Tulips in a garden framed by trails of light.


Grow your creativity: three projects to try in the garden

For those lucky enough to have one, a garden is a blessing. Not only does an outdoor space offer a chance to take fresh air, catch the sun and glimpse life renewed, it also offers lots of great opportunities for photography. Here we explore three techniques to kickstart your creativity, from light painting tulips and shooting the stars to photographing beautiful garden birds...

Night vision – painting with light

By following some basic steps, it's easy to create your own light painting work of art.

1. Prepare your gear

A torch with different coloured cups taped to the end.
You can make a light wand with household items such as coloured plastic cups.

You will need

  • Camera
  • Tripod
  • Smartphone
  • Torch
  • Coloured plastic cups (or similar colourful items such as small food storage containers, tissue paper or multi-coloured Christmas tree lights)
Light painting is a simple technique that you can try in your garden after dark to create vibrant, ethereal images. Begin by making your light wand – we stacked three coloured plastic cups and taped them to our torch. When you wave your makeshift light wand during a long exposure, it will create blurred streaks of colour.

2. Position your camera

A photographer taps a finger on a screen to focus a shot of a tulip.
Position your camera so the subject is in the frame. That could be a flower head, a tree, a leaf – or anything in your garden.

Compose a shot of flowers, trees or any other suitable subjects in your garden. It might be helpful to do this in daylight first, so you can perfect the composition. When it gets dark, put your camera on your tripod. Activate Live View mode so you can see the shot on the rear LCD display, shine a torch on your subject and tap the screen to focus on it. Set the lens to manual focus to lock it in place. You need the exposure to last for 30 seconds or more. Some cameras feature a dedicated B mode on the dial, in which case select B for Bulb, which means you can lock the shutter open for as long as you like. Otherwise you need to select Tv (Shutter priority) mode and set your shutter speed from there. Set the ISO to 100 to reduce the sensitivity of the sensor and keep noise to a minimum, then choose a narrow aperture, such as f/22 – you might need to experiment with aperture depending on the strength of your torch. For brighter results choose a lower f-number and for darker results increase the f-number.

3. Connect your phone

A Canon EOS 90D connected to a smartphone with the Canon Camera Connect app.
Use the Live View feed on your smartphone to see how your light painting will look on your final image.

You can use the Canon Camera Connect app on your phone to start and stop the bulb exposure. Download the app onto your phone and go to the Network settings in your camera menu to connect. The app allows you to trigger the shutter without having to return to the camera, freeing you to concentrate on the light painting. The live view feed to the phone also helps when planning where to wave the torch, as you can see exactly how it'll affect the shot once the shutter is engaged.

4. Paint with your torch

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A hand waves a torch with colourful cups taped to the end, causing it to blur.
Light painting is a simple and fun way to add another layer to your images, creating abstract backgrounds for sharp subjects.

Start the bulb exposure with your phone and begin waving the light wand around the scene. Try waving the torch behind objects so that they appear in silhouette. If you want to add extra light to a particular part of the scene, simply point the torch at it for a few seconds. We pointed the torch at the tulip at the front for a few seconds to pick out the red, before waving it around in the flowerbed behind to create the colourful backdrop.

Go wild – photograph garden birds

A well-established bird feeder will attract regular visitors and become the ideal setting for photographing garden birds.

1. Set up a bird feeder

James Paterson photographing a bird feeder in his garden.
You might be surprised by the amount of wildlife you can photograph within the vicinity of your home.

An established bird feeder is likely to see more feathered visitors, so use an existing feeder or set one up a few days in advance and fill it with nuts and seeds. Morning is usually the best time for bird activity, so get into position early. Hide out of sight, behind bushes or a hedge if possible, or shoot out of a window in your house. Plan your position in relation to the sun. For bold colours it's best to have the sun behind you, but if you want an atmospheric backlit look then shoot into the sun instead. Wherever you choose, you ideally want a plain background in a colour that contrasts with or complements the bird – preferably not black! If you can, avoid shooting against anything that's too busy or distracting.

2. Use a long lens

Use silent shooting mode to avoid scaring off your subject and you should be able to capture incredibly detailed wildlife shots.

With subjects this small and skittish, you need a long lens to fill the frame. Here we used two zooms, a Canon EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM and a Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM. If, like these, your lens has optical Image Stabilizer, switch it on to help prevent blurring caused by camera shake. A crop-sensor (APS-C) camera such as the Canon EOS 90D can be helpful for distant subjects. The zoom factor of 1.6 means a 135mm focal length effectively becomes 216mm, and 400mm becomes a mighty 640mm. The camera's 30 megapixels also means you can crop digitally later, so a 70-300mm lens would be fine for small birds. With less timid subjects, such as this friendly robin, you might be able to slowly close in for an even tighter shot.

3. Exposure settings

The back of a Canon EOS 90D showing the shutter speed settings.
You'll need a high shutter speed in order to capture a bird in motion.

