Get Inside the Garden

– Posted in: Garden Photography, Garden Photography

Think Like a Gardener – Design and Shape.                                                                               The PhotoBotanic Garden Photography Workshop – Lesson 3.1


The formal design of Filoli Garden fills the space with precision.


Finding your own style as a garden photographer begins with your own understanding of gardens. Think like the gardener within, then get inside the garden to find your photo.

This lesson in The PhotoBotanic Garden Photography Workshop is about Design and Space.  In earlier lessons we talked about design and space as it relates to the composition of a photograph, how to fill the camera frame (space) with a pleasing composition (design).  Here we look at the gardens themselves.  Now we will be looking at themes and assignments for you when you go out with the camera.



The long wide path around this house allows space for plants.


Every garden has a theme, accidental or purposeful, well maintained or a mess. It fits into its surroundings, somehow.  This fit is the design, how it occupies the space it lives in.  It is a big part of the story of any good garden photograph.

As you look at a garden you intend to photograph, think about how it is put together and what is working for you.  Think about what is it saying to you, a gardener yourself, in that moment of inspiration.  The design may be obvious, it might be renowned, you may know the gardener, or it may be your own garden (which will make this lesson easier). There are design features that you will recognize because you are a gardener and your experience is telling you something.  Creative juices are flowing because your style is responding to the design in front of you.


Purple Muhly Grass fills this entire space as a lawn substitute.

This is how you develop your own photographic style.  This is how you go beyond simply snapping a picture of a garden, to telling a story about what you see.

Trust your own judgement in what story you want to tell and get inside the garden to make the photo.  Immerse yourself.  “Get inside the garden” was the best advice I ever received from a photo editor.  It forces you to concentrate on a single idea rather than grabbing a shot that tries to do too much.


In the garden of Linda Cochran this ornamental pampass grass is beautifully sited in side the garden so that it is a focal point from any part of the garden.

When you think about the story you see, use your own sense of garden design, 0n top of the literal design in front of you.  What is it that works for you. Is it the clever use of space?  The placement of trees juxtaposed for framing the garden ? Is it the borrowed scenery from a neighboring garden or landscape, is it the arrangement of bed and borders within the space?  Are there garden rooms ?

(The lesson breaks here.  In the e-book version of these lessons, you will be asked to subscribe to my new blog or to purchase the 6 lesson chapter of the book.  For Gardening Gone Wild readers, and for now, the lesson continues but I would ask readers to comment on paying to continue.  In principle, price to be determined, would you pay to follow the lesson?  Has the free part of the lesson up to here been enough to satisfy a bit of your time or are you willing to pay for more ?  Will you simply wait for the e-book and read the lessons then ?)

Now, let’s get back into gardens.  We were just about to look into garden shapes and designs as the lesson assignment.


This mixed border dominates the patio space – that is the story.

Often the message you get from the space is exactly what the designer intended, other times you will find your own insight that communicates your own understanding of gardens. Don’t be afraid to concentrate on the one idea as you understand it, and go make a photo that tells that story, your interpretation of the garden.


The entry to Michelle Derviss’ garden is not just about the gate, it’s entering into an eclectic cottage garden.

When you go to make the picture, get inside it.  Commit to it, work it, make it happen.  Sometimes, paradoxically, getting inside the photo may mean stepping away from the space.  A garden room is better defined by being outside the room looking in.  A pathway connecting parts of a garden is better described by backing away from the various parts so you can better show how the path is inside the garden.


In Sally Robertson’s garden the path neatly divides the space creating a stroll garden.

The point of view you take with your camera should lead the eye into the space, frame the space (see Point of View Lesson 2.4), tell your viewer something about the design.  It really can mean retreating away to the edges of the garden so that you can find elements that frame your composition and guide the eye into the space.

In the next photo of this little backyard sustainable garden, I crammed myself into the very corner of the garden where the back fences came together behind the chicken coop.


Jennifer Carlson’s garden with rainwater cistern, compost, chickens, and organic berries.

Looking out from this farthest point, I was able to use as many elements l could to bring you “inside” the design.

Here, next, is a story of interconnected garden rooms. I backed out of one room, got “inside” the tree framing a path, so that the room could be recognized with a bit of intimacy.


In this tiny garden below, in a narrow front yard, I made it seem bigger by getting down low into (inside) the meadow, while still showing how the garden filled the space.


All these examples were based on how “I” saw the design, the story I wanted to tell. The gardens were not necessarily intended to tell my story – but I’m the photographer.  I get to tell my story.

This is really the fun part of being a garden photographer. I love gardens – we all do.   We understand them in our own ways.  They are spaces artfully occupied by plants and we can get very excited about communicating the art we see.  It is not simply about having a camera while in a garden and taking a random picture.

Plants and hedges framing the garden designs at Digging Dog Nursery

Plants and hedges framing the garden designs at Digging Dog Nursery

Recognize this love of gardens that you have in yourself to take better pictures.  You don’t have to have any formal training in garden design to recognize beauty.  Whatever the inspiration you find to take a picture in a garden, put it in context of the space and you will be a better garden photographer.



