5-10-5: Claire Takacs, Garden Photographer

A seasoned traveler (it must be an Australian imperative to have a passport and see the world!), Claire has the enviable position of photographing beautiful places, namely gardens, throughout the world when she is not home in Victoria, Australia.  I met her when she was in the East Coast US photographing gardens from New England to the Mid-Atlantic region.

claire takacs

Please introduce yourself.

I’m an Australian freelance garden photographer who travels 6-7 months of the year based out of England when not in Australia and to the US and Europe. I work mainly for magazines such as Gardens Illustrated and Garden Design and contribute to books.

The arts or horticulture?

It would have to be a fairly equal combination of both.

I studied art at school, with a keen interest in landscape painting and then completed a bachelor degree in Environmental Science.

I often see gardens as works of art and feel compelled to capture their beauty and I find light brings it all to life.

I have a great appreciation of nature and are always seeing plants I have never seen before. However,  I am not driven by knowing all of the details of plant names etc. It’s more about the bigger picture and feelings that gardens evoke when skilfully planted and created by expert and passionate gardeners and garden designers.

How did you first become interested in photography, especially garden and landscape photography?

Upon completing my science degree, I left Australia with a one way ticket to London.  This flight was the first time I really had freedom and time to explore the world and I became really interested in photography and constantly wanted to capture what I saw along my travels. I was often disappointed at how my images turned out when they came back from the lab, and really wanted to learn how to take better pictures that represented what I saw.

When I returned to Australia, I decided I wanted to do garden design or photography. Science was never really in the picture, but rather it was always a love of nature and wanting to work outdoors from the beginning.

I chose photography, and completed a two year full time course, beginning at 26. Initially I was really drawn to photographing landscapes and capturing light, which was about beauty in nature.

During the course, one of my projects resulted in photographing a garden, Cloudehill. Cloudehill is one of Australia’s best gardens by owner Jeremy Francis who inspired by the famous Arts and Crafts gardens of the UK. It just happened to be ten minutes down the road from where I’d grown up, but I’d never seen it until now. Francis’s garden reminded me of the great gardens I’d seen in the UK.

It was an absolute revelation having this garden all to myself at sunrise one morning and photographing it as I would for a landscape. There was just such beauty in this garden and I couldn’t believe how no one else was there capturing the moments. Cloudehill then became my initial inspiration for garden photography and the beginning of it all for me. It was the first garden I got published in Gardens Illustrated and it was the front cover image on the inaugural International Garden Photographer of the Year Competition, which I won in 2008.

Garden photography has been the focus for my life and travels ever since and it has taken me on such an interesting path to endless beautiful and amazing gardens and people throughout the world. I still love landscapes, but often I prefer just to enjoy them and concentrate my work on gardens. I find it’s so interesting to see what people at a really high level in horticulture are doing all around the world. I’m constantly surprised by the gardens I see. I too have a great love of gardening myself and I understand what it is to be totally swept away and consumed by gardening.

Great Dixter
When the first morning rays meet the mist: the Peacock Garden at Great Dixter, West Sussex, England.

Some photographers prefer the morning light for producing the best images, others the evening light. The majority of your images appear to be taken during early morning when the first rays of light breaks apart the horizon or the mist. Has your experience naturally steered you towards mornings?

Yes, generally I much prefer morning light. My favorite morning is a cool morning which is a little misty and then the sun breaks through the mist. I love photographing in autumn and cool climates when the light is softer. In Australia our light is often so harsh that you have to be very quick to photograph before the window of nice light passes. I find the gardens quieter in the morning and I am fresher, which really allows me to focus on the photography only. Generally the light is more atmospheric in the mornings; however, it does depend on the garden’s orientation, as some gardens have nicer evening light and the time of year can change it as well. If possible, I generally try to get both sunrise and sunset lights in the garden.

At times, weather can be uncooperative for photography, necessitating repeat visits until it is optimal. Given scheduling constraints, how do you circumvent the frustration of inclement weather?

