Hardscape in garden photos

– Posted in: Garden Photography

To get a good garden photo, look for hardscape to help define your composition and tell the story, a story about the structure of the garden, how it is put together, what elements, besides the plants, make it work.

In this lesson of the PhotoBotanic Garden Photography Workshop, we continue the assignment theme “Think Like a Gardener” where I ask you to use your own knowledge of gardens and trust your insight to make photos in your own style, communicating in your own voice.  Hardscape is your theme.

Reread the previous lessons in this chapter to give yourself confidence.  Allow the gardener in you to inform the photographer in you to then become a garden photographer.

The assignment then, is to use a garden’s hardscape as a main element of your photo.  In previous chapters we have talked about composition, about shapes and lines, focal points and balance, color and light.  Apply all those lessons as you look at hardscape, and tell a story.

Hardscape is what physically defines a garden; it is the bones – look to it as you consciously compose your picture.


I love the simplicity of these few stone slabs, making steps up to this meadow viewing perch.  The landscaper actually made a big pile of dirt when leveling a meadow area and cleverly took advantage of the pile.  Without the hardscape element there is no good photo.

Indeed, in most gardens the hardscape defines the garden itself.  Sometimes it is easy to forget about it, to only see the beauty of the plants, but just as it gives a garden its structure, hardscape can give structure to your photos.


The story here is not just about the autumn color of the Japanese maple trees.  Incorporating the lattice fence and entry makes it a garden photo.  Are you beginning to see how the hardscape can be a crucial part of telling a garden story?

Let’s look at more examples of hardscape helping to define the garden.


Without seeing the rustic arbor and piece of the path, this insectary garden becomes just a collection of plants.  With the physical elements it becomes a better garden photo and tells a better story.

In this next example, the picket fence is the story, but as a garden story it is shown in context of house and garden.

rustic picket fence edging California garden; Moss Garden

Notice in this next photo the house is an element of hardscape too.


Of course the stream is also hardscape, but by showing a small piece of the patio and the house, the image becomes a stronger garden photo.

Here, a tiny patio of recycled material is the story.


Pathways through gardens can give great opportunity to compose with leading lines.


As you seek out hardscape elements for your photos don’t  limit yourself to the permanent structures and bones of the garden, any non-living component adds to your story.  These colorful chicken coops and the raised beds are a crucial element of this small space garden.

Chicken coop in back of small space backyard organic sustainable garden

You should now have lots of ideas for this assignment.  Try to use as much hardscape as possible.  In this final photo we see the pathway, the terrace, a fountain, a pergola, the brick walls.  Any one element could be a small story, together they make a whole story.


For Gardening Gone Wild readers who are actually following along with this assignment, if you want a critique, please post a comment with a link to one photo and I will give you some feedback. The photo can be on a blog post or public photo site such as flickr so others can learn more from this lesson.  Please allow a few days for me to get to each critique.


Saxon Holt
Saxon Holt is the owner of PhotoBotanic.com, 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 www.photobotanic.com. https://photobotanic.com
Saxon Holt

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Kelly Yamauchi May 30, 2013, 7:57 pm

This is a very informative article. I love garden photography but I know I have much to learn especially hardscapes. The physical elements of the garden must be truly considered in order to get the best photo. Anyway, all the photos in this post are excellent. 😀

Thanks Kelly – There are wonderful photos to be had that are pure plant combinations, but often they don’t really tell the story of the garden. One does not always have to tell that story, but for this lesson hardscapes must be considered. – Saxon

Donna May 30, 2013, 9:13 pm

Very good advice Saxon. I am glad you posted on hardscape. It is important to design as you mentioned and often is seen as merely functional when in fact it is what can make a garden and pull it together.

Thanks Donna – Good design uses hardscape effectively, so a good photo of that design should use the same. – Saxon

Donna May 31, 2013, 6:59 am

You are so very nice to offer us personal advice on one of our images. I am taking you up on that. I am showing the reflecting pool at Winterthur in my current post of the five part series. This area is a hardscape mecca in the formal areas around the home. It is difficult taking photos because everywhere one looks there is a photo waiting to be composed. The terrain is steep here and there are many sets of stairs and numerous paths. http://orchardparkway.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/winterthurpool-1.jpg

The day was overcast and the shot was taken at 3:34pm. f4.5 1/200 ISO 400. I used a 28-300mm zoom at 28mm for this shot (because I was shooting in all focal ranges at this garden – macro to birds in trees), but should have used my 17-35mm that I used on Longwood Gardens (not yet posted). The very crisp 2.8 landscape lens is perfect for big gardens such as these.

Like I mentioned in your last post, at these big gardens I tend to not set up shots but snap and snap. I hope I have remembered your lessons in my snapping frenzy. You are wonderful giving us your advice each post and I thank you. I doubly thank you for taking the time to looks at an image.

Donna – Glad at least one person wants some feedback on their image. I would like the photo and the comment to be together so it would be easy for anyone to benefit from the critique. The image link you posted here is to one of the photos in your garden walk garden talk site. Do you want me to comment there ? Saxon

Laurin Lindsey May 31, 2013, 8:25 am

I am saving this article …such good information! Thank you : )

Laurin – At some point the whole book will be written and you will have all the articles in one place. Glad you find the info useful – Saxon

Donna May 31, 2013, 10:01 pm

I thought the image may appear in the comment. Obviously it didn’t without the right code which is probably not allowed in your theme. Sure, you can comment on GWGT. No problem. My readers know I link to your sites often when I am referencing good photography teachers. I have no problem with a critique. I might even have an idea of some of your comments too. I would be surprised if many others don’t take you up on your offer. Maybe they want me to be the guinea pig or else they are looking for a good photo.

I just took what I just posted rather than search out good ones. I think others should do that too. It is more representative than when I actually work on the image in camera or in post. I do my best composition with wildlife as you might imagine. My job is designing gardens (and buildings) so I am very lax on my photography on either. I bore myself being around it constantly.

Hi Donna – I commented on your pool photo on your post: http://gardenwalkgardentalk.com/2013/05/31/winterthur-lets-go-formal/

Thanks for playing along – Saxon

Eunice June 1, 2013, 1:27 pm


Thanks for checking my shot out


Eunice – Thanks for stopping by. The photo you linked is a very nice macro photo but I did not comment. The lesson is about hardscape and I want to stick to the topic in case others are following along. I hope you will come back for my next lesson. – Saxon

Cassidy June 1, 2013, 1:58 pm

Another great lesson! Even as a professional photographer I love all your tips for garden photography.

Thanks Cassidy. Garden photography is its own little niche and what I am doing in this section of the book is trying to let the photographer in each of us recognize our own garden knowledge to help tell our own stories. – Saxon

Mary Dewitte June 2, 2013, 4:02 am

Hi Saxon,

I love your beautiful photos! I wish I could attend a PhotoBotanic Garden Photography Workshop. BTW, what camera are you using getting these amazing photos?

Fran Sorin June 2, 2013, 8:05 am

I LOVE this post -I am a big advocate for making hardscape/bones of the garden a top priority. Your photos speak for themselves – they are outstanding and are perfect examples of what you’re talking about.

SO- now that I’m developing this urban rooftop garden, I do need your advice. I’ll send photos to you explaining the the issues I’m having.

Thanks so much for your generous offer.

Thanks Fran – Send your photos direct – Saxon

gankatan June 2, 2013, 10:01 am

Oh, really great landscaping pics!

Thanks Gankatan – It sure helps when there are great landscapes to work with – Saxon

Diana Studer June 2, 2013, 5:10 pm

I’ll take Donna’s challenge to use an existing photo, and appreciate your offer to critique. Thank you, for your time, and your advice on photography. I think of you each time I do a ‘macro in a Mason jar’, ‘fill the frame’ (tho I tend to cheat and crop) and of course ‘the camera always lies’.
This blog post
The photo for September, Prunus nigra in bloom for our Southern hemisphere spring. In the background the central sundial and 3 of the 4 paths dividing Paradise and Roses. Looking from the dark Autumn Fire to Summer Gold, with volunteer arum lilies lightening our darkness.

Diana – Thanks for taking the time to post a photo. But, like Euncie, you linked me to a flower photo (a very nice off-center composition) but it is not a hardscape photo so I did not comment on your post. I guess I was not very clear about my offer to critique a photo. I want my students to learn from each other, so by critiquing photos that use the current lesson theme I am hoping to expand the lesson itself. – Saxon

Todd June 2, 2013, 11:41 pm

Wow, very good post and the pictures make me so jealous, that is amazing!

So Todd, are you jealous of the photos – or the wonderful gardens ? 🙂 – Saxon

Diana Studer June 3, 2013, 4:18 am

this one, which draws blog visitors who search by image?
in this post
That path was laid with such love and attention to detail, it upstaged the magnificent planting across a wide border, to which this was simply the access path in the centre.

Diana – I checked on your path photo but the post is old and no longer accepts comments. But for anyone following along with this critique process, the photo the photo is above in her link. The path is great and well worth a photo. I like idea behind the composition, low angle, off center leading the viewer into the photo. I would have paid a little closer attention to getting the horizontal horizon line to be straight; and think the path would definitely benefit from a wee bit of color enhancement. The story IS the path – give it more attention. Thanks for contributing – Saxon

Graziella June 3, 2013, 5:22 am

that’s an interesting concept. Like you said in the beginning, I always took the hardscape for granted, even in photographs. I tend to give the hardscape less focus. My photograph is of a chinese garden. This garden is no so much about plants, but rather about creating beautiful spaces where one can relax, and be still.


The picture was shot in full morning sun so there is too much light going on I think. Thank you for this opportunity.

Graziella – I am posting this critique here as well as copying ti to your post as Comment.

In many photo opportunities we DO overlook the hardscape, sometimes for obvious reasons that the plant combinations are too exquisite to worry about incorporating the hardscape. But whenever we can bring in the hardscape it will help a viewer, who is otherwise unfamiliar with the garden, to recognize the photo as being in a garden and provide some scale and reference. The Malta gardens are all about the hardscape as you well recognize. The first picture you show does suffer from the harsh light which was unavoidable I assume. (Could you have re-taken this same photo later in the day perhaps ?) Even so you might have darkened the photo in your computer, and the composition itself would be improved if you were not so dead straight on. Look for a composition that has a 1/3/ and 2/3 balance. Perhaps getting lower to the ground in this photo would have helped move the attention to the building. or simply try to cropping out the lower 1/3 to create a little imbalance

Ed - Landscaper - Winfield June 3, 2013, 5:00 pm

Wow, these are insane hardscapes. I love them all but my favorite has to be the brick walkway by far. Something about pathways are always hugely appealing to me. It looks great and I have to wonder where it leads! This gives me a ton of ideas, thank you for posting the photos too, I suppose the article would be nothing without them! Thanks for the read and the images!

Thanks Ed. Pathways should lead – both as a garden stroll and for a photographer looking for composition tool. – Saxon

Thomas B. Clarke (Tom) June 4, 2013, 12:22 pm

Saxon – Two years ago, I upgraded my camera to a Canon Rebel T1i. As the caretaker of the Gethsemane Prayer Garden, I wanted to present vibrant photos of the beauty that God created. I shoot all my photos as RAW files and attempt to stay out of the sunlight as much as possible. But the colors are still picking up too much reflection.

The hardscapes that are used in the garden are large limestone rocks that are individually scattered along the pathways. The intrigue comes by the bending and disappearing of the paths, sometimes around the large rocks as shown below.

So, my sample photo may be found at
I do appreciate any advice you may give.

Tom – Thanks for contributing to this dialogue. I had hope you, and the others who offered photos for critique would do so in a place where others could see the photo and comment in the same place, such as a blog post or flickr page. I will have to re-think how I do this

Anyway, the photo you submitted does show a wonderful stone resting place in a site that invites reflection. The hardscape of the stone bench is a fine focal point for composing a photo but not really hardscape in the way I want folks to use this lesson. I would have liked t see how you used the pathways to frame the bench and place it within the structure of the garden.

Be that as it may, I would have moved my camera position to the left a bit to let the tree create more of a sense of intimacy, and would get lower to the ground to put the stone in the bottom third of the frame to emphasize its small place in the larger garden. – Saxon

Thank you, Tom

Sam Peri June 5, 2013, 2:57 am

Is it possible to develop a pretty hardscape without spending a fortune? I’m planning to start on my backyard. