How to Photograph Late Season Gardens

By Geoff Harris

The visual richness of the late season garden with photographer Philip Smith

I have recently led an International Garden Photographer of the Year workshop at the Beth Chatto Gardens near Colchester. The workshop was timed to coincide with the opening of an IGPOTY exhibition in the grounds. We were privileged to be able to work in the Water Garden, an area of moisture-loving plants surrounding a series of ponds and streams, as well as borders of mixed planting with a backdrop of mature trees.

It was a beautiful late autumn day and the garden was – as ever – looking wonderful. A few of the workshop students were a bit worried that they wouldn’t be able to find enough subjects here. After all, most of the herbaceous plants had gone over and there were only pinpoints of strong colour from the few remaining asters and hardy fuchsias.

It struck me as an interesting comment, not least because when I arrived at the garden in the early morning, I was so excited by the amount of colour that I could see. The gardeners have left foliage to decline gracefully, creating wonderful patterns of muted yellows, reds, browns and greens. There is of course a melancholic feel to the garden in this season, but working with these moods can inspire your photography just as much as a vibrant summer border.

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Fallen leaves are held in a large leaf of Darmera peltata ‘Nana’. The rich reds of the dying leaves offer a palette of colour that is not available at other times of the year. Photography by Philip Smith courtesy Beth Chatto Gardens

Pale tones can glow in the thin light of autumn and winter, offset by the dark shades of dead foliage. These juxtapositions can present a myriad of creative opportunities for abstract and complex compositions, where colour and texture come to centre stage. Photography by Philip Smith


Photography is about capturing light first, objects second. In the late season garden, the effect of light on flower photography can get overlooked. But in my view, when colours are muted, light it is an even more important factor than in the summer border. When there is sunlight in the winter garden, look out for opportunities to use it to create depth and richness in the composition.

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Here, I have positioned myself carefully so that the dark tree foliage creates a frame for the view beyond, which is lit by the low sun. This creates a sense of depth in the image which can be almost theatrical. The dying hosta foliage, glowing yellow, creates interest in the foreground to further emphasise the viewer’s engagement with the scene. Photography by Philip Smith courtesy Beth Chatto Gardens

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This dramatic composition is nothing without the effect of light on the foliage. Here, the sun is in front of the camera. Exposure of this kind of image can be tricky and it is useful to bracket exposure values to see which setting works best. Photography by Philip Smith courtesy Beth Chatto Gardens

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Late in the year, the lack of vibrant colour can lend a tonal coherence to a scene where plants which would look very different from each other in the summer now all have limited palettes of browns and yellows. With colour muted, it is possible to concentrate on tone and texture, opening our eyes to new dimensions in the garden scene. Here the silhouetted teasels are at their maximum height, and they provide crisp outlines in contrast to the softer shapes of collapsing herbaceous perennials and marginals. Photography by Philip Smith courtesy Beth Chatto Gardens

Blog Nov-5Similarly here, the Cornus stems provide a textural contrast to the shimmering foliage beyond. Photography by Philip Smith courtesy Beth Chatto Gardens

The International Garden Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Beth Chatto Gardens continues until 25th January 2016.

Beth Chatto gardens and IGPOTY share the objective to make the gardens a centre of excellence for photography and a place where people can experience the best of horticulture and photography in equal measure.

Dates for future workshops are:

March 30 2016
May 23 2016
July 5 2016
October 8 2016

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) - the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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