How to improve your garden photography even if you hate tech…
Garden photography and video is now important to almost any garden lover.
If you’re on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter, or you have a blog or a garden-related business, then the chances are you’ll be taking photos of gardens.
I have been working on improving my garden photography since I started this blog five years ago. I’ve gone on several short workshops run by brilliant garden photographers and have also done online courses.
Creating video for the Middlesized Garden Youtube Channel was another leap.
Because I have always hated technology, I have never been a natural. So it’s been a steep learning curve. My brothers are astonished that I now (seem to) know more than they do.
So every time I find an easy, non-technological tip, I am delighted.
Here are my favourites. They all come from experienced professional photographers. But none of the tips involve F stops or White Balance or any of those other scary things.
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Clean your lens -especially on a smartphone
He pointed out that your phone in your bag or pocket easily gets grubby. You may think you’d notice any blemishes, but he explained that dust and small fragments on the lens may not show up as an obstruction. They’ll just diffuse the focus of the whole photo.
Jonathan’s workshops are excellent. I went on one when I had already been using my smartphone for photography for five years (and indeed I had even had one of my photos chosen for the Perennial Calendar 2017 alongside Jonathan’s and some of the other photographers in this post.)
However, I felt my knowledge was patchy. And I had a new phone. Going to a smartphone workshop might be more fun (it was) than yet another trip to the EE shop to ask the assistants how the camera works. Other people at the workshop were new to smartphone photography, but I think it can help to go back to the beginning sometimes.
Now I’ve bought a stock of Zeiss lens wipes, and keep a few in all my handbags, kitchen drawers, on the top of my desk etc.
Use a tripod
Every photographer I have ever met told me to use a tripod. I eventually got the message and bought this compact lightweight Manfrotto tripod.
Until then, I sometimes used a stepladder and cookery books. Pippa Greenwood once came to my house. She was in Faversham for Gardeners’ Question Time and we were talking about Grow Your Own With Pippa Greenwood, her veg plug plants and advice for home veg growers.
I interviewed her with the phone on the stepladder with cookery books, but realised that you can’t carry that lot round Hampton Court or Wisley.
The NGS has a ‘no tripod’ policy for its gardens. And if you are photographing, for example, a snowdrop very close up, you’ll be lying down, so you can rest your elbows on the ground.
And you can just about ‘get away with’ no tripod for still photography, but if you are doing any video, even the tiniest shake in your hands can be obvious. There is definitely too much shake in too many of my YouTube films.
You can get mini Gorilla pod tripods for mobile phones. I haven’t personally found them easy to use and I haven’t been able to secure them properly. Maybe that’s just me – but I’d advise borrowing one from a friend before actually buying one.
You can also buy a smartphone tripod mount – an accessory which screws into the top of your tripod to hold a mobile phone. I bought this one from Manfrotto, and have found it good.
Decide where your horizon is
This is another tip from more than one workshop, including at Media Training Ltd’s Filming with a Smartphone‘s one day workshop.
If you are photographing or filming somewhere quite flat and built on a grid system (New York’s Central Park?), the horizon is obvious.
If, like me, you live in a Georgian house in a medieval town without a straight line within a five mile radius, then working out your horizon is a challenge.
Horizons in garden photography are even more challenging. What about uneven walls, gently sloping lawns and beds, trees that are not quite upright, paving that may or may not be properly flat….?
If you’re only taking photos, then you can adjust the horizon when you edit them. But you will lose some of the photo and that may affect the result.
But when you’re filming, it’s vital to check the ‘horizon’ before pressing ‘on’, because you can’t adjust it in editing. (Or if you can, it’s well beyond the skills of the technophobe.)
There are some hideously wonky horizons on my YouTube channel…just check this doorway at the beginning of the April garden tour of the Middlesized Garden. Try not to giggle. Please.
Don’t zoom with your lens…
‘Don’t zoom with your lens, zoom with your feet.’ This came from an excellent book I bought from Amazon called ‘How to Shoot Video That Doesn’t Suck.’
When you use a zoom on a digital camera or a smartphone, you reduce the number of pixels in the frame. So the picture will be less sharp and may even be washed out or blurry. Go closer to your subject.
Sometimes it’s not possible to get really close, but use your feet to get as close as you can, so you can minimise the use of the zoom.
However, top garden photographer Clive Nichols (see below) does advocate the use of a small amount of zoom when photographing a border. He advises standing at a slight angle to the border and using some zoom to compress the picture. ‘It makes the border look fuller and gets rid of any gaps.’
We were at Pettifers, and Pettifers’ owner, Gina, raised an eyebrow. ‘Gaps, Clive?’ she enquired.
Get up early for the best garden photography
Multi award-winning Clive Nichols runs wonderful one-day garden photography workshops.
(I was given one of Clive Nichols workshops at Pettifers – and indeed all the photography workshops in this post – as birthday/Christmas presents from Mr Middlesize. As training is an allowable expense, I actually buy them. It’s a wonderful system. I find the photography workshop, pay for it and then send Mr M an email telling him what he’s given me. I get what I want and he doesn’t have to go shopping. We are both happy.)