Weather is probably the most difficult thing I have to deal with. Almost everywhere I go, I seem to get unseasonal conditions, or so gardeners tell me. Climate seems to be noticeably changing around the world and affecting flowering times in gardens.

For some gardens, I just don’t seem to be lucky with the weather and I will have three or four goes at it. However, it really depends on where I am and how flexible the owners and I can be. Often I am working freelance, sourcing gardens myself and working with writers remotely, so I have to weigh up how long I can afford to wait. Sometimes I will have to work with the conditions as they are, such as having two shoots – an evening followed by a sunrise shoot, which may might give five minutes of nice light, but sometimes that is enough for a double page opener for a feature. More often than not, it’s not plausible to get the whole shoot with good light, which is frustrating. There are certain conditions though, such as dark grey clouds and high winds that make it impossible to get good shots. I have photographed for hours in the rain underneath an umbrella for a couple of gardens yet this patience has resulted in published features. My winning IGPOTY shot was photographed in snow underneath an umbrella.

Generally I keep an eye on the weather closer to the date and ask for a little flexibility with owners if possible. If I really feel a garden is worth capturing in good light and the weather is just not cooperative, I will go out of my way to return to a garden and shoot in good light. I have been know to get up at 2am and drive 3 hours for a fourth attempt at photographing the one garden. I often also have 14 + hour days when traveling in summer, with a shoot in the morning, some scouting during the day, driving and then another shoot at night. It can get pretty exhausting, but it’s worth it if the gardens and light are good.

Do you have a preliminary session or discussion with the garden owners as part of your ‘screening’ process? I have heard that understanding the owner(s)’ philosophy and approach towards gardening can help the photographer hone on specific details that reflect the garden’s personality.

Yes, if possible I always have a preliminary visit and walk around the garden with the owner or designer.  It is important to have this time and get some understanding of the garden and the thought process and person behind it. There is much detail in gardens, thus it is helpful to have some special plants or specific garden areas pointed out. Then I like to take another walk around the garden by myself without my camera, look at it, and walk around it from different angles, so you can plan a bit mentally as to what you need to capture and some good spots to shoot from. I always make sure I know which direction the sun will be coming up and moving through the garden.


Bryans Ground UK
Bryan’s Ground, David Wheeler and Simon Dorrell’s garden in Wales, United Kingdom.

Any photographic tips you wish to share with your readers?

Light – this aspect is the most important thing apart from timing. It is crucial to time the photography for a peak time in the garden, whether that be spring flowering or autumn color if possible. Once you have the visit’s timing right, light then is critical because it completely changes the mood or feeling of the images and captures the beauty of the garden. I like to follow the light around the garden as it moves throughout the morning or evening. It essentially dictates the shots I take. When the light is at its best early in the mornings, I focus on the wider landscape shots. As  it then moves around the garden, I use it to highlight certain parts or plants on the garden for closer, more detailed shots. Finally once it is too bright, you often can’t achieve those overall shots without too much contrast between shadows and highlights.

Composition – good light is great, but you need to pair it with good composition.  Look for a shot that is balanced, and for the wider shots to have detail in the foreground, mid ground and distance.

Tripod  – As  personal preference, I still always use a tripod with a shutter release for low light conditions to ensure my pictures are sharp and I find it helpful for careful framing of images.

Ladder – lately I’ve been really enjoying the perspective of gardens while shooting from ladders. Particularly with gardens with tall perennials it really helps to capture the scene.

Shoot into the light – if you position the camera so it is protected from direct flare (although sometimes this tactic can work) either behind a tree or plants in the frame and shoot into the light, you can get some nice lighting effects when the light is low.

Please pick at least 5 of your favorite or best images and explain why they appeal to you the most.

Kenrokuen Kanazawa Japan

Kenrokuen, Japan. Winner of inaugural IGPOTY 2008

This is probably my most favorite image. One that I don’t tire of looking at. It feels timeless and a beautiful/magical moment captured. Reminds me of a painting. I saw this shot and framed it with the bridge, but then the couple crossing at the perfect moment definitely made the shot, for which I was very grateful.

Cloudehill Olinda Victoria Australia

Cloudehill, Victoria, Australia.

