Prairie Delights part 2

– Posted in: Garden Photography, Garden Visits

I am supposed to editing all the photos I took of gardens while I was in Minnesota working with Evelyn Hadden on her “Lose Your Lawn” book.   But I just can’t get those prairies off my mind.

Crow-Hassan Prairie Reserve

I do promise to bring this post back around to garden photography at the end.  This is a gardening blog after all.  Framing and composition are the theme today.  No matter what sort of landscape we photograph, our own garden or God’s, composition may be the most important element in deciding what we want to say, in what we want the viewer not to see.

There should be no wasted space in the composition. Even the negative space has purpose, sometimes as simple as creating balance.

The lead photo of Crow-Hassan Prairie near Minneapolis was taken from a vantage point that shows a wonderfully diverse ecosystem, from an expanse of soon-to-be blooming Goldenrod, across a wet depression with Wool grass and willows, and on beyond to the prairie with Canadian Rye, Big Bluestem, and Verbascum – Mulleins which are most noticeable by the dead, year old stalks.

The composition allows the darker woodland to frame the edge of the prairie and the photograph, and helps tell the story of where this ecosystem exists.  The sky area is actually negative space in context of framing the picture, adding balance to the other shapes and color blocks.  As always, I use a tripod to frame exactly the composition I want.

But there is a lot more going on.  As I circled and sauntered through this meadow I was feeling something else.  The dark lines of the dead Mullein….

Mullein stalks in the prairie

These dark stalks are like punctuation marks, like notes on a score, brush strokes on a canvas.  Their stiff vertical lines are graphic elements and offer a fantastic counterpoint to the delicate nodding flowers of the Canadian Rye (Elymus canadense).  I know there is a great picture here somewhere.

I am now moving really slowly, inch by inch, eyes wide open, waiting to find just the right composition.  As I move I am watching the dark slashes as they line up in 3 dimensions, knowing ultimately I must work in 2.

Consider the framing.  What do I want to say?  Hmmm…..

Oh! Of course.  Frame it as a strong horizontal.

mullein stalks in the prairie

The dark lines are made stronger by elongating the frame, while the message of a new season’s vibrant display becomes exuberant, fresh, and airy in comparison to last year’s dead flowers.  Most important, to making the picture one to keep looking at, is a subtle trick of composition that uses the thin dark lines to create spaces within spaces – and cropping to have no wasted area that might reduce the impact.

It’s exciting to find compositions with complex patterns, but the real lesson here is don’t forget you have a cropping tool for when you get the image back to the computer.  The frame of the camera is not the frame you have to use.

How am I going to bring this back to garden photography ?

Look for vertical dark lines in your own garden photographs to create spaces within spaces.  As you study a scene, consider all the elements and use only what you need.

garden wall covered with boston ivy

I came across this picture today looking for an autumn themed photo for an upcoming Garden Conservancy program.  Aha!  Look at those posts, how they frame the wall covered with Boston Ivy, how they create spaces within spaces.  Notice the entire frame is used.  I cropped about 10% off the original.

Is it just me, or do you see a strong compositional resemblance to the mullein photo?

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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6 Comments… add one

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Donna August 24, 2010, 4:53 pm

This was a great post. I liked that you explained the process of the composition and getting the image that you wanted to convey. What camera/lens do you use for the shots above? I hope you do more posts like this one.

Donna – Check all my past posts under the Category “The Camera Always Lies” to find many posts describing my process. I use a Canon 5D and various lenses. I often start with wide lenses to capture the entire scene, then move in either physically getting closer or putting on a telephoto lens as I see the details. The final shot here was shot with a telephoto to compress the graphic elements. – Saxon

professorroush August 24, 2010, 7:08 pm

Yes, the vertical Boston Ivy does share a similarity with the mullein. Nice educational discussion.

Glad you saw it ! – Saxon

Town Mouse August 25, 2010, 10:55 pm

Seems like I always crop, and sometimes I even crop without staying within the traditional photo dimensions.

So, is that allowed? What do you think. Can I forget about the 2×3 ratio every once in a while?

(Like the Vertical idea BTW, was just playing with that thought recently. Did not want to remove a stake in the garden because I liked the extra dimension).

No rules when it comes to creative photography. What ever gets you excited. My friend and great garden photographer, Allan Mandel, has a whole series of photos with no edges, that blur into the paper at crazy angles – Saxon

healingmagichands August 26, 2010, 7:53 pm

I like reading about the process, too. What I really enjoy is the fact that you stalk your photographs almost the way a hunter goes after game. And that you have a slow, contemplative search for the image you want sometimes, in contrast to the frantic chase after light that you have talked about in previous posts. The whole revelation of the process makes me enjoy your work even more.

The way you capture gardens and meadows is very inspiring, at least to this gardener.

Thanks for the kind words from someone who has reads enough of the posts to know each situation is a little different and the photographer must be aware of all the senses and try to work with the intuitionof the moment. – Saxon

Kathy in Napa August 26, 2010, 11:52 pm

Saxon, great tutorial as usual. I find myself drawn to vertical elements quite often-the majority of my photos are taken with the camera held vertically, and I am trying to concentrate on getting more horizontal shots-I guess it’s the way I see things. In fact, I try to ignore the vertical arrangement of the NL West. An exercise in futility .

Eszter September 9, 2010, 4:10 am

Hi Saxon! It was interesting to read how you work with the image. What tripod do you use?

My Gitzo tripod was stolen earlier this year and when I went to replace it I was determined to get a lighter, carbon fiber model. The Gitzo was so expensive I bought an Indiro instead -still not an inexpensive option. Equally important to a good tripod is the head on which the camera rests. The head can be as expensive as the tripod. I swear by ball heads, also have a new Induro (replacing my old Manfroto) and wishing I could afford the ones from Really Right Stuff. – Saxon

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