Get inspired to shoot in your garden

You don't have to jet off to an exotic location to get memorable images of plants and wildlife. There's plenty of scope close at hand in your own – or a friend's – garden. What's more, the advantage of working on or near to your home patch is you save on travel time and also get to know the prime time of day when a particular animal tends to appear, or when a certain plant is lit by the best natural light, such as translucent leaves glowing  when backlit.

In any garden, there will always be macro subjects in abundance – whether they be flowers, fruits, leaves, ferns or insects. The range of wildlife that resides and visits a garden can be tempted to linger longer by planting flowers (especially old fashioned cottage garden flowers with plenty of nectar or pollen) to provide food for foraging insects, while berried shrubs and trees provide welcome autumnal feasts for birds. Shrubs, hedges and trees also provide nesting sites for birds. Other wildlife that resides in gardens may include slow worms, toads and even a hedgehog; while a pond may tempt frogs and toads to spawn, dragonflies to lay their eggs and even newts can crawl in over land.

Tight crops on larger flowers for impact

Everyone knows what a sunflower, dahlia or a water lily looks like, so instead of moving further back to get the whole flower in shot, move in close for greater impact. Then you have a dilemma: what is the best way to crop a flower – that has a design based on a circle – within a rectangular frame? Since the arrangement of the petals follows the same pattern all round these flowers, cropping some of the large petals around the outside is no great loss and enables the middle of the flower to be off-centred.

Birds in action

As well as food, birds also need water, so providing a birdbath will attract birds to drop in for a drink and bathe (preferably raised off the ground so there is no risk of cats suddenly pouncing). This also makes it easier for taking pictures. Try to find a spot where it can be backlit early or late in the day, when the sun is low – that way it will be possible to gain natural backlit splashes and spray as a bird bathes.

Taking a static bird portrait is often easier than getting an action photo illustrating bird behaviour, but the latter will make for a more interesting shot. To freeze the action, use a fast shutter speed of at least 1/250 second. Whatever lens you use, for photographing any animal, make sure to focus on the eyes. If nothing else is sharp, the animal will still look alive. Avoid shooting an animal with its rear nearest to the camera – either shoot head-on or with the head turned slightly to one side. A full side view can also work very well.

Ring necked parakeet feeding on sweet chestnut

Exotic ring-necked parakeets are now regularly seen in south-east gardens and parks. Britain's sole naturalised parrot has a distinctive green body, long tail and a red beak. It would have been virtually impossible to spot the bird among the green sweet chestnut leaves, if I had not noticed freshly fallen green leaves on the ground below; to gain better access to the fruits it was pulling off leaves and tossing them to the ground!

The eye of this bird is easy to spot with a red eye ring, whereas a dark eye set within dark feathers tends to disappear completely unless there is a catchlight, either from the sun or fill-flash. This is not a difficult technique to master. Essentially you use the available light exposure and underexpose the flash by -1.7 EV stops, either by using the +/- button on the flash itself or in the flash menu on the camera. This will work when using a lens with a focal length up to 300mm. For anything longer a flash extender is a must, as this extends the distance of the flash range.

By using the daylight exposure and underexposing the flash, the natural colours will remain in the background as when taking the same shot without flash. This is because the flash is used to fill in shadow areas and to add a sparkle to the bird's eye. When flash is the prime light source it overrides the available light – here, a black nocturnal looking backdrop results due to the rapid fall-off in the light from the flash.

Nocturnal forays

It's well worth venturing out at night with a torch to check out nocturnal visitors in the garden. Warm drizzly nights bring out a variety of invertebrates, and apart from slugs and snails crawling over a lawn, tree trunks are good places to search for moths, spiders and centipedes. There's even a tree slug which climbs up trees at night!

If you have a pond, approach slowly holding a torch steadily so the light does not bounce around. Look in any clear, weed-free area for newts, which emerge at night. For any nocturnal shots a flash is essential as the prime light source, without the power reduced as for a fill-flash shot by day. It's also possible to tempt small mammals, such as wood mice, to a spot in the garden by baiting with sunflower seeds.

Pollinators at work

Hoverflies feeding on pollen of dwarf Formosa lily

Garden flowers with open cups or flat heads provide easy access for many different types of insects, including honeybees, bumblebees, flies and hoverflies. On the other hand, long-tongued insects only visit tubular flowers, such as foxgloves. The garden bumblebee, which has the longest tongue of all our bumblebees, is the most frequent visitor because it can easily reach the nectar at the end of the long tunnel.

To capture action shots of pollinators either use a fast shutter speed (which may mean increasing the ISO), or use a flash set-up with flash units mounted on, or close to, the camera as a single unit. I use a Nikon SB R1C1 Speedlight Commander Kit with a 105mm macro lens, which does away with any cables. Small flash units mounted on a ring around the lens can have their angle adjusted and the power output of each flash pulled or pushed. This is invaluable for boosting light when taking speedy shots of insects in action. Avoid jerky movements when approaching a flower and try to move at a constant pace. When fairly close, stop and gradually lean forward. For more creative lighting of plants, which won't escape by flying away, I remove one flash from the mounting ring and either hand-hold it or fix it to a lighting stand (or small tripod) to provide backlighting.

Nikon SB R1

2013 has been a dire year for pollinators in south-east Britain, where I live. The long period of cold, followed by the second wettest spring since records began, seems to have seriously reduced the pollinator population in our Surrey garden. For years, we have grown lilies specifically to entice hoverflies to feed on the pollen. As they lap up pollen they are messy feeders, so some drops down onto the petals and ends up on their feet (which is how they transfer pollen to the next lily flower they visit). This year, however, not a single hoverfly has visited any of our lily flowers.

However busy I am, I always make time each day to take at least one macro shot in my garden as well as any unexpected wildlife. So why not make a start today, capturing the wildlife visitors to your garden throughout the year? You may encounter some surprising sightings.


About the Author

Heather Angel is a nature and wildlife photographer, and the author of 58 books. You can see more of Heather's work on her website.


Related links 

RHS Photographer of the Year Competition 2013 open for entries

Wildlife photography with impact - getting down low

10 top tips for getting closer to nature