ARTICLE

The golden hours: garden photography with Clive Nichols

A reflection pool lined with exotic succulents at an eco-garden lodge in Taroudant, Morocco.
Garden photographer Clive Nichols has a library of more than 90,000 images from gardens around the globe – including this one of the reflection pool, lined by succulents, at an eco-garden lodge in Taroudant, Morocco. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM lens at 100mm, 1/13 sec, f/11 and ISO100. © Clive Nichols

Garden photography is a specialised genre and requires an appreciation for the beauty of nature as well as a wealth of horticultural knowledge. For a garden photography business to thrive, it's also crucial to maintain multiple income streams, from editorial and private commissions to workshops and books, while maintaining a strong social media presence.

Clive Nichols has been a professional garden photographer for more than 30 years and has built a library of over 90,000 images. He has a number of regular clients in the UK, from editorial publications such as Country Life and The Sunday Times to organisations including The National Trust and the Royal Horticultural Society.

"The challenge is to be in the right place at the right time," says Clive. "Garden photography is unique because gardens and flowers change from day to day, and even within a day, unlike landscapes, which can be quite static. In a garden, you've got hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of different plants, so you're dealing with a much more complex and evolving organism. You're at the mercy of the weather and you're working within the limits of the garden as it has been planted. The reward is creating strong and memorable pictures from what can be a difficult subject."

So what does an average day involve for a garden photographer? Here, Clive talks about the kind of shoots he does, the kit he uses and how he maintains his business, as he takes us through one day in mid-spring in South East England.

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5.30am: "My alarm goes off. I get up and make a cup of tea to help wake me up. I need to be at the garden I'm photographing, Pettifers in Oxfordshire, England, before dawn, but luckily it's about five minutes' walk from my home. At the height of summer I have to be in a garden by 4.30am, so if I'm driving to a location that's a couple of hours away, I get up at 2am or even earlier. I have to be there for the first light of dawn, as that's a really special moment for shooting gardens. The warmer colour of the light and increased moisture levels, combined with the low angle of the sun highlighting textures and increasing definition, shows gardens at their best.

"In my kitbag is a Canon EOS 5DS R. It's an amazing camera and has taken my garden photography to another level. Gardens are very complex subjects, with each tree containing thousands of individual leaves, so you need a camera capable of recording incredible detail, which the 50.6MP file size does very well. The quality is just mind-blowing.

"I also take three lenses: a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM, a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L III IS USM and a Canon EF 180mm f/3.5L Macro USM. The Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens is great for wider garden scenes, but I use the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L III IS USM lens most because I'm mostly cropping out skies and the foreshortened perspective you get from longer focal lengths makes the planting look more intense. The Canon EF 180mm f/3.5L Macro USM is for close-ups of plants and flowers. I like the longer focal length because it allows me to pick out specific details against a completely blurred background. A tripod with a fluid head for reliable, rock-steady support is essential for sharp images free of camera shake when shooting macro or longer exposures in the low light at dawn or dusk."

A tulip border flanked by topiary pyramids, balls and hedging at Pettifers garden in Oxfordshire, England. Taken by garden photographer Clive Nichols.
Clive uses his Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens to capture wider garden scenes, such as this swathe of brightly coloured tulips at Pettifers in Oxfordshire flanked by topiary pyramids, balls and hedging. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R at 50mm, 1/6 sec, f/11 and ISO100. © Clive Nichols

5.45am: "I arrive at Pettifers. I've photographed this garden many times before, so I know exactly which parts will be lit by the early-morning sun. I get in position and wait for the sun to appear over the top of a nearby hill. Around five minutes later, the light's coming straight into the garden. There is only a very small window of opportunity when the light's at its best, so I have to work quickly. I usually work on my own, and as it's so early – and the UK is in lockdown due to Covid-19 – I don't see anyone else the whole time I'm there.

"Pettifers is relatively small, about 1.5 acres, but it's an amazing garden because it's so beautifully planted. The garden faces east, so it's great to photograph in the early morning and is perfect for backlit scenes. Using the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM and Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L III IS USM lenses, I look out for shots with a good balance of elements and including features such as topiary hedges, or whole borders. I also shoot close-ups of individual flowers using the Canon EF 180mm f/3.5L Macro USM lens, which is perfect for plant portraits. A good plant portrait captures the personality and individuality of the subject. It's like photographing a person – ideally, you want to flatter the subject and bring out its form and texture.

"This shoot is one I've requested from the owner, rather than a commission, and I aim to use the images for stock, cards, calendars, books and social media. I often shoot gardens on spec and then try to sell the images to magazines or add them to my stock library. On this day the light is some of the best I've ever seen – a warm, golden glow that gives the garden incredible rich colours. The drop in pollution levels [as a result of the lockdown restrictions] seems to have resulted in a crisper, clearer light. I shoot everything as RAW files at ISO100 for the best quality results."

