Vantage Point – Looking Up

– Posted in: Garden Photography

norfolk island pine, Sometimes we photographers get stuck.  We are out looking for photos and just can’t seem to find anything special.  Often, seeing the garden is just a matter of slowing down and thinking about what it is that excites us.  Other times we just need to shake up our point of view.

As you look around, try looking up, straight up, especially if you have trees.  Photos underneath, looking up, give a sense of majesty.  They force you and the viewer to re-think scale and dimension.

Recently I have been preparing for an exhibit of prehistoric plants at the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers and looking for images that, when blown up 10 feet tall, will make the visitors feel they are enveloped in a new environment.

As I search for prehistoric plants (those dating before the evolution of flowers) such as the Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria heterophylla) pictured above in Lotusland in Santa Barbara, I got a lot of experience (and neck strain) while looking up at trees. Here is a bit of what I learned.

First you really need a wide angle lens.  Since I wanted all my photos to be horizontal I used a very wide angle lens, between 14 – 24mm in all cases.  Not only does a wide lens obviously allow you to see a lot of the tree,  the optical distortion of a wide lens can really help create a powerful composition with converging lines of trunks, branches, and foliage.

You must use a tripod.  I say this all the time in all my classes and it is especially true for careful composition.  In these photos, being sure the verticals are indeed strait up is absolutely vital.  And some photos will show a bit of foreground and horizon lines, like this group of tree ferns in Golden Gate Park.

fern golden gate park

Without a tripod, a sloppy crop would completely defeat the purpose of the photo.  And, of course, a tripod allows for a steady camera during the longer exposure time needed for more depth of field.

Sometimes searching for a vantage point to look up requires getting close to the ground first.  Cycads are some of the oldest and most photogenic plants we will include in the exhibit.  But they are slow growing and even the most mature specimens I found at The Huntington Botanical Garden were no taller than 8 – 10 feet.

Modjadji Cycad, Encephalartos transvenosus

I am not sure we will use this fairly tight shot of a Modjadji Cycad, Encephalartos transvenosus, but it well illustrates looking up at a plant to find its special characteristics, though I had to set my tripod all the way to the ground to get this view   With apologies to my rock garden friends, almost every garden will have some plants that will be made extraordinary by getting under them and looking up.

For the exhibit we wanted to include the giant redwoods, especially since they are native to California.  For those photos I got to go to Muir Woods right here in my own Marin County where the trees are taller than a football field.

redwood trees, muir woods

OK, maybe no-one has anything this big in their garden, but the vantage point of looking up creates the towering view.

There are a few other pointers and camera controls to consider in choosing which specimens will make the best photos and I will cover that in another lesson, but the important thing to remember here is not to get yourself stuck looking straight ahead at your garden at eye level.  Find a new point of view.

Another point of view can be belly shots of things close to the ground.  I posted about photographing small bulbs here at Gardening Gone Wild 3 years ago (can it be that long ago ?!)

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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CathyA March 8, 2012, 12:51 pm

Those photos are breath-taking! I love inspiration from above.

“inspiration from above” love it. Thanks for stopping by – Saxon

Peter March 8, 2012, 2:18 pm

These are gorgeous! I especially like your clues. The telephoto and wide angle lenses add so much.

Peter – it is interesting you mention telephoto lens, as none of these used one. BUT, little did I say I actually shot a couple of these scenes piecemeal using a longer lens, in jigsaw puzzle fashion that I will piece together later with a stiching tool. This not only gives me a bigger file to work with for the huge prints but corrects some of the distortion. – Saxon

Fran Sorin March 8, 2012, 11:19 pm

saxon….each time I scrolled down to another photo I thought it was my favorite. All are informative and inspiring. You’ve now motivated me to shoot old eucalyptus trees from the ground looking up. My tripod only goes down to table height but I think I might be able to still get it! Fran

Thanks Fran. Any tripod will do. Eucalyptus don’t strike me as particularly photogenic – with odd branch structure. Be sure to look for specimens that fill the frame with complimentary shapes. – Saxon

Donna March 9, 2012, 7:57 am

Saxon, like Fran, each image was my favorite all the way until the last. But seriously, the last image is THE best. I have been looking at wide angle lens to find one I could handle as I hear they are very difficult if the are at the extreme. I use a Nikon and their FX lens are very expensive. Nikon suggested a 17-35mm so I have the correct lens when I upgrade from a DX camera. Do you have any suggestion if this lens is hard to use or what might be better for me not having photography as my occupation. I shoot a lot of trees by looking straight up and they do look much better with a wide lens. Plus, living at Niagara Falls, I bet I could get those ‘epic’ wide shots so much better.