This garden is very special to me. My initial inspiration. I love the symmetry of this image. The beautiful planting and the soft light at sunrise. Your eye is really led to the seat in the distance and the path draws you into the scene.

Dan Hinkley Windcliff

Windcliff, Indianola, Washington State, USA (Dan Hinkley).

Hard to imagine a more spectacular backdrop for a garden. I love the soft light at sunrise and the beautiful plants in Dan’s garden and how he frames the view of Mount Rainier. I love how the sunrise is capturing the tops of the trees on the top right of the image. I find it is a peaceful image, completely still and almost surreal.

Gravetye Manor Tom Coward

Gravetye Manor, West Sussex, United Kingdom.

I loved this garden and its setting. The planting by head gardener Tom Coward was spectacular. I find this image has a lot of depth to it as I tried to capture the many layers and paths in the garden and then the soft mist in the distance at sunrise. There is a lot going on in this garden, but with a beautiful subtlety that I tried to capture it here.

Blair garden Queenstown New Zealand

Blair garden, New Zealand.

I really loved this garden and its location. This was taken on the fourth consecutive day that I’d visited the garden and walked up the hill multiple times to get some nice light there, to show the setting of the garden surrounded by the majestic mountain backdrop. I waited until the light highlighted the grass in the foreground, which then leads your eye to the owners house and garden and then the distant landscape.

Thank you, Claire!  ~ Eric

Follow Claire on Instagram. Her photography can be reviewed on www.takacsphoto.com

Sketch on Rye

Mermaid Street, Rye, England, colored pencils, J.McGrath
Mermaid Street, Rye, England, colored pencils, J.McGrath

If you live in a city, you understand the necessity to venture out on day trips, be it to take advantage of good weather, the pleasure of seeing a specific place or someone or just an adventurous spirit. Mostly it is just for your sanity because when you mix too much heat and too much city, you have a concrete disaster, and meltdown ensues…. The spontaneity of these trips can be exhilarating, only then remembering, while in transit, a certain ‘last-minute necessity’ you forgot at home. Usually I bring a sketchbook or paper of some sort but encountered this situation once. In the beautiful town of Rye, England, I forgot my sketchbook but soon realized free town maps were available. I made do with what pencils I had and set to work, and this ‘mishap’ has turned into a regular habit.  The free paper is put to good use as a map, then used for  sketching, and then solidifies itself in a permanent place in my sketchbook when I return home.  There is always a creative solution….. – James

‘Whenever I see…’

newspaper and trees
view from Killerton, Devon, England

“Whenever I see a newspaper, I think of the poor trees. As trees they provide beauty, shade and shelter, but as paper all they provide is rubbish.”- American-born British violinist Sir Yehudi Menuhin

the right direction

the white dusty paths set off against gray skies in Tuileries Garden, Paris

      Trivial details glossed over by some can be the plague of others; a friend once told me this is the disease of an aesthete.  Sometimes though, the best lessons we learn are often stumbled into by making a mistake, or in  better cases, a happy accident.

       During the two years I studied at Longwood Gardens, each student was required to keep a garden; an area designed and created of our own ideas. It was an exciting time, a blank canvas of a 15’x50’ garden plot to call my own but suddenly there were too many directions and ideas to choose from.  The design process seemed overwhelming and my mind felt like a glass of water, but without the structure of the glass to hold it all together, ideas spilling in every direction and with no shape or structure. Given instructions by our teachers that in order to keep the design process cheap, since we would only have our gardens for two years, they told us to ‘beg, borrow, and steal’ to get the materials needed for our plots.  We were granted access to an area of free but limited hardscape materials that were left behind by the preceding graduating class, which myself and the other students ravaged and put to good use.

finished student garden at Longwood Gardens, 2006
finished student garden at Longwood Gardens, 2006

        After nabbing some large bluestone pavers, but not enough, I had trouble deciding what to use to complete the rest of my paths.  Trying to keep free of spending money on materials that would just need to come out in two years, I was forced to get creative and resourceful. The best ideas sometimes emerge from the smallest of budgets, or lack thereof and this lack of budget taught me a valuable lesson, resulting in employing other senses in ways I had not anticipated in the garden.

