A perfect Friday afternoon in early Spring – warm sunshine, a light breeze and clear blue skies. Catch up on some emails or escape to a local garden, take a few pics and enjoy a cream tea? Before you could say “cheese” I had packed my camera bag, raided my husband’s wallet, left a reminder to pick the kids up from school and jumped in the car.
Arley Hall is just down the road and although I’ve been there several times I haven’t photographed its lovely formal gardens. Actually I was in for a bit of a surprise as it wasn’t the latter that held my attention on this visit, but rather an area that I was directed to by the lady behind the counter in the gift shop – the Grove and Woodland Walk. It’s easy to miss these unless you pay careful attention to the map or are tipped off as I was. Instead of following the signs to the gardens you have to head off to the left towards the Chapel – itself well worth a visit especially when it’s decked out with flowers.
As I approached the Grove I was struck by the usual dilemma of where to start taking photographs. Everything looked so beautiful, especially given the perfect weather conditions, and it’s tempting to just click away at everything. Experience has shown that it’s better to give it a little thought and have a plan of sorts – but nothing too rigid as you never know exactly what you’re going to come across. I find that trying to bear the following few points in mind will help to focus your attention and stop you from just “firing at will”.
Capture a sense of place... try to consider what makes this particular place memorable for you, which features and aspects. For me, at Arley Hall, it’s the clock tower first and foremost. It is pretty rather than imposing and it can be seen from almost everywhere in the gardens. The first view of the clock from the end of the Pleached Lime Avenue never fails to please visitors and it must surely be a very well photographed view. I particularly liked the criss-crossing shadows formed by the trees.
If you’re photographing flowers and plants in gardens that you go to, it’s inevitable that you will capture the season during which you visited, but by ensuring that you also make a concerted effort to capture a sense of place, you will avoid the feeling that those pictures of daffodils or cherry blossom could have been taken anywhere. I try to have a mix of close ups of particularly spectacular blooms and vistas that indicate where I was.
The magnolias are the show stoppers at Arley at this time of year. They are so large and showy and seem to know that this is their time to shine, after the best of the blossoms and before the rhododendrons and azaleas burst onto centre stage. They are not the easiest of flowers to photograph as they tend to look better from a distance, like delicate coloured hankies attached to the branches but I found that by looking up I could put them against the deep blue of the sky.
Later on, as I wandered through the formal gardens I was on the hunt for a different view of the clock tower. I found it in the Kitchen Garden, with another magnificent magnolia tree in the foreground and the clock tower against the blue sky in the background.
I’m acutely aware that I’ve mentioned the deep blue sky several times now and that brings me to another key point on your mental checklist. Before you start shooting away, especially on a bright, sunny day, consider the position of the sun. In the direction of the sun, the sky will appear almost white (unless you’re lucky enough to be visiting the garden at sunrise or sunset) and will not add anything to your scenic pictures. Consider cropping the sky out altogether rather than having an expanse of white nothingness at the top of your shot. The sky will be at its most blue in the opposite direction to the sun and ideally you need to shoot in this direction.
Bright and sunny conditions are problematic when you are photographing flowers in the garden. What looks like a beautiful flower in bright sunshine may look very different in your final shot, with harsh bright areas and deeply contrasting shadows. It’s always better to photograph flowers in even, filtered light or sometimes in gently dappled light. I experimented with this in the Glade where there were some magnificent early rhododendrons in flower. Rather than the obvious shot of the sunlit flowers I crept around the back of the bush and photographed the blossoms in the shade. (I hope I didn’t startle too many other visitors as I popped out from behind bushes!).
If you would like to read more on the subject of the right light for photographing flowers see my blog post Photographing flowers
Go for variations of the obvious shots. Everywhere you visit has a view that everyone photographs, like the Taj Mahal with the long pool in front of it. Gardens are no exception and you’ll recognise them from the garden’s literature or by the amount of people jockeying for position in certain places. There are various aspects of the formal gardens at Arley that are probably photographed by every visitor – the view down through the Walled Garden, Ilex Avenue lined with its imposing columns and the Tea Cottage.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to photograph these beautiful places, but you’ll be more proud of your images if you manage to give them a slightly different twist. For example I included the branches of a magnolia tree in the foreground of my shot of the Tea Cottage. Ilex Avenue was more of a challenge as the sun was high in the sky and the columns cast very large black shadows. I did settle for a rather obvious shot in the end and found myself wishing for the first time that afternoon that I’d got my daughter with me to photograph on the steps leading up to the Avenue. I waited for a while for all the people to disappear out of view – folks do amble slowly when they’re garden gazing!
I hadn’t realised that Arley also has a rock garden tucked away in a far corner beyond the tennis courts. It was really peaceful and I could have sat for a long time listening to the water tinkling on the rocks, but I didn’t want to miss out on a cream tea on the Tea Lawn by the Tudor Barn! As I hurried towards the garden exit I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of two lambs snoozing under a tree with their mum. A reminder that Arley Hall is set within a larger working estate and a perfect closing shot for my visit!
As usual I am already planning a return visit – most likely in July or August when the Herbaceous Border will be at its best. I’m also going to be watching out for Arley opening its gardens for an evening event and being able to capture the gardens in a totally different light.
This blog is also published on the Cheshire Life
website.By Jane Burkinshaw. Share this post by clicking on one of the Share buttons on the right hand side. I'd love to hear your comments too!