms a bit deeper into the garden. The effect is to make you feel like you are standing in the grove, surrounded by the brilliant flowers.
Everything in a garden has three dimensions, so good photographers don't settle for taking pictures from only one direction. Shoot from above, from below, from both sides, from close in, from far back. Benson tries it all, always looking for an inherent balance, whether perfect symmetry (favored in formal gardens), asymmetrical arrangements with a large object on one side and two smaller ones on the other, or strong vertical or diagonal lines (shown). He has found that shots taken from above—from an upstairs window looking down, for example—can be good for revealing a garden's overall design. But these photographs usually lack intimacy, so he advises taking the majority of your photographs from eye level. These are more likely to capture the sensual pleasures of a garden, such as smell, touch, and delicacy.
How a garden changes over time is one obvious story line; to do it well requires shots that show the overall plan of the garden, as well as midrange views and close-ups. But, Benson points out, there are many other stories, from the patterns that specific plants create to studies of hardscape elements and garden ornaments. The leaf pattern on an iron gate (shown) may hint at the weathered grandeur of the garden beyond. Pick an element of your garden that you love—a color, a shape, a recurring motif—and shoot just that, then complete the story with broader views. Above all, aim to find a story to tell that's all your own.