Fun with Focal Points

– Posted in: Garden Design, Garden Photography

Garden photographers just love focal points designed into gardens.  In great gardens though, they present dilemmas.  What is the best angle ?  Let’s take a stroll around one of the rooms in Gary Ratway’s own garden:


Gary is one of those exceedingly rare landscape architects who knows more than 25 plants.  Not only does he know more plants than any designer I know, he and his wife, Deborah Whigham, started Digging Dog Nursery just so he could have the plants he wanted.  In the photo above, the nursery is just beyond the upper path (north).

It is a delight to be in a complex garden that has great vistas at every turn, mystery down every path.  Gary has designed a series of garden rooms, using hornbeam hedges and rammed earth columns to define each space and often places large planters along axial views as focal points that pull the eye from one garden to the next.

A beautifully designed room like this one has photo opportunities galore.  (To orient this tour, the path running left to right is south to north.)  I find myself slowing down, eyes wide, imagining every purpose to every photo and will use the focal point container of Silver Sword (Astelia chathamica) in each of the following photos to illustrate how the camera can use the same focal point to tell different stories.


This next photo is taken from exactly the same point as the opening photo, I have just used a different lens.  The first photo uses a super wide 18mm lens, simultaneously making the room seem larger than it is and showing the quadrant design with paths joining at the focal point.  Now I am tighter for more intimacy.

I like this photo quite a bit and spent quite a bit of time composing it.  At first glance it seems slightly off balance, but this technique serves to make the viewer look more closely and study the image.  This is an intimate, personal view using three of the cherry trees to weight one layer of the photo while showing the path connecting two focal points – the container and rammed earth column.  I could get philosophical about aesthetics and composition using this one photo and then fill the entire post about my idiosyncratic eye, but will save that for a workshop one day.  Let’s have more fun with the focal point.


I have moved over to the south path we first saw on the left in the opening and look back to the center.  Using the tripod to help nail down an exact composition, we see the container dead in the middle, now seeing all four of the cherry trees framing and reinforcing the focal point.  It is hard to tell in this small blog photo, but in the distance we see another container with an ornamental grass in another garden room.  We will come back to this axial view.


An all together different story is told with this angle, taken from almost the same point as the tighter one previous, but now with the wide lens.  You can tell it is not the exact same point because the two containers do not line up precisely, but the story here is different – the stone steps crowded with Hyssop leading into the garden, the path with focal point to pull the eye into the garden, and the carefully chosen layering of plants: Germander (Teucrium chamaedrys) and lavender which frame each quadrant.


I have now moved to the west side path entering this garden room, looking into where I took the opening photo.  Note some of the same same plant material, Lavender and Teucrium, now framing a quadrant of raspberries, and the same focal point.  There are so many subtle aspects of this garden to be photographed and the photographer must decide how to use the camera, letting each photo “lie”, letting each photo tell a different story.

The focal point helps the composition, but the story here is complex: about the plant layering – color, texture, size of the plants; about edible gardens; about drought tolerant and sustainable practices; about garden design.


Let’s back out of this same path.  Immediately we know this photo is about the focal point.  Now notice the secondary pot, which is helping to anchor the photo composition and hint at another garden room.


This photo is about garden rooms and entrances, yet I am still using the container of Silver Sword to pull you into the room.  Well, actually it is Gary who is using the focal point to draw us in, but the photograph must be composed to bring this idea home.

The secret garden

The secret garden

This final photo is from the north entrance to the garden looking through the hornbeam hedge, to what now seems a secret garden.  It is right where the container of ornamental grass is seen in the long axial view of the third photo in this post, now looking south.

What is the “best” photo in this garden ?  What a dilemma a photographer has when faced with such a fine subject!  There is no one best photo, each depends on what you see and what you want to say.  In each one though, there is the design element of a central focal point that helps the composition.

As a photographer, first slow down to “see” a garden, decide what you want to say, and compose tightly.  When the designer provides a focal point, it makes it so much easier.

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

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joco September 25, 2009, 4:44 am

Good morning,

What an interesting point to mull over at breakfast time.
It made me realize that when I look at an image I want it all dished up for me. Don’t want to have to bother with finding reasoning or explanation behind the image, or I’ll move on.
Your photo {holt_780_0383} gives me that balance and interest without worry or hard work. The photographer has done the work for me and I accept that without a second thought.

Made me think, this post. Thanks.

good evening joco (It is now evening here in Raleigh where I am attending the Garden Writers meeting) So glad to hear someone say a photo works for them without having to analyze it. And made you think at the same time … -Saxon

Chookie September 25, 2009, 8:20 am

Another great article! Thank you! I learn so much from all of you here!

Thanks Chookie; it is indeed fun to have visitors like you appreciate the fun we have here – Saxon

Dave September 25, 2009, 9:13 am

My personal favorite is the last one. I like the effect of framing the focal point through the hedge. It leads me into the garden.

Dave – I won’t pick a favorite myself . . . but like any lesson, the final statement should summarize – Saxon

Jennifer AKA Keewee September 25, 2009, 10:46 am

How gorgeous they all are. I would be hard pressed to pick a favorite.
It is always nice to glean ideas for ones own garden landscape, thank you for sharing.

Town Mouse September 25, 2009, 10:47 am

Interesting food for thought! Makes me realize my garden is possibly too focal-pointless. Have to mull that over as I plan what to do for fall planting.

