Composing with Color

– Posted in: Garden Photography
Red Tupelo Leaf Centered

Red Tupelo Leaf Centered

When I went looking for fall color in my garden, I did not expect to see a red hole into another universe.  In fact, I did realize it was there until I contemplated my original picture (to follow at the end).

The great master of black and white photography, Ansel Adams learned to pre-visualize his photographs.  He manipulated his images with filters even before he exposed them, and then worked magic in the darkroom to bring out what he wanted his audience to see.  He would have loved Photoshop.

The camera always lies – or rather, as I say every time I use that phrase, the photographer uses the camera to tell a story the way the photographer wants it to be told.  If you have a story to tell before you use the camera, an intention to communicate something, your camera (and your post production “darkroom” tools) can say far more than words.

I went looking to make a rich moody picture of orangy-red leaves of the Tupelo tree (Nyssa sylvatica) by my front door.  We don’t get much native autumn color here in California, so I have planted some of my favorites near to the house.  Last year about this time, inspired by fall color of Gingko and Oakleaf Hydrangea, I wrote a post about seeing a photo.  This year, already too late to get a good shot of the wonderful red color of my Tupleo in full color, I never-the-less felt there was a memory to be preserved, a mood to convey, a picture to be had in the simple symmetry of the few remaining leaves.


In the gloomy shade of the north facing front of my house, I used a telephoto lens to isolate a composition of leaves and branches against a green hedge.  Color is a vital element of this composition, red strokes dancing on a canvas, and I thought of Ansel Adams, previsualizing what I wanted to remember.

For the Tupelo vision I wanted to remember, the splashes of color needed to be a key to the composition and they needed to be enhanced to accent their position.  I also slightly cropped, down to the top of the hedge.


Digital manipulation is easy to understand and used by almost every professional photographer I know.  Sometimes subtle,  sometimes overdone, often imperceptible to the viewer, but never-the-less a vital tool for creating publication quality photographs.

Next I crop a bit more, add another splash of color (in the center), and make the background of the garden a bit darker and cooler.  (The new leaf is not added digitally – it is a different photo – I added the leaf to the branch as I “worked” the original composition.)

tupelo final

tupelo final

I may work this photo some more, but it is close to what I want to remember and what I thought I saw in my front yard.  What I did not expect to see when I began this process, was the hole in the universe.

I refer back to the first photo, where the composition of the red leaf in the dead center now draws us into another world, a crack in the garden.  Stare at it for just a moment.  Only once color becomes the sole focus of the photo are we drawn into it and wonder what lies beyond the picture.

This is how that photo started:


Saxon Holt
Saxon Holt is the owner of, a garden picture resource for photographs, on-line workshops, and garden photography stories. An award winning photojournalist and Fellow of The Garden Writers Association with more than 25 garden books, he lives and gardens in Northern California. PhotoBotanic - Garden Photography online at
Saxon Holt

Latest posts by Saxon Holt (see all)

15 comments… add one

Leave a Comment

vrtlaricaana November 11, 2009, 6:57 am

This is done very nice. I use PS just for fun and I do edit my pictures – as least a crop, so Im far away from being a proffesional.
But Im always wondering if its too much editing, are the colours too intense, does it look fake?
You have wrote it nicely – photographer uses the camera to tell a story the way he wants it to be told, and if I photoshop too much – well thats how I want this story to go. Good thinking and lovely tupelo final!

Thanks for the comment and “always wondering” how much editing and adjustments are too much. That is the art of it isn’t it ? Depending on the intention of the photographer, that can change in every version. In the darker versions of Tupelo leaves, I want the image to be about splashes of bright color that I saw in my eye, the garden is not important.
In your own editing do what pleases you in the moment. Art is not “real” anyway, what is “fake”. Think on it, learn, try other ideas – there is no right or wrong, but the artist needs to believe in what they do.
– Saxon

salix November 11, 2009, 8:06 am

I am just learning to use my digital SLR camera and I really enjoy your bits of teaching in your posts.

Thanks Salix – I hope my posts are useful enough so that you will join our Picture This contest some time – Saxon

Commonweeder November 11, 2009, 8:35 am

What a wonderful lesson! Photos are so important in the blogs, and I learn something every day. Thank you.

Thanks for the feedback Commonweeder. We are a visual world and I have learned the limitations of blog photos – that simple ones have the most affect. Even in my publication work I get frustrated sometimes that a complex wide angle garden view gets squeezed into a small photo. – Saxon

Kate Smith November 11, 2009, 9:42 am

I love your photo of the ‘hole in the universe’ and the other pics are beautiful too. I enjoyed reading about your thought process as you decided on the color composition. Nicely done!

