Garden Photo Shoots

– Posted in: Garden Adventures

My garden, near San Diego, has been in Better Homes & Gardens, Sunset and the San Diego Union-Tribune, among others. Sunset was the first. I interested them by sending the editor this shot of my succulent sitting area. 

Sunset sent garden photographer Claire Curran who arrived with an assistant and a van full of equipment. We decided not to use the plaid tablecloth and substituted a solid-colored one. Claire agreed that Lily (my West Highland white terrier) and Mickey (my shih-tsu) would be cute in the background, on a bench beyond the table.

As the afternoon wore on, Claire was still not satisfied—she had her assistant move pots and tableware an inch at a time to compose the perfect shot. Mickey fell asleep. Lily, however, sat alertly on the bench for nearly an hour.

Lily knows when she’s working, and intently awaits instructions from her Pack Leader. I stood behind Claire so Lily would appear to be looking into the camera. One reason I have a white dog is that her nose and eyes show up in photos. I also like a terrier’s pert triangular ears. My shih-tsu is a sweetie, but is all rounded lines.

Despite our efforts, Sunset didn’t like the photos. They decided they didn’t want the table set for outdoor dining. The dogs were adorable but too far away to show up if the photo ran small. So Claire came back to reshoot the garden, at dawn, in the sweet light of early morning. The empty rectangle beyond her was once a rose garden, and shortly after Claire’s visit it became a succulent tapestry.

The story appeared in Sunset magazine in 2003. I wrote the accompanying text in the first person, explaining how the sitting area had been dug into a steep slope, and around the retaining wall were aeoniums, graptopetalums and other succulents that would cascade. The effect is that of sitting in a succulent half-wreath.

The same story, revised by Sunset’s editors, later appeared in Sunset’s Garden Makeovers (2004).

By the time Andrea Caughey, regional scout for Meredith publications (Better Homes & Gardens), visited the garden in 2005, the succulent tapestry had filled in and looked great. She sent her editors scouting shots of it, as well as of the succulent sitting area and of a large pot I had encircled with a necklace of broken china.

On the day of the shoot, Andrea and photographer Dominique Vorillon and his assistant got here before dawn.  Here, Andrea consults her notes as Vorillon shoots the tapestry.  His assistant is holding a light meter.

Writer Megan McConnell Hughes, working from Vorillon’s photos, interviewed me over the phone from Iowa (BH&G doesn’t do first-person stories).  After the story ran in BH&G it was reprinted in one of Meredith’s Special Interest Publications.

The article included a sidebar that shows how I make necklaces for pots. Oddly enough, Vorillon preferred to work barefoot.

Recently, Howard Lipin of the San Diego Union-Tribune shot a story about my garden and succulents. Karen Dardick wrote the main article, and I provided a first-person sidebar with tips for growing the plants in the San Diego area.

After Howard photographed me with Lily, I handed him my camera.

My own photos of my garden have appeared in San Diego Home/Garden magazine, Flower Gardens (ironic, I know), and other publications.  The “Debra’s Garden” page of my website has this photo, among others.

The garden also is in my two books, Designing with Succulents (2007) and Succulent Container Gardens (2010).  In 2008 I painted the table to repeat the coloration and lines of the variegated agave in the center of the tapestry.

So now you know my secret, though it’s easier said than done: In order to get editors interested in your garden, or for that matter, readers interested in your book or blog, offer great ideas—preferably that no one else has done—that photograph well.

My goal is to share the beauty of waterwise, easy-care succulents in gardens, containers and landscapes via blog postsnewsletterspublic speaking and workshopsphotosvideosmerchandise, and social media (Facebook and Pinterest). My books: Designing with Succulents, Succulent Container Gardensand Succulents Simplified. 

Debra Lee Baldwin
Award-winning garden photojournalist Debra Lee Baldwin authored Designing with Succulents, Succulent Container Gardens, and Succulents Simplified, all Timber Press bestsellers. Her goal is to enhance others' enjoyment and awareness of waterwise plants and gardens by showcasing the beauty and design potential of succulents via books, articles, newsletters, photos, videos, social media and more. Debra's YouTube channel has had over 3,000,000 views.
Debra Lee Baldwin
Debra Lee Baldwin
Debra Lee Baldwin

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Lisa at Greenbow May 21, 2010, 5:52 am

Sometimes I wish I lived in a climate where I could have such a wide variety of succulents growing. I so enjoy seeing yours. I have a white dog too. She shows up well in the garden. However she doesn’t like to have her photo taken. I have to try for candid pictures to get her with her ears up.

I meow to get Lily to look alert with ears up and head cocked. But if I overdo it, she starts bouncing around and barking. Debra

MAYBELLINE May 21, 2010, 11:30 am

Excellent post.
Lovely pups.

Thanks! Debra

Gail May 21, 2010, 11:47 am

Looks like a fun way to spend some time and pick up photography tips, too. gail

I owe all I know about photography to the professional photographers I observed as a freelance writer specializing in gardening and design. Debra

donna May 21, 2010, 1:30 pm

The truly sad part is your photos are so much better than the professionals. The ones you shot actually make me want to visit your garden…. the others just look like those typical garden magazine photos. I’ve come to practically ignore them all.

Modesty aside, I have to agree, Donna. I don’t think it’s because my technique is better than theirs…I know it isn’t…but I do think my choice of subject matter is better. Perhaps that’s because I understand my garden’s nuances, and aim to go beyond the ordinary. Debra

Seasonal Wisdom May 21, 2010, 3:06 pm

Debra: I loved this post with its behind-the-scenes information about what goes on during a magazine photo shoot. Your garden is so delightful, I bet Sunset came back the next morning because they couldn’t resist one more peek… Regards, Teresa

Thanks, Teresa. But trust me, photographers never want to have to redo an assignment! Debra

Pam/Digging May 21, 2010, 5:28 pm

I cut out that article about the pot necklaces years ago and made one of my own! That was way before I “knew” you, Debra, and I was so surprised to read this post and realize that was you and your garden. I’m sure I still have the torn-out pages in my idea book. Too funny. I enjoyed this post about how you helped your garden become “famous.”