The spiked, pink-tipped leaves of an Agave potatorum taken with a macro lens by garden photographer Clive Nichols.
Clive always carries a macro lens so he can capture close-ups, such as the spiked, pink-tipped leaves of this Agave potatorum. Taken on a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon EF 180mm f/3.5L Macro USM lens at 1/15 sec, f/5 and ISO100. © Clive Nichols
Stairs leading up to the shell house at Tresco Abbey Garden on Tresco in the Isles of Scilly. Taken by garden photographer Clive Nichols.
The bronze Agave Fountain in front of the shell house at the sub-tropical Abbey Garden on Tresco in the Isles of Scilly. Taken on a Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 70mm, 1/13 sec, f/16 and ISO100. © Clive Nichols

8am: "By this time on a late April morning the sun is too high and it loses the warmer, more golden hue. You also lose the low, raking light that gives a three-dimensional quality to the texture of hedges and lawns. So I return home for some breakfast, then start downloading the original pictures onto my computer and burn them to DVD as a backup. The DVD is then marked up with the location and date, and filed. Processing around 50 shots usually takes two or three hours. Afterwards, I email the best pictures to the garden's owners for their own use."

12pm: "Back at the office, I would normally be planning my regular workshops at locations including Kew Gardens in London, but they have been postponed until the pandemic is over. My office manager, Julie, is not working at the moment, but she would normally be processing invoices, placing features I've shot on spec with magazines and keeping our social media accounts up to date. Our Instagram account has over 73,000 followers. I had also planned to publish a book on English gardens later in the year, but that's also on hold."

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2pm: "After lunch, I start to feel tired due to my early-morning shoot, so I sleep for two to three hours. Then I wake and feel fresh for a second shoot in the early evening."

5pm: "I head out to my second shoot of the day at Morton Hall Gardens in Worcestershire. It's about 65km from my home and, like Pettifers, it's a garden I know well – I've been going there for four years. The garden surrounds the 18th century manor house and I know it looks good in both the morning and evening."

6pm: "I arrive at Morton Hall Gardens. I've been commissioned by the garden's owner to shoot images for their Instagram page and other publicity. This is a much bigger garden than Pettifers, with a variety of different areas, so I take some time to explore before I start to shoot.

"Evening light is rich and attractive, though it gives a slightly different atmosphere to dawn because there isn't all the moisture you get in the early morning. One area I particularly like at Morton is the south garden, where tulips are planted. They are one of my favourite flowers to photograph and are at their peak at this time of year. I love tulips because they come in a variety of colours, and their shapes are very elegant so they help create strong compositions. They are one of the highlights of the spring garden."

A fountain surrounded by tulips in the gardens of Morton Hall in Worcestershire, England.
If Clive isn't photographing at dawn, he likes to capture gardens at dusk, when the light has a slightly different quality. The colours are as rich, but moisture levels are lower, so it's not quite as atmospheric as it is in the morning. Here, the fountain surrounded by tulips in the south garden of Morton Hall in Worcestershire is bathed in a hazy golden glow. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM) at 24mm, 1/15 sec, f/11 and ISO100. © Clive Nichols

"The gardens are lit by hazy sunlight filtered through light cloud. As the sun gets lower in the sky I move to different areas that are getting the best light, from the more formally planted borders of the kitchen garden to the stroll garden, which includes two ponds.

"For shots that include architectural elements such as the house itself, I use the three Canon tilt-shift lenses that I also carry in my kitbag: a Canon TS-E 17mm f/4L, a Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II and a Canon TS-E 45mm f/2.8. They take a little longer to set up and use, but make a huge difference in correcting converging verticals, as well as being very crisp and giving amazing contrast."

8pm: "After covering all the areas I want to shoot, and with the last of the evening sunlight gone, I pack up my gear and set off. Both of today's shoots have been quite intense in terms of concentration and were also quite physical, because I had to move around quickly and get down low to the ground to shoot close-ups of flowers and plants.

"I have to work as much as possible during this period of sunny weather, but can only keep up this schedule for a few days before I need a couple of days' rest."

9pm: "I arrive home, download the images to DVD and have a quick bite to eat before relaxing, checking the weather forecast, then going to bed early – ready for another early-morning shoot the next day."

Автор David Clark


Clive Nichols' kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

Garden photographer Clive Nichols holding a Canon camera.

Camera

Canon EOS 5DS R

Designed to deliver the ultimate in DSLR image quality, with 50.6-megapixel resolution and a low-pass cancellation filter that maximises sharpness. "It's an amazing camera and has taken my garden photography to another level," says Clive.

Lenses

Lenses

Canon TS-E 17mm f/4L

Designed for architectural photography, the TS-E 17mm f/4L exhibits low distortion and excellent edge-to-edge sharpness, as well as independent rotation of the tilt and shift mechanisms. "Canon TS-E lenses are very crisp and give amazing contrast," says Clive.

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