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How to Photograph Gardens

by Philip Greenspun, June 1999 (updated January 2007)



Make sure that you have an image showing the garden and its context, i.e., the surrounding buildings and landscape.

Tenryu-ji.  Kyoto Ginkaku-ji.  Kyoto Park. Beijing The cloister garden inside Florence's San Lorenzo Garden. Getty Center.  Los Angeles, California. Chinese Garden.  Singapore

Kyu Shiba Rikyu garden.  Tokyo Cactus Garden overlooking the city. Getty Center.  Los Angeles, California.

Include people in the garden for scale:

Chinese Garden.  Singapore Chere's hand in a fountain at the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum, Long Island City, Queens, New York

Wherever possible, show views framed by objects or structures within the garden:

Chinese Garden.  Singapore Chinese Garden.  Singapore Powerscourt. South of Dublin, Ireland.

A general view of the garden works best if the image has a distinct foreground, middle ground, and background:

Japanese Garden. Powerscourt. South of Dublin, Ireland. Botaniska Tradgarden.  Visby, Gotland.

Here is an example of two "flat" images. The one on the left seems to be a failure photographically. The one on the right comparatively successful. How to explain the difference between the two images below? Perhaps the designer of the garden intended the right-hand view to be dwelt upon whereas the left-hand view is seen only from a path.

Chinese Garden.  Singapore Chinese Garden.  Singapore

Here are a few more foreground-middle ground-background images that seem to work reasonably well...

Chinese Garden.  Singapore Chinese Garden.  Singapore Japanese Garden.  Singapore

If there is flowing water in the garden, a tripod and a slow shutter speed (1/4 second or longer) are best for capturing the spirit of the water:

Powerscourt. South of Dublin, Ireland.

If there are bridges in the garden, either capture the reflection or the path over the bridge:

Japanese Garden. Powerscourt. South of Dublin, Ireland. Koishikawa Korakuen garden Saiho-ji.  Kyoto Edo stroll garden at New Otani Hotel.  Tokyo

Check for underwater life... (some of these images would have been improved if taken with a polarizing filter to remove surface reflections)

Koi.  Myoshin-ji.  Kyoto Koi.  Nanzen-ji.  Kyoto Koi.  Nanzen-ji.  Kyoto Koi.  Singapore Zoo

Get some images of single plants or flowers but remember that even a comprehensive inventory of these won't capture the design of a particular garden.

Bamboo.  Chinese Garden.  Singapore Powerscourt. South of Dublin, Ireland.

Orchids.  Big Island.  Hawaii 1990. Hawaii.

When photographing sculpture in the garden, try to capture as much of the context as possible. Your images shouldn't look the same as if you'd brought the sculpture into a photo studio.

Edo stroll garden at New Otani Hotel.  Tokyo Edo stroll garden at New Otani Hotel.  Tokyo

Parco dei Mostri (park of monsters), below the town of Bomarzo, Italy (1.5 hours north of Rome).  This was the park of the 16th century Villa Orsini and is filled with grotesque sculptures.

Don't neglect interesting architectural details within the garden. Iron gates and stonework are particularly photogenic.

Tenryu-ji.  Kyoto Powerscourt. South of Dublin, Ireland. Doors.  Nishi Hongan-ji.  Kyoto

Try for color balance, remembering that red and yellow are two or three times visually more powerful than green or white. In the images below, note how easily red can overwhelm your eyes.

Boca Grande.  Gasparilla Island.  SW Florida Botaniska Tradgarden.  Visby, Gotland. Botaniska Tradgarden.  Visby, Gotland.

Practical Details

Whenever possible, use a tripod. Unless it is very windy, elements of a garden won't be moving around much and you'll get higher quality images as well as have the freedom to employ smaller apertures. The small apertures will give images a wider depth of field, i.e., more objects will be in focus from foreground to background.

Botaniska Tradgarden.  Visby, Gotland.

If you can't use a tripod, make sure to pack relatively fast lenses (f/2.8 or faster) and ISO 400 film. Among the ISO 400 films, my favorites are professional color negative films, intended for weddings. These have less color saturation and contrast than consumer films and therefore will render distinct green tones more distinctly. Check the photo.net film page for our latest recommendations in professional ISO 400 negative film. Most of the images on this page were taken with Fuji NPH or Kodak Portra 400NC film; click on the thumbnails for technical details. If you are using a tripod, you can indulge in the luxury of slide film. Again, pick one with a painterly palette and good separation among green tones.

