Last autumn, our annual Photo Contest impressed the editors at Horticulture Magazine and they wanted to help sponsor one this year. Some generous sponsors were recruited and award winning photographer, Rob Cardillo has graciously agreed to judge. The contest is now open and entries will be accepted through Sept 30, 2011. The winner will receive a $1000 cash prize and their photograph published in Horticulture Magazine. The contest is open to all photographers, worldwide and each photographer can enter as many images as they wish.

You can read the rules at this link.

Meet the sponsors of the Garden Photo Contest Sponsored by Horticulture Magazine and Dave's Garden!

Gold Sponsor

Silver Sponsor

garden photo image

Bronze Sponsor

Since we have a great contest this summer, I thought that some tips and tricks for good photography might be useful. A photographer doesn't have to have a fancy camera to take stunning images, but they do need to develop some good photography habits that will result in much better pictures. Even gardeners who could care less about f-stops and shutter speeds can improve their photography if they follow a few simple suggestions.

The First Rule: Brace Yourself

With the advent of digicams that have the LCD screen for composing a shot, people have become sloppy. Holding the camera at arm's length, sometimes with one hand, will result in many blurred images. There is nothing wrong with using the screen to preview your shot, but brace your elbows at your sides and give the camera support with both hands. Elbows are a pivot point, so immobilize them if possible. Better yet, use the viewfinder. A camera mashed up against your face has another point of stability, much like a tripod.

The Second Rule: Look Through Your Shot

Notice what is in the background and either recompose the picture or move the distraction. How many times have you taken the perfect shot, only to discover a garden hose or the trash can in the background? The perfect rose blossom is only perfect if you deadhead the faded ones right behind it. Always scan the background for potential problems and make adjustments. If the offending item cannot be moved and there is no other way to compose the image, you can tweak your camera settings if you want. The camera lens is like your eye. It records more information the longer it ‘looks' at the scene. By setting your shutter speed higher or the aperture more open, you can blur the background. This is called depth of field and is an indispensible skill to develop. All cameras have the ability to adjust depth of field and it isn't difficult to master.

harsh daylily image

This isn't even a good snapshot. There is clutter in the background with a garden hose sprayer and flagstones distracting the viewer. There are harsh, unattractive edges and deep shadows. Always take a moment and look through your shot to see what your viewer will see. If there is time to take a test shot, do so, and review it. Your photographs will look cleaner and more attractive.

soft daylily image

Here is the same daylily. I've recomposed the shot and adjusted my depth of field to blur the background a bit.
The depth of field is adjusted by controlling the aperture and shutter speed. If you set your camera for a higher shutter speed and wider aperture opening, there will be a shallow depth of field.
A slow shutter speed and stopped down, or smaller aperture opening, will result in a greater depth of field. Larger aperture numbers represent a smaller opening, small numbers repersent a larger opening in the lens. A 3.5 f-stop is a larger opening for light to enter your camera, than an f-stop of 11.
This is very basic explaniation and you'll just need to practice to get proficient at it.

better image

By shading the daylily with a piece of cardboard and using a fill flash, harsh shadows and un-natural colors are removed. Veining is more obvious and with the shallow depth of field, all the viewer sees is the blossom.With just a little preparation, friends will be asking what kind of camera you have, because it 'takes such good pictures.'

The Third Rule: Manage Available Light

Many gardeners mistakenly believe full sun is best for taking pictures. Bright sunshine has its advantages, but generally it is the absence of light, or its angle that makes for a more memorable image. Harsh sunlight creates crisp, dark shadows and sometimes they aren't desirable. If you want to photograph part of your garden, observe it at different times of the day. Usually, early morning, late afternoon and twilight are best. Photographers call it ‘sweet light' and plan their photo shoots around it. Sometimes it isn't practical to wait on the light. A visit to a botanical garden has a small window of opportunity for photographs. Many photographers use their bodies between the sun and the blossom to create a bit of shade. This prevents the harsh shadows and the unnatural colors that strong sunlight produce. Even an umbrella held by a willing assistant is an excellent device to control light.