Thanks Kate. I honestly go through a composition thought process every time I take a picture, one reason a tripod is so important to me. Color is not often my first consideration, and in the images in the post I hope the viewer appreciates (though not necessarily notices) the composition of shape and lines. I have several other compositions from my shoot the other day where the single red leaf was in different positions in my frame. The ‘hole in the universe’ really got me. – Saxon

Kate November 11, 2009, 10:25 am

What an amazing difference in the photos. It’s good to know that professional photographers like to enhance their photos. I used to think professionals were just knowledgeable and talented enough to know how to capture the shot just as they want it. I tend to take many photos and then crop the best one to suit my interest. I’m only just starting to tweak contrasts here and there and consider the digital possibilities beyond that. Thanks for the great article.

Kate – It is more and more important for the professional photographer to know how to use all the tools at our disposal – to separate our work from the good amateurs with great cameras. But photographers have always enhanced their photos – ‘the camera always lies’. Before digital, I used filters on 95% of all my professional garden photos – “to capture the shot just as they want it” as you say. Often the enhancement is not obvious, but photos we all share rarely tell the story of what was originally in front of our cameras. – Saxon

Laura Livengood Schaub (InterLeafer) November 11, 2009, 4:17 pm

I want to weep with gratitude at this post. Seriously. With a long background in graphic design and advertising, I am hard-pressed to publish any photo without a Photoshop session to crop, and adjust light levels, brightness and contrast at least. I rarely adjust color…I like to underexpose a bit and then bring the levels up, which is usually all it takes to saturate or brighten what’s already there.

But I understand there is also a contingent that feels digital editing is cheating, and I fret about that a little. So I loved how you said Ansel Adams would have loved Photoshop!

To think what film photographers had to go through to adjust exposure, burn something out, retouch lens flare, red eyes, power lines or dust particles, things we can now do with the click of a mouse. I carry the whole graphics department from my last agency job in my bag. My 8GB memory card alone is a freakin’ miracle!!!

My realization after reading your post is that my finished photos represent my skills before AND after the shutter clicks. Thank you for that aha moment.

Although I consider my self a journalistic (rather than artistic) photographer, I still feel compelled to make every image I publish a work of art anyway; when I’m composing I’m looking for the best ‘story’ and in Photoshop I edit the story to its essence. Since I have some skill with these tools, I’m going to use them. Not to tell tabloid lies, but to reveal beauty undistracted and enhanced.


(And by the way, it was a pleasure having lunch with you at the GWA Conference in Raleigh; I was one of the Lawn Reformers!)

Laura ! Thanks for checking here a GGW. I had an aha moment last year at the Ansel Adams, Georgia O’Keefe exhibit at SFMoMa where I learned about a photo of Half Dome (can’t remember at the moment the exact title), which was the first photograph that Ansel previsualized. He used a red filter on the camera lens to make the sky go darker than the snow on the mountain, thusly making the mountain even more majesterial. “Oh, of course!” I said and began to really understand the concept – after all these years . . . . Saxon

the inadvertent farmer November 11, 2009, 8:37 pm

I am hesitant to admit I own photoshop but alas have never used it. I am wiping out my computer soon and will not install my old editing program (Picture It) to make myself learn Photoshop. Thanks for the push…your photos are wonderful! Kim

Kim – Photoshop is only one editing tool. You can get 90% of all the editing enhancements you will ever need by using whatever software came with your camera. Alternately there are cataloguing software programs such as Aperture and Lightroom that have editing controls along with their organizing systems. As a stand alone software you really have to need PS to justify its trouble. – Saxon

Jean November 11, 2009, 10:04 pm

I always learn so much from your posts. Thanks for taking the time to take us through your process. I, like some others here, worry about how much tweaking to do, what looks “right” and what would be laughed at. Courage to take chances, that’s what I’ve gotten from your post! 🙂

Having fun with your tweaking should bring some laughter and glee. To heck with those who don’t like it. Now take that courage and submit photos to us —- Saxon

Marie November 12, 2009, 7:21 am

As a blogger I try to tell my story with the addition of photographs. I am far from a professional and very far from talented. But photos help so much in getting the story across. I have never felt guilty about editing the photos. To me the story is the point. Thank you for a great post.

Marie – The great advantage that writers have is they can use photos to amplify what they say. It is hard to tell a story with just pictures – which is why keep trying to do a bit of writing. Am so pleased you enjoyed the post – Saxon

healingmagichands November 12, 2009, 8:59 am

I think you are right about Ansel Adams. He would have loved Photoshop. I have no qualms about working with my images to try to make them look better, but there are times when changing the saturation or the exposure or whatever does not actually make the whole better. This mystifies me, because I feel certain that if I tweaked the image just the right way it would be improved, but I can’t seem to find the right combinations.

And sometimes you don’t get another chance at a shot that has an atmosphere or mood because it depends on a transitory happenstance that suddenly makes the picture jump from nifty to great but there are other issues that make it come out not-so-great. An example of that is when the flock of geese flies overhead at dawn. It also makes going out of the house without the camera risky — yesterday I missed a great shot of the cooper’s hawk hunting the finches because my camera was in the house when I went out to pick lettuce for my dinner. Oh well.

Anyway, I know the camera always lies and I lie with it sometimes. You would think my garden was always perfect the way I crop out the wheelbarrows and weed piles!