Clive’s advice is to take garden photographs in the first hour after sunrise or the last hour before sunset. ‘If you’re not prepared to get up early. you’ll never be a good garden photographer,’ he says. In June sunrise can be from about 4.30am.
This is an absolutely brilliant tip, because the light is so wonderful first thing in the morning. There are no harsh shadows.
Of course, getting into gardens that early can be a problem. If you know someone with an exceptional garden, they may be kind enough to let you sneak in at that time of the morning. Or you can use this tip for your own garden.
Cloudy days have a diffused light so they can be good for garden photography too. Generally, try to avoid taking garden photographs in bright sunlight between about 11am and 3pm.
NB there is a difference between dawn and sunrise…
Clive may have mentioned this, but I didn’t take it in. Dawn is up to an hour before sunrise. It’s quite dark at dawn.
I needed to photograph a building in our town, so checked ‘dawn’ on the mobile phone. It was 4.15am. When I got to the building, it was illuminated by street lights, so I checked ‘is there a difference between dawn and sunrise’ on the phone.
There was. So I settled down to wait on a nearby bench. To my astonishment, a woman appeared, walking her dog. She engaged me in conversation. I explained that I was waiting for sunrise so I could photograph the front door.
She continued to chat – which I thought was odd at that time of the morning. Eventually she departed, remarking that she had worried that I might have escaped from some kind of residential care home and that she had wondered if she should call the police. ‘Not that you look old,’ she added, as a parting shot.
My initial explanation that I was waiting for sunrise to photograph a door had not reassured her in the slightest.
On the other hand, perhaps she was the one who had escaped from somewhere…
Movement on video needs to be on the other side of the lens…
When you are taking video, the subject/s should move. Not the camera.
It took me a very long time to grasp this, but eventually I understood it when I read How to Shoot Video That Doesn’t Suck.
We’re back to the tripod again. There are a few situations where you can successfully move down a street or pan round a garden with a camera rolling. But they are surprisingly rare.
Such shots are more about atmosphere than really showing you the garden. To see something properly you need to focus on it.
Set up your tripod to film someone gardening. If you want to follow them round the garden, turn off the camera, then move the tripod/camera/phone to a number of different places – taking several short lengths of video – rather than actually walking around behind the subject waving your camera around.
Professional film sets have several different cameras shooting from different angles. They pan and move, but they have expertise and monstrous great machines to keep the film steady. We technophobes have neither.
I have bought something called a DJI Osmo 2, which is a hand-held stabiliser on a gimbal. It can also act as a smartphone tripod. But that still doesn’t mean I can walk up and down a garden shooting continuous video.
The February Garden tour was mainly shot using the DJI Osmo 2 gimbal. I think some parts (around the 30 second mark) do work quite well. But others still look shaky.
I interviewed Charles Dowding on using no dig for flower growing as well as for veg. When editing I found myself covering up the wobbly sections of film with still photos. If I had shot it all on a tripod, and had not tried to pan or follow Charles around, I would have shot a better, easier-to-edit film.
Check out Charles Dowding’s YouTube channel for simple, effective tips on no dig, organic gardening and equally effective, high quality video photography.
Good online photography and video courses
I’ve tried quite a few free and paid-for courses to improve my garden photography. The three I feel I can really recommend are not specifically for garden photographs, but are more general lifestyle-type courses.
I like a mix of free and paid-for because you can get an idea as to whether the course is right for you before spending any money. The best place to discover these is Instagram, where photographers often start challenges or give tips, then link to free or paid-for courses.
Xanthe Berkeley has courses on making mini films (vital for Instagram). I couldn’t find any free taster courses on her site, but I have done her Make Films ten week online course, and found it easy to understand and very useful.
And for those who have a camera but are still mainly using it on ‘Auto’, A Year With Your Camera is an excellent free weekly course, with a paid-for handbook to accompany it. I really appreciated getting the information in bite-sized pieces.
And although it’s not online, I’d also recommend Jason Ingram’s workshops on garden photography with Garden Masterclass. I did a workshop last year on editing with Lightroom, which was about editing photographs rather than taking them, but it definitely made me want to go on one of his photography courses too.
And which phone?
I have been through three phones in five years, and have done fairly extensive research before buying each of them.
In terms of a good, easy-to-use phone camera, I’d recommend a recent iPhone or Samsung. I started with iPhone and found it very easy to use, but expensive to upgrade.
I moved to Sony Xperia, which I didn’t enjoy as much. Now I have a Samsung 9, which can also be expensive.
However, I had a long and confusing conversation with a nice chap from my telephone provider and think I got a bit of a discount. Certainly the assistants in the EE shop seemed to think it was a surprisingly good deal when I went in to find out how to use my new phone, so perhaps I won that one. Or not.
But it’s worth a try.
I love my possibly discounted Samsung 9. It has loads of options on its camera and Samsung send you emails telling you how to use them. It also tells me to clean my lens.
This week’s video
This week’s video has inspiration for garden ponds:
Do you have any good non-technical tips for improving garden photography or video? I’d love to hear them, so do please leave them in the comments below or get in touch on Twitter. Thank you!
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