Working the Scene

– Posted in: Garden Photography

I have been working in Seattle recently and I always drop by the Bellevue Botanic Garden, knowing great photos are to be found.  Walking around the groundcovers garden I came upon this scene.

path in Bellevue groundcover garden

path in Bellevue groundcover garden

My photographer’s radar switched to acute knowing this was a scene to be worked, to savor, to discover a special photograph.  Let’s analyze.

Right away I note the upright flowering spikes of Stachys byzantina are at the edge of the path, isolated from any distraction.  There is a slight incline so I can easily get my camera and tripod at plant level.  With a medium telephoto lens I can fill up the frame from a low angle some few feet away.

flowering Lamb's Ears

flowering Lamb's Ears

When I composed this picture I simply framed up the most important elements of the original scene:  the path with the nice boulder, the flowering Stachys, and the wonderful charteuse foliage of golden oregano.  But I know there is more; I am working the scene.  Note the nice strong design element of the multi-trunked Japanese full moon maple tree.  I have used it as a compositional element in the upper right.  Now I will try to use it more dramatically.

Stachys in front of maple

Stachys in front of maple

I come around the scene a bit to put the flower spikes of the Lamb’s Ears right in front of the maple trunks, meanwhile obscuring the boulder.  As a vertical photo both elements now work together, and there is the added bonus of the angled tree trunks, adding a visual ray effect,  pulling the eye into the photograph.  Using a telephoto lens, I have sandwiched the design elements together but have left the background out of focus just enough so that the center of attention is the gray foliage Stachys.

Ah, but let’s not forget the other plant that grabbed my eye when I turned the corner of the groundcover garden.

Golden oregano groundcover

Golden oregano groundcover

The bright foliage of Golden Oregano (Origanum vulgare ‘Aureum’ ) makes a striking photo especially when paired up with the gray foliage of the Stachys.  I have paired the two plants together in the compostion, not simply to show off the contrasting foliage colors but to give the viewer a sense of scale in how to use the plants.  Also, I draw your attention to a classic composition technique, the “rule of thirds”.  The photo is composed with a balance of 1/3  and 2/3 which for many eyes is a naturally pleasing proportion.

Now I come around to the top of the path and look back down, framing the gray lamb’s ears in front of the mass of chartreuse.

Flowering Stachys - Lamb's Ears

Flowering Stachys - Lamb's Ears

The camera alway’s lies – one might think there was a sea of golden oregano groundcover.  Careful framing makes this possible.  That, and spending enough time working the scene to see the possibilities.  Look back at the first photo to remember how we got to this point.

When you stumble across a photo opportunity,  spend a little time with it, distilling the essence and frame out the distractions.  Let the camera tell the story that you want it to tell.

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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Ellen Zachos June 23, 2009, 7:42 am

A whole photography class in a single post, thanks Saxon. Today I’ll try to slow down and take time to see.

Thanks for dropping by Ellen. Taking the time to see is more important that what kind of gear one uses, for even if the photo does not turn out especially well you, the photographer, have been enriched by the scene. – Saxon

Dave June 23, 2009, 8:36 am

Very neat scene and great tips! That staircase made of stone really draws the eye to the scene making the observer look closer at the other elements.

Dave – the stone steps are exactly what first drew my attention to the scene. – Saxon

healingmagichands June 23, 2009, 9:27 am

That was a great little tutorial, I’m always looking for tips on how to get better pictures. Now, I am struggling with the digital camera trying to figure out exactly what settings I should be using to get the background to be more out of focus at times. So far, I am not completely in control of this aspect, and I’m finding it very frustrating.

If you could just tell me how to get the danged birds to sit still long enough to frame a shot, that would be great too!

Oh man, don’t ask me to photograph critters. I once photographed a butterfly story and used preserved specimens placed awkwardly on the flowers… – Saxon

Darla June 23, 2009, 10:14 am

Great eye!

Thanks Darla. It takes a great garden sometimes to help the eye see… – Saxon

Debra Lee Baldwin June 23, 2009, 10:55 am

I always learn so much for you! Love the “ray effect,” rule of thirds and sea of oregano. It’s hard for me to leave big empty spaces in my photographs, I’m so conditioned to centering the focal point. Were you shooting in bright overcast? Thanks for a very useful post.

Thanks Debra Lee. Use those empty spaces to help design the rest of the composition – negative space is good sometimes. Yes, it was an overcast Seattle morning. – Saxon

Lisa at Greenbow June 23, 2009, 4:36 pm

Saxon, I always learn so much with your tutorials. Now I often ask myself what do I want to show/say with my photo. That little question sometimes opens a dfferent way to think about a subject.

Lisa – Glad they are useful and that at least one person is taking the advice to heart. Once the “grab” shot or documentation photo is done, analyzing what you are seeing will always make a better photo. – Saxon

Kathy in Napa June 23, 2009, 10:35 pm

Saxon, as usual your experience and easy to understand explanations add a new element to my photo education every time. I went to Berkeley Botanical G’s two weeks ago (it was overcast thank god) and was pleased with my results. I’m still on the auto settings though -time to practice off the bunny slopes.
I will also mention that a certain team is the best in the bigs, and another is performing surpriseingly thanks to some fine pitching.

Hey Kathy – the auto settings on many decent cameras do quite well. It is more important to think about what you are seeing than camera technique. and when that certain team begins to falter I will be sure to be on your case… Saxon

Susan Cohan June 26, 2009, 3:31 pm

Thank you so much for this. A great description about how the visual choices we make affect the outcome in different ways.

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