I have no quibble with wanting the picture to be as wonderful as possible BUT! (and it is a big but) when people are shooting images for plant catalogs they need to stop screwing with the colors. More than once I have purchased something simply because the catalog photograph made me fall in love with it and then when it grew up and bloomed in my garden the lie I was told by the photographer becomes evident. So, there is a time and a place for everything. . .

I love your hole in the universe. And I truly enjoyed your discussion of the process. This is why I love this blog, I am learning so much from you all. It is making me a better gardener and a better photographer. I look at the garden in an entirely new way.

I enjoy the discussion you have opened and can assure you I crop out weeds and wheelbarrows in all the gardens I photograph for publication; sometimes guiltily knowing it suggests to readers that the gardens we see in publication are somehow perfect.

Image enhancement (with Photoshop or any of the other tools that camera manufactures provide) is a delicate thing, and one can not always rescue a weak image. Garbage in, garbage out as they say. But even making a good image sing can be a complex task. The tools are so interrelated (exposure,brightness, temperature, levels, saturation, curves, etc) and they affect each other so you can end up with an image were the pixels have been so pushed around that the photo can begin to look worse and worse as you work on it.

I must admit that I usually do not do very much on most images, I just don’t have time. I just shot a short 3 day book assignment and sent about 80 final images to the publisher. I spent about 6 hours on post-production for maybe 200 images to edit down to the submission. I spent about 2 hours just doing the few photos for this Composing With Color post, so as you can see there is not enough time to tweak all photos. One would hope the photographer does not HAVE to adjust too much. It is certainly fun though.

As to garden catalogues . . . rant, rant, rant. But in their defense, do know many catalog images are shot under ideal conditions. If you have a critical eye you know flower color changes in every garden, all day, in all sorts of differing soil conditions. The catalogues at least establish a base-line for comparison the same plants in the same catalog.

Whew – what a response you got – Saxon

Linda/CTG November 12, 2009, 9:00 pm

Saxon, thank you for such a provoking essay on your art and your eye. And for sharing a bit of your journey with us. . .

Linda – Thanks for stopping by. The fun is in the process, let’s see where it goes …. Saxon

Pam/Digging November 13, 2009, 2:27 pm

Saxon, I’m glad you pointed out in your reply to Healingmagichands how much time it takes you to tweak even a few images in Photoshop. For pros that time spent makes good sense. But for the rest of us, who are just trying to put out a nice blog post, that extra time may not be available. Unlike, say, political or mommy bloggers, garden bloggers tend to have image-driven posts, and it takes time to shoot enough pics to get a few good shots, load them onto the computer, pore over them and select a few to use, crop them, put them on the post, and then write about them. Whew, where do we all find the time? The idea of tinkering with my images further on Photoshop to turn them into art frankly makes me feel tired. Maybe one day (when the kids are grown?) I’ll get to that point, but I’m not there yet.

That said, I did enjoy your post because I always find it interesting to know how professional garden photos are achieved. And it’s heartening to know that the gardens featured in magazines and books aren’t as perfect as they seem but that a good eye and some post-production work has made them seem so. Cheers for continuing to show us the behind-the-scenes secrets.

Hey Pam – I am not sure all garden bloggers pore over their images as much as you do – and it shows.

I well know the time crunch issues and it is nearly impossible for me to keep up with my own limited posting obligations here at GGW but I will say it can be thrilling to learn new tools. Photoshop is certainly daunting but there are many others not nearly as complex. I have just spent the last several days learning Keynote and am excited by all the possibilities that are opening up to me with digital presentations

My kids are grown. There is still no spare time. Y’know, I just lied. I am taking this afternoon off to make dinner for some friends who are coming over before we all go out to the Buddy Guy show. If I had young ‘uns that would be harder to do

Thanks for commenting – Saxon

Little Wing November 14, 2009, 4:00 pm

I really enjoyed this step by step article! I absolutely love to play in Photoshop and Paint Shop Pro and would probably post more blog entries if I did not:) Even my brief blog posts are much more time consuming than I thought they would be. ~Your final Tupelo artwork is very beautiful.

Believe me, I know well how much time a “brief” post can take. I wish I could do more because I like the sharing of ideas. Thanks for the nice comment. – Saxon

brunophotography November 21, 2009, 12:40 pm

I love taking pictures of leaves, and a single dangling leaf like this one is beautiful.

Sometimes the simplest composition can be the most interesting and the use of one color contributes to the graphic composition, Thanks for stopping by – Saxon

Heather's Garden November 22, 2009, 9:11 pm

I like that the leaf is dangling right smack dab in the middle of your first photo. So often we amateur photographers are told not to center our subject.

I am one of those who think that altering your images is kind of cheating, but mostly I think it’s jealousy of your superior tools and knowledge. I crop some of my photos, but don’t really do much other than that. And I’m using a simple point and shoot so I always wonder what kind of incredible images I could get with a real camera, multiple lens, and Photoshop.

Previous Post:

[shareaholic app=”recommendations” id=”13070491″]