Here’s what’s interesting. I compared pictures 3 and 4, and at first thought #3 had no bright green in the forefront at all. Not true at all, it’s just a matter of perspective and what one remembers.

Hey Town Mouse. The bit of green in #3 is almost irrelevant except it helps frame and give some depth, a subtle compositional tool that you shouldn’t really notice – until yo were asked to compare two photos.

As you contemplate adding a focal point, find a place that has multiple views if you can. – Saxon

Mr. McGregor's Daughter September 25, 2009, 10:52 am

Taking photos of the larger garden, rather than individual plants or small groupings is a daunting task. Thanks for the examples of how to do it. I need to tape a piece of paper to my camera saying “Tell a Story.”

Having a central focal point helps in the task, but in a complex garden it becomes a problem of “which” story to tell when there are multiple angles. That is when the photographer’s own opinion enable the camera to “lie” – Saxon

Radhika September 25, 2009, 1:08 pm

Great article and a great learning tool for a beginner like me learning to compose towards a goal rather than just point and click and hope to see some nice flowers at the other end! Thanks. –Radhika

As Mr. McGregor’s Daughter has reminded us: “tell a story”, try to know what it is you are trying to say – it will help you distill the image to its essence. – Saxon

bangchik September 25, 2009, 2:55 pm

A very interesting post about focal point and the best way to view…. ~bangchik

Sometimes there is no “best” way, there are many lessons in a garden for photographers. Each way can have its own purpose and intent. – Saxon

Frances September 25, 2009, 3:33 pm

Like Dave, I like the last shot as well. The promise of what cannot yet be seen, the focal point pot and use of plants makes this a garden I would want to enter and explore.

Thanks for the comment Frances. Interesting that the last photo still wants to make you enter and discover what you have already seen. – Saxon

Pam Kersting September 25, 2009, 6:31 pm

To me, the same story is told over and over again in each of your photos. It is about form, line, color and texture. Elements of design that provide foreground, midground, and background as well as linkage, all adding up to the whole picture and that is HARMONY. This is a very well done small garden. And as a Landscape Architect, I assure you that I tto, know exceedly more than just 25 plants! 😉

I assume any Landscape Architect that reads GGW knows more than 25 plants. The harmony of the garden should be apparent from each photo but how that is achieved with various plants and hardscapes is a bit different in each. The lesson is not simply the harmony but how camera technique can express that. Thanks for noticing the overall theme. – Saxon

Deborah at Kilbourne Grove September 25, 2009, 7:06 pm

Every picture was great, what a difference it makes though if you cover the pot in the photos, not nearly as exciting. (Must get more pots in the garden.)

Yes, pots make simple focal points, even big empty urns work well. – Saxon

Carolyn Parker September 26, 2009, 12:02 am

7800383 has a great dynamic Saxon. Thanks for photos of a thrilling garden.

Thanks for taking the time to comment, Carolyn. I always remind everyone who admires my work, it takes a good garden to provide a good photo. We can find beauty in detail shots almost anywhere, but without structure and design, it is really hard to get a great garden photo. – Saxon

Kathy in Napa September 26, 2009, 1:39 am

The best photos for me are 6 and 7. I am pleased by the way they are framed.As usual this was another great lesson. I am going to the open house at Digging Dog next month and look forward to using your always sound advice.I wonder what the market might be for a Saxon Holt how to guide on garden photography. I would buy it in a heartbeat. I also will mention the great restraint I showed when tempted to display the Dodger keychain and shoelaces at your table outside the lecture barn last Saturday.

Kathy – you make such nice comments for being a Dodger fan. It will not get me to make nice comments about them . . . ever. Well, actually if they make it to the World Series I must root for the National League.

I am definitely thinking of doing a guide to garden photography, and after a couple more years of doing this on GGW either the market will be saturated or newly created. – Saxon

Barbara E September 26, 2009, 2:30 pm

Interesting essay! The last two pictures put the viewer in an intimate garden space – darker in front with dark framing – looking into the larger garden space with the focal point(s). It makes me feel like I am there viewing the garden. The second picture (377) does this to a lesser extent with the viewer next to the cherry tree. I find it a bit hard to know what to look at in this more complex picture, but it does make me stop and look.

I try to engage in this kind of thinking when I photograph but sometimes find myself in a rut – repeating the same tricks. Thanks for giving me more to think about.

Every photo does say something a bit different and each has its own use. At one point when I was first imagining a GGW garden photo lesson, I considered using just one photo to remind readers to use a focal point, such as the container, as a compositional tool both for photography and design. I realized there are lots of different views of this one focal point and my essay became somewhat of a cop-out, not knowing how to pick the strongest angle. – Saxon

Joanne September 26, 2009, 5:35 pm

Thank you for such an interesting post. One winter’s day I must spend time reading back through your blog and pick up more tips.

The final photo appeals to me but that’s the framing and feeling of entering a secret garden and being enticed in that always has appeal for me. I also like 0388 because of the balance, which is strange because my garden is anything but balanced just a profusion or jumble of flowers at best.

As Kathy in Napa has suggested, I should put all these posts into a guide – but I could never sell it if all of you just went back to old posts :->

While good bones and structure are important to many good garden photographs, even a jumble can have enormous appeal to me. I have a whole series of photos I call garden tapestries that are only texture and color. But they only look good on a large screen so I may never write about them here. Hmmm , I am just getting an idea …. Saxon

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