How to Photograph Plants in Winter

By Geoff Harris

Images of winter plants from Philip Smith

Photographing the winter garden. We imagine snow ice and frost enlivening our photography. We long for the dramatic juxtaposition of white gardens and blue sky, or frost glinting in early morning sunshine.

Blog Jan-1-2

Fennel in frost, against a backdrop of a beech hedge. An image only made possible by the frost. Photography by Philip Smith

I really believe in photographing what’s around you, at whatever time of day or night, and not waiting for the perfect moment. Meeting the challenge of making strong images out of scenes that are generally overlooked can teach us so much about photography – no matter how long we have been doing it.

In this wet, mild winter I have been looking out at murky scenes, whether in the woods or in the garden. Very little sun to liven things up. Very little bright colour to make the heart race. Venturing out with the full kit of tripod, lenses, everything else I spend the first ten minutes wondering what I am doing there as I squelch around some dismal looking trees. Where’s the colour? Good question. It’s all around me. But it needs to be discovered.

And I have some shiny new lenses to help me. I have been using Sigma lenses for years and they have asked me to use their 180mm lens for a while to see what I think. It’s wonderfully sharp and I am starting to have fun. My eye is beginning to tune up and the colour all around me is starting to get into my brain. The colour is not bright, it does not scream for attention. But it is deep and subtle, smelling of the earth and the season.

Blog Jan-1-5

Leaves after rain. Photography by Philip Smith

Winter creates shapes and forms that that can open our eyes to new ‘landscapes’.

Blog Jan-1-7

The ultrasharp focus of my perspective control macro lens makes this kind of winter detail take me to a different universe altogether. Photography by Philip Smith


In winter gardens you can often see the underlying shapes of things more clearly than later in the year. The skeletal forms of hydrangea flowers are among my favourite subjects in winter. Here I have used split toning to add some moody tints. Split toning is available in Lightroom and Photoshop. Although 95% of my processing is done in Lightroom, it is Photoshop I turn to with split toning, since there are more options available and, in my view, it is 

easier to use.

The first flowers of the year are beginning to emerge. These midwinter wonders offer the photographer so much. The dull grey sky lends a subtlety to dark flowers that is specific to this time of year. When bits of brightness appear, they shine out like jewels.

Blog Jan-1

Helleborus ‘Blue Moon’. Photography by Philip Smith

The flowers tell us spring is around the corner. Snowdrops are among the most photogenic of plants, but not always photographed well.

In the winter sun their white petals can trick cameras into over exposing, especially if the scene contains contrasting dark earth. The flowers can be left looking like white blobs

Blog Jan-1-6.

This shot was taken on a very grey, dark early morning. Dull light, yes, but it does show the veins on the petals nicely because the camera can handle the low contrast very well. Photography by Philip Smith

Try using spot metering to make sure the exposure of the flowerhead is correct. Or alternatively, bracket the exposures and wait until you get back on the computer to choose the best exposure. You will find that it is easier to photograph snowdrops under a grey sky , since the contrast between the flower and its surroundings is much lower, enabling the camera to record detail and true colour more easily.

Blog Jan-1-4
Photography by Philip Smith

If you can balance the contrast between the white flower and the background, then your image will have a coherence it might otherwise miss. Here, the background is a mid-toned shrub – handy!

Philip Smith’s workshops for 2016 are now listed on his website – go to

Further Study

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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