Beth Chatto Gardens, Elmstead Market: Great photographs on show

Rosanna Castrini's My Prairie Garden - a stunning entry in a past International Garden Photographer

Rosanna Castrini's My Prairie Garden - a stunning entry in a past International Garden Photographer of the Year competition. It was the overall winner and took first prize in the Beauty of Plants category. The photograph can be seen at the Beth Chatto Gardens exhibition - Credit: Archant

Fancy trying to take glorious photographs like the ones currently on show near Colchester? Steven Russell asks an expert how to get started and impress

Philip Smith, who started the International Garden Photographer of the Year competition and who has

Philip Smith, who started the International Garden Photographer of the Year competition and who has served on the committee of the Professional Garden Photographers Association - Credit: Archant

With the great outdoors having a doze over winter, there’s a chance to inject some colour and pizzazz into the dark days either side of Christmas by enjoying some stunning pictures of plants and flowers.

An International Garden Photographer of the Year touring exhibition is at the Beth Chatto Gardens, Elmstead Market, until mid-February. It’s a bit of a treat, as entry to the exhibition is included in the admission to the gardens, which until the end of February is just £4. There’s also a small “taster” selection of photographs that can be enjoyed in the tea room free of charge.

The pictures are all taken by previous winners of the competition’s many categories – outdoor shots from the “class of 2013”, to be precise.

International Garden Photographer of the Year is the baby of professional photographer Philip Smith, below, who founded it in 2006. He sold the whole caboodle last year, but has stayed on as a consultant, aiming to increase the number of exhibitions held around the globe. As well as the UK, countries on the map include Sweden, Germany, Cyprus, Poland and Australia. Did Philip launch the competition because it was an artform that didn’t get much recognition? “Yes. When we started, photographing gardens and plants wasn’t a very well known genre in the way that wildlife and landscape photography was.

Philip Smith holding a garden photography workshop. Photo: Tyrone McGlinchey

Philip Smith holding a garden photography workshop. Photo: Tyrone McGlinchey - Credit: Archant


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“Wherever you go in a public garden these days, of course, everybody has a camera – whether it be a phone or a kind of Fancy Dan camera – and it struck me there are a lot of people going around snapping pictures of flowers because they love being outdoors and love the environment, and wanted to do something to reflect that enjoyment. It seemed to be an under-tapped area of creativity.”

The number of entries grew rapidly in the early years and now averages around the 17,000-20,000 mark each year.

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“What’s really grown has been the scope of entries and the quality of entries. It’s enabled us to have exhibitions all over the world, now, which we didn’t do at the beginning,” says Devon-based Philip. All entrants can get a critique of their work. It accounts for the bulk of his time now, as a consultant. “It’s quite a big task but I think it’s very necessary to give people something back that they can work with in the future.”

So what does an exhibition do for those who see it? “The word that keeps coming up is inspiration. I’ve spent a long time going round exhibitions and lurking behind people, listening to what they say, and it’s interesting and enjoyable to hear the range of conversations.

Part of the International Garden Photographer of the Year exhibition at Beth Chatto Gardens, near Co

Part of the International Garden Photographer of the Year exhibition at Beth Chatto Gardens, near Colchester. Photo: Tyrone McGlinchey - Credit: Archant

“Also, it’s rare to find someone who doesn’t carry a camera of some sort with them these days. I think it just makes people think a little bit more about what they’re doing and if they could get more out of photography than simply ‘point and click’, and develop their creativity – and, indeed, their appreciation of the environment – through photography.”

Philip’s rough estimate (“not rigidly scientific”) is that it’s a 50:50 split between competition entrants: those who are primarily plant lovers (but who also like to take pictures) and photography enthusiasts (who happen to choose plants as their subjects). “The great thing about garden plant photography is you don’t have to spend X thousand pounds travelling to Namibia for shots of desert, because everywhere around you is subject matter. You can go to the park and shoot wonderful photographs at any time of the day. It’s all very accessible. This year I’ve been working on a particular grass bank near where I live. People often want to go back to the same location time and again, and really explore the possibilities.

“It’s not just pictures of pretty flowers, although that’s an important part of it. It’s really about an appreciation of plants. All life depends on them to generate oxygen.

“It’s really an appreciation of the green environment in general, I would say. There are lots of different categories in the competition, including greening the city – about how plants survive in urban environments and how their presence in cities enriches our lives.”

Philip’s photography has been published in myriad garden magazines and books, but is he green-fingered and at one with the soil? “My wife is a better gardener than I am. I tend to be a bit galumphing,” he laughs. “She tells me the things I ought to be doing at any one time. I wouldn’t call myself ‘a gardener’. I like being in gardens, I like working in gardens, but I wouldn’t try to design a garden or anything like that!”

n Philip Smith is running garden photography workshops at Beth Chatto Gardens, aimed at photographers at all levels, including beginners. Details: www.bethchatto.co.uk/events

DON’T JUST snap away at 100mph!

Philip Smith’s tips for the novice horticultural photographer

“The main thing I would say is to simply slow down and spend more time looking at the photograph on the camera and deciding if it’s the best representation of that particular subject. And spend a bit more time looking at the subject from different angles and seeing if there’s a more interesting background, for example.”

He adds: “What the novice should try to aim for in the first instance is to get a greater degree of simplicity in the picture.

“When we look at a lovely garden with a border of flowers, full of colour and shape and form, our cameras can’t deal with that in the same way. The net result is often a visual muddle, where there isn’t any particular point of interest. Everything is trying to start a fight with each other for our attention.

“So, for novices, it’s very much about trying to simplify; trying to pick out the subjects and giving them a simple background, so the plant comes to the front of the stage, as it were.

“That’s not really about what sort of camera you’ve got; it’s about what’s going on in your head, really.”

HOPE FOR an overcast day... with thin cloud

Philip Smith’s tips for the horticultural photographer who’s mastered the basics

“There’s been a huge growth in macro photography in the last few years” – photographs of small subjects shown larger than life size – “and so for somebody who’s looking to expand their repertoire, if they can get hold of a good macro lens, that will open up lots of creative opportunities.

“The second thing I’d say is that – just like landscapes; just like wildlife – the time of day and the weather are crucial aspects for flower and garden photography.

“Strong sun does present a lot of problems, with the shadows that then appear on the subjects. When you’re dealing with quite fragile subjects, as we are a lot of the time, then strong shadows can distort those.

“One of the best conditions is an overcast day – not too cloudy but just a thin layer of cloud; maybe with a bit of diffused sun.

“It is often better to work early in the morning or later in the evening, when the sun is lower. But also, especially in the winter-time, if you get a really overcast day and you’re photographing pale flowers – which a lot of early spring flowers are, like snowdrops and crocuses – then those conditions can be really good for bringing out accurate colour and textures in the petals and flowers.”

DO I NEED top-notch kit to get results?

“No. The thing about equipment is to ensure you don’t try to make it do things it’s not designed to do.

“Every year, I see lots of pictures of bees on flowers, shot with a very simple lens and a very simple compact camera ? or camera-phone, even ? where the insect is like a grain of sand. People who do that don’t really understand how cameras transform the world that we see. They’re pressing the shutter, thinking the camera will record exactly what we see and feel at that moment, but, actually, there’s a transformation going on, where we translate the 3D world into a 2D rectangle and it goes through the process of the lens, which does all sorts of things.

“If you have got a more simple kind of camera without a big zoom lens, or a macro lens, you can still take fantastic shots but just have to look at what works best – and it will be those shots where you slightly step back from the border and perhaps do trees or large shrubs, and are not trying to do things which the camera isn’t designed to do.”

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