Hi, Pam — No kidding! What a delightful coincidence. Those pot necklaces seem like a lifetime ago. I didn’t make many because the holes had to be drilled with a dremmel, and the edges of the broken china pieces had to be sanded so they weren’t sharp. Also, for a pot to hold a necklace, it has to have a waist, and I don’t like using pots with that shape because they have to be broken at repotting time if a plant’s roots won’t slide out easily. Still, it’s a cool idea, especially if you’re into mosaic and want to do something a little different (and impermanent). Btw, that large Italian terracotta pot in my garden still has its necklace, and visitors new to the garden exclaim when they see it.

M&J Buckner May 22, 2010, 4:39 am

Have to agree with donna ~ love your photos. They are real not contrived. Thanks for the behind the scene peek.
Hi, Joyce — Thank you! Nice to receive praise from The Succulent Babe. Debra

private May 22, 2010, 9:02 am

What a beautiful garden. You must have heard that before, although it never gets old.

I prefer your first shot – the soft pattern of the tablecloth emphasizes the wilder forms and less controlled patterns of the succulents. And the softer green in the foreground is soothing and a mellowing presence (like my mom.) Gorgeous.

Thank you! But I can see now, when looking at it, that it’s not Sunset. It’s funny how you lose objectivity when it comes to your own garden. Debra

meredith french May 22, 2010, 2:00 pm

Hello Deborah – Very interesting and good information for self proclaimed photographers out there. Most have no idea what goes into producing a photograph for publication. Hand held point and shoot on automatic and voila! They are professional photographers over night. I might submit my habitat garden evolution….you have inspired me. Meredith

And you inspire me! Debra

Saxon May 22, 2010, 4:25 pm

Hmmm – I like your own, very first shot best of all. A little horizon line correction, tone down the highlights and it is better than those hired guns who where no doubt paid too much. Who needs the pro !?

Well, evidently I do, because I have no idea how to “tone down the highlights.” Saxon, sometimes I get lucky with my shots, but no question you’re light years ahead of me. There’s so much I don’t know, and lack the time, determination and aptitude to learn. Debra

Lois J. de Vries May 23, 2010, 8:28 am

Hi Debra,

Lucky you to be shooting in San Diego with your mild, even temps. Every shoot I’ve ever been on in NJ has been in the 90s with 98% humidity 🙂 .


Hi, Lois — Truth be told, temps are anything but mild in my garden much of the year. Despite being in Southern CA, it is too far inland to benefit from the moderating influence of the ocean. It starts heating up in June and stays unpleasantly hot (except late in the day, when it’s too shadowy to take good photos) through September. Debra

healingmagichands May 23, 2010, 12:01 pm

I’m with the crowd, I also liked the first shot the best. I am in awe of your dog’s ability to sit for hours attentively. I’m afraid most photos of Ruby are best taken immediately, otherwise the shots soon are of her face right in the camera. . .”Whatcha doin’ Mom?”

Your succulent gardens are absolutely wonderful, I can’t have that sort of variety in this zone but I’m doing the best I can over in my rock garden.

I have often wondered what you have to do to get a magazine interested in your place as I look around the stroll garden project and think it would be a worthy subject. But then, I’d have to pursue it all, probably even read the magazines involved. I guess I’ll have to live without fame. I didn’t really create the gardens at The Havens for “the world”, but for the pleasure of the owners and abiders within.

Ha! Lily is a stubborn little terrier, too flighty to be easily trained, but I was determined. The neighbors doubtless got tired of hearing me holler, “Bad dog!” “Good girl!” “Lily, COME!” every evening for weeks on end. I also trained her not to leave the garden—i.e. go under the split rail fence that surrounds it. But for most of her youth (she’s now 11 and has finally attained canine perfection) she ran to the fence and gazed longingly beyond it. Debra

Jay Chua May 25, 2010, 6:02 am

Hi Debra,

I wish I were right at your garden now. I beg everyone who visited your yard will be very jeolous of what you have to offer 🙂

The photos are very well taken as well. It did inspire me to put more hardwork to re-docorate my garden

Hi, Jay — Like most people, I tell visitors what’s wrong with my garden. See if you don’t do it yourself. You find yourself pointing out what is in the works or looked much better earlier. It’s because all gardens are works in progress, never perfect…except possibly during the few brief hours of a photo shoot. Debra

Jay Chua

Andrea May 25, 2010, 10:22 am

Congratulations for your success both on the garden, the dogs, and most of all the photography. I envy people who photographs well. That’s why i am trying very hard now to study my camera, despite the work and chores. Your post is so educational and very inspiring. Thank you so much.

Hi, Andrea — Photography is such an exhilarating, creative process, full of delightful surprises—not unlike gardening. Debra

Carolyn Parker May 25, 2010, 5:27 pm

What a total treat– you really captured me Debra. I’m amazed at all the reflectors the photog set up. All your shots are excellent– the necklace is dramatic and lovely– the Cal poppy is a sunny heaven, and the angle on your table re-do is very effective.

Hi, Carolyn — Thank you. Yes, Claire had tons of equipment; the other photographers didn’t bring nearly as much. Debra

liz morten May 30, 2010, 11:51 am

I used to be a garden docent at the Huntington Botanical Gardens. You’ve made your own mini succulent collection. The hummingbirds love the blooming agaves in Jan. Have you been?

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