These wild roses are a good example of managing your light.

The ones on the left were photographed in full sun, about mid-day. The colors are washed out and the image is flat and uninspiring.

The wild roses on the right were tucked under the canopy of the bramble and almost hidden in the shade. Small dapples of sunlight highlight the blossoms. The even number of blossoms isn't an issue because the assymetrical composition weights the image unevenly. Sometimes the obvious choice isn't the best one, so look for an alternate way of composing an image.

sunny roses
shady roses
Full sunlight was the best choice to show off the metallic glint of this Firey Searcher. The gold highlights wouldn't be as impressive in the shade. A Biology professor shared a photography tip with me years ago. To slow down insects a bit, pop their container in the refrigerator (not the freezer!) for an hour or so and they will be more cooperative about posing for their portrait. It does no harm to the insect and as soon as they warm up, off they scuttle.
fiery searcher

The Fourth Rule: Be Composed

Why do some photographs look better than others do? Composition is the key. Get down on the level of whatever you are photographing. Pointing the camera straight down at a container of flowers, or the family dog, results in a poorly composed image. Zoom in and fill your screen. Fewer distractions in an image, results in a more pleasing photograph. Odd numbers are more visually pleasing that even numbers, so if possible, group containers in three's or fives instead of two or four. Draw your audience in with movement, or implied movement. A subject centered squarely in the center of a photograph does not encourage the viewer's eye to move, unless there is movement or implied movement by the subject. By framing your subject off-center, or using multiple points of interest, the eye instinctively travels around the image and lingers longer. Turn your camera to vertical for a different look. Shoot your subject from various angles and use your cropping tool to pull the best of the image from a not so inspiring shot. Composition is one of the most underrated tools a photographer has and it costs nothing. Even a cell phone camera takes fantastic images if composed properly.

chloe the dashound

Poor little Chloe was not happy about the Pet Portrait Day that my local veterinarian sponsored for charity. What you don't see, is that her owner has her tucked up under her arm at the shoulder, and the vet tech who was assisting me was holding the poinsettias in place. Since I zoomed in on the dog, and ignored everything but her face and enough of the body to make a nice composition, no one is the wiser unless they've been told the 'back story.'


The fire in the left lower corner balances the man's face and the arm crossed over the knee. He's looking toward the fire and his hands are also in line with it. The viewer's eye is drawn around the image, with the almost black background preventing distractions. How many members can tell me who this is?

baker the cat

Baker the cat was another Pet Portrait Day subject. He was a laid-back kitty and a perfect model. To create a bit of implied motion, I shot him at eye level, but my assistant was using a feather to direct his gaze.

locust borer

This composition works because of the goldenrod bisecting the frame at an angle. The yellow and black Locust Borer is a great compliment to the plant, standing out just enough for a main point of interest. I've set the depth of field to blur the background so there are no distractions.

tomato basket

This image has both good points and bad ones. I like the composition; the random placement of tomatoes (or seemingly random) draws the eye around the image. However, it is one of those 'coulda/woulda/shoulda' shots.It was taken many years ago with my first little point and shoot digicam with a whopping 2.1 megapixels (which was state of the art)I was going for a neutral background that disappears and almost managed it. There is a reflection in the top left corner that bugs me to this day. The tomatoes have some unnatural highlights that in hindsight weren't attractive. Another big problem is that the image was shot with a resolution of 640x480, so there isn't any room to go back and edit the picture successfully. While visually appealing at first glance, I've picked this one to death for over a decade and have promised myself a do-over at some point. Remember to set your camera for the highest resolution possible. This image could have been improved if I had understood that at the time.


Be patient, or should I say 'bee patient'? I knew what I wanted and the bees just wouldn't cooperate. I wanted to catch a bee in flight, with his little legs hanging down and the flowers composed in front of him. Flowers in the background behind the bee would have been too busy. It took over 40 shots before I was satisfied with the results. Note that the bee is slightly off center and looking toward the long side of the image. If you are shooting something with forward motion, give the viewer a look in the direction where it is going. This same shot would never work if the bee was in the left half of the image.