cobblestone, pine needles and pebble set in concrete: imagine how it would feel to walk down a path of each material

       Remembering a grove of Pinus sylvestris not far from my plot, I collected and spread the fallen needles throughout my garden paths as mulch between the bluestone pavers. Pleasing to the eye in color and texture, and free, it was different from what I expected and as time wore on, I enjoyed the calm feelings I got while walking through my garden.

brick path in winter and grass path in summer, Great Dixter 2008

        I learned from my choice of material that what is under foot can have an effect on how it shapes our garden experience. The feeling of calm as I walked over the pine needles on my paths, as if walking through a quiet pine wood, connected me in a more intimate way to my garden, more so than if I had chosen stone or even left the paths as bare earth. This detail helped me approach future designs and layout of gardens in a new way.

a loose gravel path in the informal Spring Garden at Gravetye Manor, 2013
a loose gravel path in the informal Spring Garden at Gravetye Manor, 2013

       I took for granted that the senses we use in the garden are related to sight, scent and sound but what we cannot touch with our hands, we can still feel beneath the soles of our feet. Flowers are a sight to behold, and texture and form for that matter, but are these the only reliable tricks we can employ on the visitors experience? Plant based gardens are nice but seem one-dimensional and need to be more complex to stimulate me;  I love plants, but not obsessed with them as the only ingredient in the garden recipe. Experiencing gardens has always had an emotional impact on me. I don’t always want to think when I am in a garden but I want to feel , and what lies underneath my feet helps me do just that. A wise teacher once told me, ‘when visiting a garden, don’t just think about what is that you like about it, but think about what you would do better.’

a different path of bare earth in the informal Spring Garden, at Gravetye Manor, 2013
a different path of bare earth in the informal Spring Garden, at Gravetye Manor, 2013

       Budgets aside, one of the dominating factors in choosing path materials is largely based on the visual pleasure it provides but chosen materials do have the right places in which to use them, task accordingly and site appropriate of course.  Treat the garden in layers and these small details in garden design can help hijack our senses and lead us to have a different garden experience, not always obvious and often subtle.   Not everyone understands gardening to a degree as much as we would like, and some say its the slowest form of theater, but it’s up to us to set the stage and make it a more cerebral experience, attacking the senses on the sly and leaving the emotions tantalized by the interactions people can have in the garden.

paving stone at Gravetye Manor and a sand path littered with Beech tree bud scales at DeWiersse
paving stone at Gravetye Manor and a sand path littered with Beech tree bud scales at DeWiersse

          This  lesson I realized is not just in relation to paths but I have since applied to all areas of design, as someone obsessed with aesthetics, the details we employ in our gardens and spaces can’t just be visually attractive but must serve a dual purpose if possible, digging deeper to find it.  I find pleasure in thinking of gardens and spaces in this way; the layout of a place, the arrangement of the space within it; it is always an exercise for the mind. Thinking I was crazy to obsess about such things, I found solace, after Longwood, in a recommended book written by Sylvia Crowe, she wrote the book on garden design, still standing the test of time. Once realizing other people knew this language  too I was thankful that  such valuable lesson crossed my path early, due to my student garden, a lack of budget, and some pine needles.  See, the beauty is in the details, there are never problems, only solutions and always a silver lining if you know how to read it.       -James

setting summer sun on West Lawn of DeWiersse
setting summer sun on West Lawn of DeWiersse

London 2012, a gardening experience

Time moves so quickly but memories can keep things vivid, and it already happened one year ago. Each day that passes my mind returns to this exciting period of my life…

After moving to London, I saw an advertisement that was ‘looking for a horticulturist for an interesting project’, a vague description for a job. Curious, I applied and was called for an interview and during our meeting the prospective employer was still very vague about the job, giving away some details but not enough.  Only after I got the job did I learn that it was for the horticulturist position for the London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony.  The company, Filmscapes, regularly designs and installs gardens for television and film and we were to create the first scene for the Opening Ceremony, called ‘Green and Pleasant Land’ based on the rural countryside of England. Due to a strict confidentiality agreement, it was all to be kept a secret.