I also have a 8 foot Norfolk Pine (in my house) and had no idea it was a prehistoric plant. I will give it a little more tender care and respect now.

Donna – In truth there are lots of “prehistoric” plants – those that evolved before flowers, and many conifers are among them. The Norfolk Island Pine (not a true pine) is simply a cool looking plant and unusual enough to make an impact for the exhibit.

As to lens choices, I don’t think of wide angle lenses as difficult and use them a lot for my landscape work. One does need to be careful if “at the extreme” you mean distortion. Unless I want to use the keystoning distortion for effect, like looking up at trees, I try to only use the widest lenses (17-24) when I shoot strait on to my subjects. There is less distortion when the image plane is exactly perpendicular to the subject. – Saxon

Ian Cooke March 10, 2012, 4:46 am

What’s the technique with photographing trees against a light sky? So often either the green crown of the tree looks dark and lacks interest or the sky is bleached out? Any tips?

Ian – In almost all garden photos, where I usually suggest photographing in soft light, the sky will be “bleached out”. Not only do I look for soft skies, I expose the camera for the garden, leading to even more overexposure and bleaching the sky. I think this is a good thing when photographing trees looking up and you have to find a crown pattern that is interesting and contributes to your composition.

If you like the blue sky in an upward looking tree scene, there are several ways to get it. On blue sky day find an isolated tree without busy competing trees and shoot when the sun is fairly low and behind you so the light can illuminate the sides of the tree and the blue sky comes thru beyond. If you are adept at special effects you can play with a post production, computer technique called HDR, which takes a scene with High Dynamic Range, merges several exposures and if done well, gives you the best of both worlds. – Saxon

Cathy March 10, 2012, 8:35 am

Lovely shots. I love the giant redwoods. We’ve planted several Dawn Redwoods (Metasequoia) in our yard here in the Midwest … some from seed I got from my dad’s tree.

Another interesting perspective and actually some shots I took yesterday was looking up from the ground into my Helleborus.

Dawn Redwoods are fantastic (also prehistoric) trees and have the benefit of fall foliage. If you were able to get down under your Hellebores you are a whole lot more agile than me. I am truly envious of those photographers who can put themselves in those positions. – Saxon

Donna March 10, 2012, 8:46 am

Thank you for the lens advice and getting perpendicular to the subject. I know there will be learning curve, especially how I frame a subject and at what distance too. I took me a while to get used to a macro lens, so I guess the same patience and diligence will apply.

Donna – a great hint to you as a loyal reader: Use the widest part of your wide lens to create panoramas. Be darn sure to level the lens perpendicular to your long horizontal scene and pre-visualize how you will crop it in the computer later. Shhh – don’t give away this secret. – Saxon

Janis March 11, 2012, 9:06 am

Wonderful, Saxon. Especially when it comes to grand old trees, with or without a camera there are delightful moments to be had – by looking up! So yet again, your fine photography leads to new ways to see and be in this world. Thank you.

Janis – Thanks for stopping by. I think simply going out “in this world” leades to new ways of seeing it. Photographing may be another matter. 🙂

— Saxon

hydropros March 13, 2012, 8:55 pm

Great advice! I love old trees! wonderful write up and thanks for sharing!

Thanks hydro – old tree have so much character and ‘presence’. They easily inspire. – Saxon

Ian Cooke March 14, 2012, 10:51 am

Saxon – thanks for the advice – I’ll give it all a try. My son is studying photography at Uni so I’ll ask him about HDR!

…and if you or he get adept at HDR, please share your secrets. I have not been happy with my results to date. – Saxon

Candy Suter March 14, 2012, 9:20 pm

Beautiful shot Saxon! I do this quite often! I also like to catch the sun behind a large branch so the ray’s peek out! It looks so cool!

Whenever you can find enough haze to make those rays really pop out it is magical. – Saxon

Frankie Dawson March 21, 2012, 11:30 am

Great pictures! The last image has to be my favourite, made me feel like I was about 1 cm tall. Great way to capture the powerfulness, strength and stature of trees.

Thanks Frankie – Seems that redwood tree photo is everyone’s favorite; perhaps because they were truly some of the the tallest trees in the world. – Saxon

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