After weeks of work, you’ve completed your project, and the client is delighted. All that’s left to do is get some photos of the finished job for your portfolio.
In an ideal world, you’d call a photographer, and they’d come around and take some gorgeous publicity shots for you. But, sadly, not many designers and landscapers have budgets for professional photography.
So the next best thing is to take the shots yourself.
And that’s where things can go wrong. While most of us have high-quality cameras on our smartphones, actually taking good photos with them is a little more complicated than it seems.
We’ve photographed dozens of gardens for designers and landscapers, and over the years we’ve probably made every error in the book. We’ve compiled this list of helpful tips to ensure you make the best photos you can.
Before we talk about the actual photos, we should consider the camera.
This isn’t an essay about camera technology. There are a great many articles online that will go into extreme depth about apertures, megapixels, sensors, lenses, etc. The good news is we don’t need to know about any of that.
I have shot great garden photos with probably every version of the iPhone, as well as with a more expensive DSLR camera. But a reasonably new (up to 3-4-year-old) smartphone should be sufficient for 99% of your needs. The only thing they aren’t great for is shooting in low light conditions, such as evenings where you want to take pics of garden lighting. But for pretty much everything else, a smartphone will be perfect.
The latest phones have multiple lenses and can shoot huge images (the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra boasts a 108-megapixel camera, for example). Some include built-in filters, such as portrait, or bokeh modes, which focus on the foreground and significantly blur the background.
While these gimmicks are nice to have for selfies and Instagram holiday snaps, I don’t recommend using any of these filters for garden photography.
If you take a lot of photos, you could invest in a digital SLR camera (entry-level prices start at £360). These give you more control, including manual focus. This guide isn’t about how to use a DSLR camera correctly. But if you do wish to use one, make sure you set the picture size to be sufficiently large, remember to insert the memory card and take the lens cap off before you start (yes, all those things do happen).
The most important question to ask yourself is ‘what are the photos for?’ You might want to add this project to your portfolio and your website. Will you use the photos for social media or printed material? Not all projects go into your portfolio, so some images might just be for record-keeping.
This guide assumes you want the photos for your own publicity purposes, in your portfolio and on your website.
So before we get snapping, we should consider what we need to shoot, and how we’re going to use the photos.
One of the best ways to tell the story of a garden transformation is with before and after photos. These only really work if both pictures are taken from the same positions. If you have a bunch of ‘before’ shots, look at them and work out where they were taken from, and take the ‘after’ photos from the same position. This isn’t always possible, as new garden features might obscure the view, which is why it is a good idea to review all your ‘before’ shots before you start shooting.
Photos for social media
If you are thinking of using the photos in social media, be aware of the different image size and format requirements. Square images work equally well on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Bear this in mind when you frame your shots – to make the photos square you are going to have to crop them.
Portrait-format photos (i.e. vertical) work well in Instagram stories and on Pinterest. If you are thinking of using your photos as cover images on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, you will need landscape images (i.e. horizontal). LinkedIn’s cover page dimensions, in particular, are very wide and thin, almost letterbox-style, so bear that in mind when framing your photos.
So all this confusing info really tells us is that we need to take a variety of portrait and landscape shots to cover all bases. Always take more than you think you’ll need. You don’t want to be cropping portrait photos for use in a landscape format, as you’ll considerably lessen your pixel resolution (or in English, your pictures run the risk of becoming blurry).
Finally, we need to talk here about image sizes. An average website photo gallery will use photos no smaller than 1048 pixels wide. However, if you intend on using your photos for printed brochures, you’ll need much larger pixel dimensions. A rule of thumb is that an image in print needs to be four times larger than the same image on a screen.
Check your smartphone is taking large enough pictures before you start. You don’t want to be cropping a small section of a photo and then blowing it up to A4, as you’ll definitely end up with a disappointing, blurry image.
We’re almost ready to get shooting, but there are a few more things we need to consider.
