Picture perfect garden photography with your smartphone

Tips and tricks to get the most out of your smartphone camera

They say the best camera is the one in your hand, and let’s face it, these days the camera in your hand is almost always a smartphone.

Not only are the cameras in today’s smartphones excellent, but the ease of sharing your garden photographs from the smartphone directly to social media or email is just too simple in comparison to the effort needed to share photos from digital cameras.

With that in mind, this post is going to focus on using a smartphone to photograph your garden.

In other posts, I’ll explore the benefits of using 35mm digital cameras and high-end point and shoot cameras, both of which offer more control, quality and accessories to tackle garden and wildlife photography.

Photo accessories add versatility to smartphones

Accessories, however, are not restricted to 35mm digital cameras.

There are some great accessories available for smartphones that will help expand your creative vision and enable you to capture images you would never have been able to capture with just your phone. More on those later.
In addition, many of the free editing programs that are available for smartphones are outstanding and can lift your garden photography to new heights.

Taken with an smartphone and edited in Lightroom to saturate the colours.

Taken with an smartphone and edited in Lightroom to saturate the colours.


The image of the Sun’s rays streaming through the trees in the early morning (above) was taken with my iPhone following a heavy overnight rain.

I took several photos, but when I looked at them closely, I realized the best photo was an image within an image. Even with a heavy crop and some editing in a Lightroom phone app, the image held together surprisingly well.

Again, it shows what you can do with a smartphone camera, good lighting and a little knowledge about basic photographic editing.

The early morning light filters through the woodland garden and allowed me to capture a fleeting moment with my iphone camera.

The early morning light filters through the woodland garden and allowed me to capture a fleeting moment with my iphone camera.

One of the features that set smartphones apart from traditional cameras is the AI (artificial intelligence) now incorporated into most smartphones. This AI makes getting the proper exposure and focus for most images almost foolproof.

Although the latest smartphones are excellent and getting better every year, they’re not perfect.

Not unlike regular digital cameras, they can be easily fooled by extreme lighting conditions.

The resulting photographs will likely either be overexposed or underexposed.

By pinching the smartphone and enlarging the image, it’s possible to get good closeups or macro images of flowers like this native lady slipper. Some newer phones even have special macro lenses built into the phones.

By pinching the smartphone and enlarging the image, it’s possible to get good closeups or macro images of flowers like this native lady slipper. Some newer phones even have special macro lenses built into the phones.

Higher-end cameras that shoot RAW files or produce larger file sizes can withstand heavy editing without digitally “falling apart.” The smartphone digital file, however, is relatively small and severely editing the photograph can make the image unusable for all but basic sharing on social media.

The trick, especially with a smartphone, is to get the proper exposure from the beginning. Getting the best exposure often requires adjusting the camera settings to create an over- or underexposed image.

Our front Japanese-inspired garden taken with a smartphone.

Our front Japanese-inspired garden taken with a smartphone.

Tricks to get the most from your smartphone camera

I am currently using an iphone 8 so everything I’ll write here will pertain to that phone. Other makes and models, however, offer similar features.

If you have never overridden the camera in your smartphone, or didn’t even know you could, you might be surprised what you can do with the phone’s camera settings.

For starters, if you are focusing in close on a particular flower in your garden, you can ensure it is in focus by touching the camera screen where the flower is located. This is especially helpful if you are trying for a closeup image of the flower. A yellow square will then overlap the area you touched on the screen. That cameraphone will then focus on that specific area and adjust exposure.

The closer you get to the main subject, whether it is a flower or a fall leaf, the more important it is to use the macro feature on the phone.

Once you touch the screen and the yellow square appears over the flower, you will notice that there is a sun icon with a slider line above and below it. This control allows you to change the exposure of the image. By sliding the sun image up, you brighten the image. By sliding it down you underexpose or darken the image.

The results can be dramatic.

The feature is particularly useful if you are shooting into the sun.

The amount of light coming into the camera will tell it to darken the image, but if you like the airy “high-key effect” than you can use the slider (moving it up) to keep the image bright.

If you are photographing a sunset, you may want to use the slider to darken the image and saturate the colours in the sunset. To darken the image, you would move the slider down.

