Pretty as a picture: A snappy lesson in the tricks of the garden photographer's trade

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The Independent Online

There is only one thing that could have persuaded me to spend a Sunday morning sitting in a far-too-thin raincoat on a soggy gravel path in a mild October drizzle, taking photos of the same herbaceous border, over and over again. In this case, it was the photography teacher Jacqui Hurst.

Jacqui and I were teaching at West Dean, a mansion in rolling Sussex downland where weekend art and craft courses range from lace-making to carving stone gargoyles. We were co-operating on a course about blogging, with me focusing on the words and she on the pictures. But I ended up learning as much as any of the students about how garden photography works.

Jacqui's tips for good garden pictures are simple, and she began the weekend with a slideshow of her work to make us think about light, texture and shape. Of course, we've all noticed how a leaf lit up in the sunshine looks more attractive, but few of us put these observations into practice. Under Jacqui's instruction the following morning, my dawn experiments with backlighting immediately improved the quality of my photos by about 100 per cent.

After a delicious lunch, we headed back out into the gardens. This time, we had an exercise set by our teacher, for which we were allowed to take just six images. It was amazing to discover how difficult it was to restrict ourselves, but we soon learnt to eye up each photo opportunity carefully.

The photography courses held at West Dean are not just for those with expensive digital SLRs, though there is plenty of help for those who possess such luxuries. Three of our group had simple point-and- click cameras, but were still able to carry out Jacqui's simple exercises about vistas, eyelines and details. Returning to the up-to-the-minute computer room (also equipped with views over 6,000 acres of English countryside) we downloaded our snaps and began discussing them, taking huge delight in each others' discoveries.

Of course, Saturday's golden sunshine helped, but on Sunday the drizzle and mist descended. We all moaned about having to go outdoors but Jacqui sent us out to experiment again. In the soft moist light, I discovered that spitting rain doesn't ruin the picture, and figured out how to control aperture and focal length. Foregrounded pale-yellow daisies sat against a soft blur of lilac and purple in a picture I almost couldn't believe I'd taken myself. Driving home, I felt a sense of accomplishment, and was almost disappointed when my mobile finally picked up a signal again after two days of total and utter peace.

Jacqui Hurst's next course runs from 13-15 November (www.westdean.org.uk)

Shoot to thrill: Jacqui Hurst's top tips

Sun spots

Back-lighting means shooting towards the sun, so its rays light up your subject. But don't look directly at it – it will damage your camera and your eyes. Aim to have the sun shine through petals or leaves. "It will make the picture glow," says Jacqui.

Right as rain

"Light drizzle and no breeze is perfect for plant portraits," Jacqui points out. "That dull but soft light has wonderful luminescence, which shows up well on film."

The big buzz

Read your instruction book. A couple of people on our course were amazed to discover their camera had a "macro" setting, allowing them to take hyper-close-ups. According to a recent study, most of us use only 35 per cent of our camera's technological features.

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