photo by Heather Buckley

We’ve all taken pictures in our gardens, but it’s probably safe to assume that few of us have gardens like those at Great Dixter, which runs to some four acres, is designed by a world-famous architect and boasts 18 topiary birds, a formal pool and a Tudor hall at its heart. Great Dixter Gardens, near Rye in East Sussex, is renowned for its fusion of English country-cottage style with the exotic and the experimental, and if it’s colour, texture and architectural features you’re after, there’s no better place to visit. The real gift of a wonderland like this is that it will inspire you to make the photographic most of what your own garden has to offer – colour, contrast and natural patterns.

On a cool, damp June morning, Tom Mackie and five AP readers meet outside the gates at 8.30am for a quick run-through of what to expect from the day’s Masterclass. The gardens don’t open to the public until 11am, so that gives us plenty of time to go for undisturbed shots with Great Dixter House at their centre before the gardens fill up with people. However, the weather forecast isn’t promising, with monsoon-style rain due to set in at midday. So with the sky sullenly leaden, it’s unanimously agreed that we’ll take photographs until the heavens open, then head to the local pub for lunch, a debrief and a questions session with Tom.

‘With any garden, it’s a good idea to get there before the public arrive and concentrate first on scene-setting shots where people might otherwise be in the frame,’ says Tom. ‘But with the type of weather we’re facing, it really illustrates the importance of planning your shoot according to the quality of light available.’

photo by Heather Buckley

Tom says that if it’s sunny, you can happily go for those broader shots that will also capture the sky, but if it’s bright yet overcast, it’s better to go for closer-range shots.

‘A grey sky in a frame will deaden a picture, but the type of light you get with it is perfect for flower photography,’ says Tom. ‘It’s nice to see things with a fresh eye, so we’ll have a quick walk around to decide on our main wide scene-setting shots and go for them first, taking care to minimise the amount of grey sky in them. Then we’ll be taking a variety of plant portraits, using a reflector to fill in and keep the contrast as low as possible.’

Lastly, Tom suggests looking out for features such as pathways, topiary, fountains and benches. So with that last piece of advice, the readers venture into the lush gardens of Great Dixter with their cameras and tripods in hand.

Your AP Master…

Tom Mackie
A former contributor to AP’s Photo Insight series, Tom Mackie is one of the world’s leading photographers. He has spent many years as an architectural, industrial and landscape photographer, and has a penchant for panoramic photography. Tom has published several books and written numerous articles for photography magazines. He also lectures on photography and regularly holds workshops in the UK and abroad.

The AP readers...

Heather Buckley
Heather mainly shoots street photography. She uses a Canon EOS 5D Mark III and 16-35mm, 8-15mm fisheye and 100mm macro lenses. ‘I’ve learned something outside my comfort zone,’ she says.

Peter Goodman
Peter enjoys macro and wildlife and uses a Nikon D7000 with 18-105mm and 70-200mm zoom lenses. ‘I wanted to learn so much about composition and using filters,’ he says.

Chantal Clonsdale
Chantal enjoys street photography using her Canon EOS 400D with 10-22mm and 18-55mm zoom lenses. ‘There’s nothing better than getting one-to-one advice from someone who’s so experienced,’ she says.

Philip Smith
Philip shoots landscapes with his Canon EOS 5D Mark II and 24-105mm lens. ‘I’ve got lots of tips, including balancing the light and realising you don’t need the sun for great garden shots,’ he says.

John Warren
John loves shooting natural history close-ups. Today’s he’s using a Canon EOS 5D with 16-35mm, 70-200mm and 100mm macro lenses. ‘I’ve really enjoyed it a great deal,’ he says.

  • Location: Great Dixter, Northiam, near Rye, East Sussex TN31 6PH. Tel: 01797 252 878. Website:
    The Great Dixter House and Gardens,are located just off the A28 near picturesque Rye in East Sussex. The gardens feature natural ponds, yew topiary, meadow flowers, dazzling mixed borders, the famed Exotic Garden and numerous medieval buildings. They provide superb scope for photography
  • Opening times: Open 1 April-28 October, Tuesdays to Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays. The gardens are open from 11am-5pm (last admission), and the house from 2-5pm. Amenities include a café and plant nursery.
  • Admission charges: Prices include Gift Aid (standard charge in brackets)
    Gardens only: adult £8.25 (£7.50), child £4.40 (£4) House and gardens: adult £10.45 (£9.50), child £5.50 (£5).

Would you like to take part?

Every month we invite three to five AP readers to join one of our four experts on a free assignment over the course of a day. The experts are Tom Mackie (landscapes), Cathal McNaughton (documentary and photo essays), Annabel Williams (location portraiture) and Andy Rouse (wildlife). Our next confirmed Masterclass will be with Annabel Williams in August. If you would like to take part, visit for details of how to apply. Please remember to state which Masterclass you would like to attend and make sure you include your name, address, email address, daytime telephone number, some words about your work and three or four of your images.

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