The Fifth Rule: Color Outside the Lines

Instead of snapping the traditional shot, look at your subject with fresh eyes. Sometimes the nature of your subject will give you a hint on what to do. Is the plant unusually fuzzy, or is the main blossom a composite of many tiny flowers? What is the most noticeable feature; spines, exfoliating bark or its silhouette? Emphasizing the dramatic makes memorable images and you will need to practice this skill. This is where people cross the line from making snapshots to creating photographs. Develop an artist's eye for looking at a subject and don't be afraid to lay on the ground or use an unusual angle to compose a shot. Use dramatic lighting to your advantage. Shoot a back-lit daylily or Queen Anne's Lace. Even a sunset in a not-so-lovely area makes a great photograph if framed properly. Turn your flash off and learn to play with evening shadows and twilight. Since shooting 100 images with a digital camera costs no more than shooting 10, go outside your comfort zone with your camera. Turn the automatic point and shoot option off. Trust me, you'll survive, and you can always turn it back on. Get a good photo-editing program and learn to use it. There are several excellent free programs available. Picassa is highly thought of by our members and Picnik is user-friendly too. Just remember, the more you use your camera, the better your photographs will be.


There was a very unattractive metal building and gravel parking lot where I took this shot. The sky was on fire with this fantastic sunset and I was in the worst place possible to grab an image. There were power lines crossing here and there and absolutely no redeeming features to the landscape. There was a little drainage ditch with a scrub willow growing beside the building. I shot through the willow branches and grabbed this image. I could have touched a metal trash can or my car from where I stood. There is almost always a way to compose a shot if you color outside the lines a bit.

night shot

Twilight photography produces some dramatic images. I used a tripod and a slow shutter speed to capture the detail in this image. If you don't have a tripod, place your camera on a car or any flat surface. Set the camera to snap multiple images; most cameras have a rapid-fire option.The first image may not be very clear, but the other images tend to be better.Since you are not pushing the shutter button with your finger, there is less motion involved.


This is one of my favorite images. It works on so many levels. If I had shot the fireworks without the water and the marina in the background, there would be very little to distinguish it from any other fireworks image. The reflections in the water and the added element of the swimmers, gives the night time image many points of interest. The viewer's eyes are constantly moving from point to point. I used a tripod that night and experimented with multiple shutter speeds and apertures. Many of the images were nice, but this was the best one. I think I like it because the yellow float ring is at an interesting angle and it implies motion in the water and mirrors the shape of the explosion in the air.

queen anne's lace

Backlit Queen Anne's Lace shows off the lacy pattern that gives it its name. It has a frothy appearance and the viewer sees the flower from an angle that they might never choose to view it from.

backlit dogwoods

The dogwood blossoms are mostly backlit in this image. The white blossoms against the blue sky just say Spring. By closing in on just a few blossoms, more details are available to the viewer. The tree wasn't especially attractive, but the blossoms had such a distinctive red edge that I knew they would photograph well. If shot from a distance, these details would never show.

lamb's ears

Lamb's Ears are a textural plant. The leaves are covered by a soft, gray fuzz. Morning dew easily catches on the plant, so zoom in and let the rosette make an abstract design covered in dewdrops.

These aren't technical tips and they can be used no matter what kind of camera you own. A few simple rules are second nature to good photographers and once they are mastered, it is a small step to learn about the camera itself.

The most important thing you can do is take lots of photographs. Experiment with the manual settings. You won't hurt a thing; your camera settings are like changing the channel on the TV. As soon as you turn the setting back to automatic, the camera forgets all about the other 'channel.'


Our friends at Horticulture Magazine and their generous sponsors are giving the Dave's Garden photographers a chance to shine. Get those cameras clicking and good luck to everyone who enters!