A 50mm lens on a 35mm SLR camera can be ideal for garden photography. It can focus close enough to isolate a plant. The normal perspective gives a viewer an accurate idea of what the garden will feel like. A 50/1.4 lens is fast enough to permit good photography without a tripod, assuming extensive depth of field is not required.

You can do some fun things with a wide angle lens. It is useful for exaggerating the structure of a formal European garden or getting a frame-filling picture of a sculpture while still including a lot of background. Here are a couple of examples taken with a 20-35mm zoom lens:

Florence's Boboli Gardens (L'Isolotto) The Porcelain Museum in Florence's Boboli Gardens

A telephoto lens is good for compressing perspective and is particularly good in European gardens with their lanes of trees. Here are a couple of snapshots from Giardino Giusti in Verona (sadly they are miscaptioned as being from the Boboli garden in Florence):


Text and pictures Copyright 1990-2000 Philip Greenspun. Most of the pictures are from the photo.net Japan guide, the public Chinese Garden in Singapore, Powerscourt (south of Dublin, Ireland), the photo.net Sweden guide, the photo.net California guide, and the photo.net guide to Italy. If you click on a thumbnail image you'll get a larger photo with a caption underneath.

PhotoCD scans by Advanced Digital Imaging.

Article revised January 2007.

Readers' Comments


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Brent Wilson ' The Shallow DOF Man' , January 12, 2002; 09:40 A.M.

A few things I would like to add concerning photographing gardens. As a professional photographer who shots gardens for a living a really important aspect of gardening photography is getting colour into your shots, which could be from plants, flowers, painted walls or sculptures. Also eliminating unwanted background material, ie: if you are shooting a Formal English style garden and there is a giant palm tree growing next door, avoid it at all costs. Also try shooting from different perspectives, on the ground, from the top storey of the house or from the top of a fence. Also try and be sensitive to the overall aesthetic of the design, if it is a Japanese garden be aware of the way the garden is designed and why. Cheers Brent.

Maria Bostenaru , March 28, 2005; 04:42 A.M.

Also that single flowers can be shot in another environment as a garden: above my hawaii-orchids with a winterly landscape from Karlsruhe in the background.

Image Attachment: flower.jpg

Arthur Bruso , November 03, 2005; 03:42 P.M.

These "tips" are extremly formulaic. The photographic examples are pedestrian and banal. I would rather use my imagination and a solid concept when photgraphing anything. I would rather make art than toss off a photo essay that discribes a place.

JH de Beer (RSA) , April 11, 2006; 05:06 P.M.

Arthur. I would take your comments more seriously if I could view some of your images.

Tom Leoni , June 13, 2006; 03:30 P.M.

Phil, thank you so much for taking the time to share your knowledge. I really enjoyed reading this as well as the other "Learn" resources on photo.net.

Keep up the great work and thank you again.

Tom

Jun W , September 24, 2006; 04:01 P.M.

Very useful advice!

Vic Stewart , March 21, 2007; 12:21 P.M.

Especially useful for me today, the first day of spring. I woke up today thinking about some garden photography and this was the first place I came. VERY helpful!

Ken Bramble , July 23, 2007; 04:20 P.M.

Feelings

Wetland location and theme

Gardens usually have a particular style or theme. Identifying this and then shooting an image which captures this is usually my initial objective. Asking the garden creator to select their place of pride in the garden can also be helpful. Plants and or flowers which represent the character of the garden make excellent secondary images. i usually ask myself what feelings I am experiencing. Then, what is there about this garden that generates these feelings? From here I can usually compose frames which capture that feeling, hopefully communicating these to viewers.

Andrew Prokos , August 22, 2007; 10:56 P.M.

There are some nice basic tips here. A very good quality wide angle lens is a must, as is shooting with a tripod. With my landscape and garden photography I tend to accentuate strong saturated color if I am using chrome film. Fuji negative film also does a nice job, but it tends to be a bit grainy for my taste. Gardens can also be shot in black and white quite successfully...especially gardens which include a lot of architectural elements. --Andrew

Jayakumar AR , September 22, 2007; 11:58 A.M.

very useful. thanks a ton.

Arun MA , August 15, 2008; 04:07 A.M.

Great treasure for beginners like me

Mathieu de Gironde , April 08, 2014; 03:23 P.M.

thanks for the article

here's what I managed to do

http://gironde.weebly.com/en-fleur.html

 


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