As the name suggests, when you walk into a formal garden you won't find a leaf mind about a flower out of place. All the plants are neat, tidy and often ordered in straight, perfect rows. These gardens are the places you know a gardener has spent hours with a spirit level and a pair of scissors meticulously trimming away until his bushes are just right.
These symmetrical gardens that are often bursting with colour and texture exist in most parts of the world. Go to Japan and you'll find meditation gardens while European gardens are more rectilinear and often have an axis which the rest of the design follows. You'll also find gardens that are centred around buildings and others where paths of gravel and neatly mowed lawns surround pools, fountains and statues.
A 50mm lens will show the garden as you or I would see it while your wide-angle lens will give you sweeping shots and exaggerate the size and shapes of the structured gardens. Your telephoto is great for capturing the symmetrical lanes of trees and tall evergreens while your macro lens will get you close to architectural detail. Then when you've finished packing your bag, don't forget to pack the sun cream and a bottle of water into the space you have left once all your lenses are in.
Pack a polariser to stop glare and help enhance the colours of the garden and a small reflector will pack easy and bounce light where it's needed but if it's shade you need, save space in your bag and simply put your own shadow to use.
Ring the garden you're planning on visiting before you arrive to see if you can take your tripod along. If you can, don't forget it as it's a brilliant tool to have on a breezy day or for when you want to smooth the movement of water.
Time Of Year
Gardens in the summer will, of course, often look their best but this is also the time when the day-trippers will be out in force so arrive early to avoid the crowds. It's also worth giving the people who tend the garden a ring to see if there are any particular areas that are really looking at their best. They'll also be able to tell you if there are any restrictions such as: Are you allowed to walk away from the path to find more interesting angles? And are tripods always permitted? If they're not, make sure you have sturdy hands the day you visit to stop blur creeping into the shot.
Lines And Patterns
As formal gardens are full of lines and symmetry that lead the eye down paths and along hedgerows use a small aperture to get as much of the garden in focus as possible and general views of the garden will always work better if your image has a distinct back, middle and foreground.
Of course, there will be an abundance of hedges, trees, and other plants forming symmetrical rows just crying out to be photographed but also look out for paths and bridges to lead the eye into the frame.
Look for reflections in windows of buildings or on the surface of a pond and while you're near water take some time out and slow your shutter speeds right down to turn a cascade of water into something a little more tranquil.
Don't think this means your macro lens is made redundant however, as there's always some form of architectural detail that's waiting to be photographed. Iron gates, stone walls and fencing all have interesting patterns that look great under a macro lens.
If you have a large building or some tiny stepping stones, put a person in your shot to give your image scale and if you want to photograph a statue or two, use your wide angle lens to get both the garden and statue in frame. Watch your backgrounds and eliminate any unwanted objects from the scene – you don't want the leaves of a palm sticking into the side of your framed English garden now.
Change Your Angle
Use your imagination, start thinking out of the box a little and try shooting from a different perspective. Get down low or if you have a hill or a building you can get on the top of shoot down on your scene. It's a great way to photograph the turns and twists of a maze or to demonstrate the sheer size of the garden you're in.