There is no getting away from the fact that gardens look at their best when the sun shines. Even a gold medal-winning Chelsea garden can look dull and uninspiring on an overcast day. If you possibly can, schedule your photography for a sunny day.
It will lift everything, as you can see from the two photos below, before and after the sun came out. Waiting for sunshine might mean coming back in a few days or weeks, but the results will be worth it.
If you are shooting garden design projects, they don’t usually look at their best immediately after planting. Make a date in the diary to return the following year, when the plants have had time to establish themselves and fill out. June is usually when gardens look at their fullest.
Most clients love the idea that you want to photograph their garden, so take advantage of their goodwill by asking if they will cut the grass and have a tidy up the day before you intend shooting. There is nothing as disheartening as arriving on a sunny day to discover the lawn is six inches high and there is junk everywhere.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t also have a tidy before you begin shooting. If there are bark mulch and seed heads on the paving, sweep them up. Hide dog toys and footballs away somewhere. The more cluttered the photos, the higher the chance people will look at the mess, not at your work.
If the weather’s been kind, and the sun’s out, don’t be tempted to take photos too early or late in the day. Morning and evening light is golden, which will colour cast all your photos. Aim for between 10am and 4pm during the summer. Be aware that shooting at midday with a cloudless sky will increase the risk of high contrast light and shadows.
Let’s take some photos
OK, we’re all prepared, the sun’s out, so let’s go! First of all, what are we shooting? If you are photographing landscaping projects, it’s not uncommon to wash down new paving and take the photos while it’s wet. The water brings out the grain of the natural stone. Personally, I don’t like doing that, as I think it makes the images look artificial, but it’s up to you.
If you are shooting garden design projects, you will want a range of photos. Some will try to encompass the whole garden, from various viewpoints. You will also want to take more close-up shots of certain features or plants. Remember to take your time, as it is easy to rush around when you think you have lots of photos to take.
No matter what you are shooting, here are some essential tips:
- Ideally, you should use a tripod, but if not, make sure you stand still or use something to support yourself.
- Clean the lens before you start with a microfibre cloth.
- Take two or three versions of the same shot.
- Don’t put your fingers in front of the lens (it happens all the time)
- Don’t shoot facing towards the sun. If this is unavoidable, try shielding the lens from the sun with your hand (keeping it out of the shot).
- If you are photographing planting, get down amongst it and shoot from a lower angle. It makes the planting look fuller and more intimate.
- Review the photos you have taken as you go. You don’t want to discover they’re all out of focus only when you get back to the office.
- Don’t use the zoom features – most digital zoom degrades the picture quality. Try standing a bit closer instead!
As far as the photos themselves go, here are some essential composition tips:
- Work out what the subject of your photo is before you take it.
- Try to frame the subject in the centre of your shot – you may need to crop the edges later.
- Try to create depth – you can achieve this with planting by allowing flowers or branches to create a foreground while you focus on features in the middle ground.
- Be aware of what is in the background – many an excellent landscaping photo has been spoiled by next-door’s washing on the line.
There are a few final things you could consider too.
Most garden design and landscaping websites don’t include people in their photos. This is mainly because most garden designers and landscapers don’t have the funds for models and a professional photographer. But if your client is willing (and if they are, ahem, photogenic enough), you can ask them to model for you.
The best way to go about this is to ask them to just use the garden as they would typically, while you take photos from afar. Tell them not to look at the camera (they won’t be able to help themselves, especially if kids are involved). You’re aiming for a natural, ‘lifestyle’ look, not staged and artificial, so no catalogue poses allowed.
Speaking of children, you must get their parents permission to use the photos if their kids are in them.
Finally, sometimes it is necessary to take garden shots from above. If the client is willing, ask if you can take some shots from an upstairs window (or ask them to do it, although they might not be the greatest photographers).
If that’s not an option, consider using a drone. You’ll need a licensed drone pilot (or a client with their own drone), but the photos can be stunning, and give your work a whole new perspective.
Drones (and also smartphones) also give you the option of video. But that’s an article for another day.