How to Photograph Gardens

by Philip Greenspun; revised August 2018

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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 a camera that excels at high ISO (in the old film days my favorites were professional color negative films, intended for weddings. These have less color saturation and contrast than consumer films and therefore would render distinct green tones more distinctly. Most of the images on this page were taken with Fuji NPH or Kodak Portra 400NC film; click on the thumbnails for technical details.)

A 50mm lens on a full-frame 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.

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 Japan, the public Chinese Garden in Singapore, Powerscourt (south of Dublin, Ireland), Sweden, California, and Italy. If you click on a thumbnail image you'll get a larger photo with a caption underneath.