Artificial turf

The sets we created included both hard materials and real plants, which some had been growing on at the company nursery. Early stages included making the hard set, which entailed cutting, distressing and painting artificial turf so it would look like real grass, creating crop boards of dried wheat and poppies, and covering bare apple trees with fake foliage and apples. Soon we moved on site to the stadium, and that is when the full responsibility of my job, which included care, maintenance, and IPM of all live plant material, was felt.

Olympic Stadium stage

Although the stadium was still a construction zone, there were a number of tasks that we needed to tackle immediately.

Olympic Tor being created

There was a huge mountain, the Tor, which had a fiberglass shell as its base and we covered this shell completely with  meadow turf from top to bottom. There was only an inch of soil with a thin capillary mat underneath to “help” hold moisture.  This covering was completed a few months early so the meadow turf had time to grow and fill out creating a seamless natural look. The wildflowers, such as oxeye daisy and Lotus corniculatus, were to be established and in bloom by Opening Ceremony time.

Wildflower verge at Olympic Stadium

Next installation was a wildflower verge that encircled the whole edge and sides of the stage. The plants were attached in sheets as small seedlings directly to wood planks sloped to 45 degrees; the soil was less than 1/3 of an inch underneath the wildflowers.  Maintaining them required a fair amount of attention due to water runoff and the heat until the flower canopy closed and created more shade for the roots The microclimate of the stadium was terrible, as it  was always hot, dry and breezeless.

Aerial shot

Installation of stage

Vegetable practice sets

There were a plethora of other plants which included vegetables, hedgerows made from tree saplings, more turf and wildflower meadow that was all to be used on stage.

watering the nursery

We had a nursery just outside the stadium due to the necessity of duplicate plants that were involved in the scene changes. These duplicates were necessary because the nursery held the plants that wouldn’t be damaged by the rehearsals that needed to take place with the cast.

There were many challenges that I didn’t anticipate, such as limited or no access to my water sources during the constant rehearsals. Begging and pleading with stage and crew directors did nothing and I began to wonder if they understood that plants are living things and do not wait for a drink of water but would quickly turn brown and crispy.   There were mishaps too such as forgetting to disengage the automatic irrigation on the Tor one evening and getting a key speaker getting soaked while practicing his speech.

watering the Tor

The work was hard and strenuous and the days were long, including some 18 hours days. Watering took up a huge part of these days, whether it was by hand, use of sprinklers, and the automatic watering system that we used sometimes on the Tor in the evenings. Each day, as I wheeled heavy hoses across the stadium stage, I realized what an incredible opportunity this task was, not even taking a second for granted.  Every day was a pleasure to see and hear how much all of the workers inside the stadium appreciated this beautiful and colorful display of blooms over the course of the time.

The last two weeks were the most difficult, with expectations and tensions running high. An unwelcome heat wave in London kept me watering  sometimes 11 hours straight and I began to feel like there was never enough time or water to get it all taken care of.  With the pressure building up at that point and almost at breaking point, I would take a deep breath, think of the athletes, and soldier on, thinking of how I could handle these tasks rather than think of the pressure of it being for the Olympics.

A few hours before the public was to be let in to the stadium, and then televised for the world to see, we were doing frantic last minute touches. I was able to look around, see all the plants were green and looking fantastic, and I realized I had successfully completed my job.

I also had the chance to be in the Opening Ceremony in ‘Green and Pleasant’ where I helped a colleague fell an oak tree on stage.

     While in full costume that night, in a stadium of 80,000 people, I sat down on stage in the ‘orchard’ we made, with the fake apples, and as I took it all in, I proceeded to eat a real apple I had stashed in my pocket.  I was exhausted, delirious, and overtired but giggled to myself that I was sitting on stage in front of the Royal Box, and a packed stadium, at the London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony. I couldn’t stop smiling, and a year later I still can’t and I would do it all again in a second…

My keepsake of our Poppies and dried wheat