Interview with Clive Nichols, ‘Britain’s Best Garden Photographer’

Clive lives in a beautiful village just five miles from Banbury town centre and was kind enough to invite Cherwell Living into his home for an interview! Clive Nichols has established a reputation as one of the world's finest flower and garden photographers.
CLIVE NICHOLS

Clive has photographed many of the world’s best gardens, including HRH The Prince of Wales’s own private garden in Scotland, Lord Rothschild’s private garden in Corfu and Lord Heseltine’s private garden in Oxfordshire.

In addition, his work has appeared in hundreds of books as well as in countless magazines, calendars and brochures. Over the past 25 years he has amassed a stunning collection of over 90,000 images which are available for reproduction. Clive regularly gives master classes in flower and garden photography for The Royal Horticultural Society and for the past five years he has been one of the two main judges for the prestigious ‘International Garden Photographer of the Year’ awards.

Malverleys, Hampshire: Dawn light on the terrace with summer flowering perennials and path leading to countryside beyond. Photo: © Clive Nichols Photography.

What was your introduction to photography?

When I was young, our family moved around a lot because of my father’s job, which meant I got to see a varied array of landscapes. Eventually, I went to Reading University to study Human Geography. It was here that my love for photography really started, and I began to travel abroad during the holidays and found I enjoyed taking pictures during my trips.

Post university, I worked as a chef in an Italian restaurant called Nino’s in Reading. After three years, I’d worked my way up to head chef but I thought ‘I’m going to die if I carry on working at this rate’. So I switched career and did travel photography.

Felley Priory, Nottinghamshire: Dawn light on snow-covered yew topiary peacocks. Photo: © Clive Nichols Photography.

Why garden photography?

After about three years of travel photography I realised that I wasn’t going to make a living from that.

Then I walked into WH Smiths and started looking through garden magazines thinking ‘I can do shots like these’. And that’s what got me going.

I have always loved nature – something that came from my dad – and I wanted to shoot outdoors, so flowers and gardens became a natural subject for me.

I was lucky in that gardening became very trendy – in the 80’s and 90’s – just after I started working as a photographer. This seemed mainly due to people having a lot of spare money (unlike now) and the leisure time to enjoy it. Programmes such as Gardeners World and Ground Force fuelled this interest in the UK, as did an increasing number of magazines and books on gardening in general.

Colesbourne Park, Gloucestershire: Cyclamen coum and snowdrops carpet the woodland in Winter. Photo: © Clive Nichols Photography.

How did you learn your photography skills?

I’m entirely self-taught. I got a lot of help in the early days from a friend of mine called Brian Didriksen. He had loads of cameras that he let me try out and for that I am incredibly grateful.

Has the transition from film to digital changed the way you work?

Yes definitely – in the days of film I would have to take maybe a roll of film to get three or four photos but with digital I can check the image straight away and move on to the next – it’s made it easier once you have a good workflow.

Gravetye Manor, Sussex: Misty dawn light on late Summer border with Dahlia ‘Magenta Star’, cosmos, cardoons, cannas and heleniums.
Photo: © Clive Nichols Photography.

Do you need to be an expert horticulturist to do what you do?

No, I have built up a knowledge of plants just by seeing so many of them in so many different situations. If you keep adding images to a database you definitely start to build your plant knowledge but you don’t need to be a botanist to be a good photographer in this genre.

What do you need to be a good garden photographer?

Patience, as you have to wait for a garden to be at its best.

Sometimes the weather can spoil the whole season and you have to try again the following year. It’s very frustrating sometimes but I have to wait until conditions are perfect.

Do you have any tips for people who want to photograph gardens?

First of all I’d say you need to select a good location and one that’s photogenic. Also, find out when a garden or plant is looking at its best and make sure you are there!

It’s best to shoot gardens when the weather’s good and there’s little wind, unless you actually want subject movement.

First thing in the morning is the best time to shoot, no question. I prefer it to the evening because the moisture levels are generally much higher. In the morning you get dew, cobwebs, beads of moisture and mist and fog – most of the time the mornings just have more atmosphere. By the end of the day that moisture is usually burnt off, so even when you’ve got beautiful light, you don’t have the same atmosphere.

As well as doing your best to get to a garden at dawn, also try to shoot into the light so you can add drama and three-dimensionality to your images.
Mounting your camera on a tripod helps to keep everything sharp. I use a tripod 90 per cent of the time. I will only shoot hand held if I know I can get shutter speeds fast enough to prevent camera shake – that usually means shooting at 250th second or faster.

If you’re shooing close-ups, it’s best to find the most perfect specimen and isolate it, ideally against a good background. Exclude anything that doesn’t contribute to the image.

Mitton Manor Garden, Staffordshire: Formal garden with Prunus ‘Kanzan’ in full bloom and steps leading to mirrored obelisk.
Photo: © Clive Nichols Photography.

What time do you have to get out of bed to shoot those incredible morning shots?

It depends on how far I have to drive! In extreme cases, summer shoots mean I will have to get out of bed at 2:00 a.m. and drive 100 miles to a garden for the perfect dawn light.

Which gardens would you recommend people seeing which aren’t too far from Banbury and why?

Pettifers, Wardington: beautifully planted private country garden with colourful borders and strong structure

Wardington Manor, Wardington: Manor House garden surrounded by borders of flowers mainly for cutting. Home to The Land Gardener Bridget Elworthy

Broughton Grange, Broughton: magnificent country garden designed by Chelsea Gold Medal winner Tom Stuart-Smith

Broughton Castle: Romantic flower garden surrounding fortified and moated Manor House

Batsford Arboretum, near Moreton-in-Marsh: one of the finest collections of trees in the country – 56 acres and a dramatic sight in autumn and winter
Morton Hall Gardens, near Redditch: stunning eight acre garden with many different garden rooms and dramatic views to the Malvern Hills.

 

What is your favourite garden to photograph?

One of my favourites is Pettifers in north Oxfordshire, which is a private garden open to the public by appointment. It’s an amazing garden, beautifully planted and it’s got a good structure.

What’s been the highlight of your career so far?

I was invited to photograph The Prince of Wales’s private garden in Birkhall, on the Balmoral Estate near Aberdeen in Scotland. It had never really been photographed properly before. I went there with TV garden expert Alan Titchmarsh who was writing an article about it. The pictures I took were made into an album for Charles and Camilla, and afterwards were published in Country Life. I heard later that Charles absolutely loved the pictures, so it was a great experience.

To see more of Clive’s amazing photography…
visit clivenichols.com
or follow him on his Instagram – which now has 90,000 followers
and has become the main showcase for his work @clivenichols