I’m noticing dark, moody images have become more popular on instagram to create a more “theatrical” look.

But don’t underestimate the beauty of “high-key images.” They can be a nice effect, especially with light-coloured, delicate flowers. To bring the whiteness or brightness back to your flower images, touch the sun and slowly bring your finger up the screen. Notice the whole image getting brighter.

I was recently trying to capture an image of our flowering dogwood flowers that were back lit by the sun. The image the smartphone gave me underexposed the flower's dramatically, but by using the above technique I was able to maintain the delicate, ethereal effect I wanted in the image.

On another day, my pink supertunias were highlighted by a sunbeam that just lit them up beautifully against our grey shed which was in total shade. The smartphone read the scene and overexposed the flowers. Only by dramatically underexposing the scene was I able to recreate the pink supertunias standing out so boldly against the grey shed.

Built-in motordrive in Smartphones

One last technique to pass along that you may not know about.

Imagine you are sitting in your favourite chair in the garden checking out your instagram when a pileated woodpecker lands on a nearby branch. You raise the phone and grab a quick shot. It doesn’t move, so you grab another shot and it’s gone. You get two shots but neither is very good. In both cases the woodpecker turned its head just as you took the picture.

Here’s the tip many don’t know about: Your smartphone has a motor drive built into it. While you got two shots in the short time the woodpecker was on the branch, by holding your finger on the button you may well have got 10-20-30 shots to choose from instead.

At least one of those shots will be the perfect shot.

Grab your smartphone and give it a try.

Use your smartphones’ built-in zoom

In addition to the above technique, I’m guessing most people know about the two-finger zoom feature on smartphones that allow you to zoom in digitally on your subject.

Quality certainly suffers when you use this feature and remember to hold the camera steady when you take the shot, but the zoom feature allows you to get closer to the bird in the tree or the fawn in the back of the garden.

Don’t expect to get the same results you would with a 600mm F4 lens, but zooming in closer can make a big difference in garden photography where birds, insects and mammals are often easier to get close to.

Accessory lenses add even more versatility

Another way to add more versatility to your smartphone lens is with smartphone lens accessories.

There are a host of clip-on lenses that turn your smartphone lens into a fisheye lens, macro lens or telephoto lens. Often they are available in a package incorporating several lenses.

Checkout smartphone accessories available at Amazon, here.

The prices vary depending on the package and the quality of lenses. If you use your smartphone as your primary camera, these lenses are certainly worth considering.

Some lens packaged even include a circular polarizer, which is probably the single most important filter a garden photographer will need. The polarizer, not unlike polarized sunglasses, cuts through glare and reflection from leaves and other reflective surfaces including water but not steel.

A careful search on Amazon shows there are many lens/filters packages that include polarizers as well as star, graduated sky filters and neutral density filters. It is probably best to focus on a high quality circular polarizing filter rather than any other type of filter.

Tripod accessories for smartphones

The accessories seem endless on Amazon. Tripods and tripod adapters are also numerous. And if you find yourself using a tripod regularly, which is a good idea, you can get a bluetooth shutter release so you can take the picture without touching the phone and adding shake to the image.

An alternative is to just set a 5-10 second timer on your phone as a hands-off alternative.

Photographing your Woodland garden has never been easier.

A cup of coffee in one hand, the smartphone in the other and a walk around the garden in the early morning is sure to reveal some beautiful images.

A glass of wine in one hand, the smartphone in the other and an early evening stroll through the garden is sure to reveal even more outstanding images.

In your own garden, it’s particularly convenient to take advantage of these ideal times to take outstanding images. It doesn’t always need to be images of flowers.
When the sun is low in the sky and the wind has died down the garden becomes a magical place and the light takes on a new warmth that makes for the best photographic opportunities.

Don’t let these times go to waste.

This page contains affiliate links. If you purchase a product through one of them, I will receive a commission (at no additional cost to you) I try to only endorse products I have either used, have complete confidence in, or have experience with the manufacturer.

Vic MacBournie

Vic MacBournie is a former journalist and author/owner of Ferns & Feathers. He writes about his woodland wildlife garden that he has created over the past 25 years and shares his photography with readers.


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