Set the camera mode dial to M for Manual mode, then hit the Q button and set the aperture to f/5.6 or lower for a shallow depth of field to blur the background. Set your shutter speed to 1/1250 second or faster, and set ISO to Auto so it adapts to suit the conditions. In daylight the ISO could rise to 1600 or more, which inevitably increases image noise, but the ISO performance of the Canon EOS 90D means noise is manageable, even at higher ISO sensitivities. For fast-moving subjects such as birds in flight, you'll need faster shutter speeds to capture a good level of detail. Why not set Custom mode 1 to these settings for birds on a feeder and Custom mode 2 for faster settings for birds in flight, so you can quickly switch if the opportunity arises?

4. Select High Speed Drive mode

The back of a Canon EOS 90D showing high speed continuous shooting settings.
Burst mode is probably the best approach for shooting fast-moving subjects.

When a bird appears, it's best to take a burst of shots to improve your chances of getting the perfect image. Hit the Q button and set your Drive mode to High Speed Continuous. The Canon EOS 90D fires 10 frames per second with autofocus tracking, or 11fps in Live View. Set the Autofocus mode to AI Servo and it will engage continuously while predicting subject movement. Next, set the Focus Point to Single. Move the point over the bird and half-press the shutter button to lock on, then hold the shutter button down to start shooting.

5. Frame out the food

To capture a more natural shot, compose your image with your bird feeder just out of sight and focus on the subject.

The most natural-looking bird photos are those that don't include a feeder or other signs of people, so look for opportunities to frame these out. Often birds will hop around branches near a feeder before they move in for food, so this is a good time to start shooting. If you find that the sound of your camera frightens the birds, turn off the focus lock confirmation beep (in the Beep menu on the Canon EOS 90D and other cameras) and set the drive to silent shooting for a quieter click.

Shoot for the stars – astrophotography

Photograph stars with a subject in the foreground for a more interesting final image.

1. Set up a tripod

A photographer sets up a tripod in his garden to take a photo of the night sky.
Using a tripod will keep your images sharp during long exposures.

The stars are best photographed on a clear night under a new moon when the sky is very dark. Light pollution can be hard to avoid, but you can still get clear shots of the stars in an urban environment. To begin, set up your camera on a tripod. Try framing to include some foreground details, such as the trees here, for an astro landscape photo. When choosing where to point the camera, a night sky phone app can help you to pick out constellations or the core of the Milky Way.

2. Focus on a distant star

A photographer’s hands holding a Canon EOS 90D with a zoom lens attached.
Focus in on a single star, or a cluster of stars when you compose your shot. Remember to zoom in and out when composing.

You need to use manual focus to lock on to a distant star. Engage Live View and seek out a very bright star in the sky. Press the zoom button on your camera twice to zoom in close to the star on your display. Set the lens to manual focus, then turn the focus ring (the one towards the end of the lens) until the star is sharp. Once done, you can zoom back out and recompose if necessary.

3. Choose a shutter speed

The screen of a Canon EOS 90D showing the Long exposure noise reduction setting.
Choose the right shutter speed for the effect you want to create – use a slow shutter speed to blur motion and a high shutter speed to freeze motion.

The rotation of the earth means stars are never static, so if your shutter speed is too long then the stars will blur into streaks of light. The '500 rule' can be helpful here – it's a method for measuring the maximum exposure time you can shoot before the stars become blurry or trails appear. Your shutter speed should be no slower than 500 divided by the focal length of your lens. So with the lens set at 25mm, you can shoot for 20 seconds max (500 divided by 25). Long exposures like this can lead to increased image noise, as the sensor will heat up during the exposure. To help reduce noise, engage the Long Exposure Noise Reduction setting.

4. Expose for the night sky

The screen of a Canon EOS 90D showing settings for night shooting.
Make sure you have your camera set up for shooting at night, with a high ISO to prevent dark, gloomy images – and, although it sounds counter-intuitive, set the White Balance to Daylight too.

Set your mode dial to M for Manual mode, then hit the Q button to set your exposure. Choose a wide aperture such as f/5.6 and set your shutter speed to 20 seconds – or use the 500 rule – and choose a high ISO such as 3200. Set the Drive mode for a two-second self-timer, or use the Canon Camera Connect app, to prevent camera shake when pressing the shutter button, and then take a shot. Assess the image and increase the ISO if it needs brightening, or decrease ISO to darken.

5. Shoot for star trails

Shooting star trails creates captivating shots with real impact.

Instead of fighting the fact that the stars are moving in the sky, why not try capturing the stars as circular trails? You need to shoot a series of 30-second exposures continuously for a couple of hours or more. If your camera has an interval shooting mode (like the Canon EOS 90D, EOS 6D Mark II and EOS RP, and pro cameras including the EOS 5D Mark IV), then enable this mode, set the interval to 1 second and the number of shots to 00 – unlimited. Set shutter speed to 30 secs and start shooting. If your camera doesn't offer interval shooting, it may have time-lapse mode, which you can try with a long exposure time. Once you've captured a set of photos either way, you can merge them using Canon's Digital Photo Professional (DPP) image processing software. Use the Compositing tool and set each image to the Lighten blend mode.

Written by James Paterson

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