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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12 Comments… add one

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cynth March 27, 2013, 11:30 pm

I have been to Digging Dog Nursery and the gardens are truly engaging, Especially the views through the clipped hornbeam hedges. Plus they have great staff and excellent plants.

Cynth – I have used the nursery and Gary Ratway’s designs to inspire many a photo lesson. He really know how to use Hornbeams ! More photos in my PhotoBotanic Archive – Thanks — Saxon

Gareth March 28, 2013, 2:00 am

Great advice thank you !! I particularly like the purple muhly grass photo!

Thanks Gareth. As soon as I saw the way that Muhly was used, I knew it had to be a photo that showed off the space, a block of color that is too often a boring green lawn. – Saxon

Donna March 28, 2013, 8:50 am

Yes Saxon, I would pay to continue, based on price of course. I have bought e-books from a few other photographers, and they are very helpful, as is the free info you post here. But what is vastly different is that these photographers, even though photographing gardens, are not gardeners. One is a naturalist another a nature photographer.

The real key to good photographing of gardens is being from both realms as are you. You mentioned in the post, “There are design features that you will recognize because you are a gardener…” While true for some, it is often not true for many. They might like what they are seeing, but not understand why. I think you try to tell them the design principles on occasion and that helps immensely.

Like you said, “Get inside the garden”, it means much more than physically, it means mentally if not much more. Understanding how a design works helps to photograph it. It is like with wildlife, the more you know, the better you anticipate. Not just actions, but in gardens – growth, reaction to light, setting, composition, massing, scale, juxtaposition etc., many factors come into play knowing what, how and when helps better understanding to get desired results. Even why? Why can be a really important question to ask.

Well anyway, I am off on a tangent here. Yes, I definitely would buy an e-book, and as for a paying site, it really is based on affordability. If you do it like here, with the abstract or even the beginning of the article, and if what is written makes one want more, YES.

Donna – Thanks for your thoughtful comments, as usual. (Have you noticed the site is running more quickly ? Thanks again…)

I hope you are right that there is a large audience of photographers for my e-book that are not gardeners and who don’t have that experience to draw on when they are shooting in a garden. My hope however is that they will begin to appreciate gardens, love them the way we do, become better photographers of gardens and thus spread the word about the importance of gardens through their work. Yes, many a lovely photo is taken in gardens by non gardeners – eye candy that I am awed and humbled by myself; and that will always be so. But while my own hope with this work is certainly to help any photographer make better photographs in a garden, I genuinely hope to expand the appreciation of gardens that will happen as better photos get spread around, better photos that include a conscious understanding of what makes a garden work. – Saxon

Jason March 28, 2013, 12:01 pm

I have to say, my two favorite photos on this post are the ones with the pink Muhly grass and the one with the alliums and path. Gorgeous! My wife is the photographer in our house, I would have to ask her regarding what she would pay for. We are planning to attend your workshop at the garden bloggers’ fling.

Thanks Jason – The e-book will certainly be ready by then, but be forewarned about the workshop at the garden bloggers fling – it will be a big group not a lot of detailed instruction. Be sure to introduce yourself as a Gardening Gone Wild reader. – Saxon

Andrew C. March 28, 2013, 12:15 pm

What gorgeous garden photos. Love the ornamental grasses! They’re quite common here in the high desert of Reno, NV.

Thanks Andrew – Grasses are perhaps my favorite garden plant and they are so tough – as you know. – Saxon

Cassidy March 30, 2013, 10:55 am

This is such a beautiful garden! Thanks for sharing!

Cassidy March 30, 2013, 1:41 pm

I think the information is definitely something worth paying for, the price being determined by the amount of additional information.

Great photos and information. Thanks for sharing!

Jean at Jean's Garden March 31, 2013, 7:34 pm

I have been enjoying this series enormously and learning a lot (saving all the lessons in a folder for easy reference later). I will definitely purchase the e-book when it is available, and I think I would probably purchase the additional material (depending on what it costs).

Thanks Jean – you are gonna be on my mailing list 🙂 – Saxon

Diane April 1, 2013, 7:52 am

Just found your blog this morning. Right up my alley. Hope that you can find time to visit my little blog.

Question: How do you protect your photo gear (memory card and batteries) when going through airport security?

Thanks, Diane

Chuck April 3, 2013, 9:34 am

Very well done garden, it looks like something out of the rain forest! You are an excellent landscaper!

Lonnie Thaler April 9, 2013, 7:45 am

I’m glad I passed by here! This is a masterpiece. I have so many ideas designing my own garden but I always lacked creativity. Reading this kind of article will definitely give me more knowledge to improve my gardening skills. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

Saxon Holt April 9, 2013, 11:17 pm

Diane – I am not aware of any issues about memory cards and batteries. I have never had any problems.

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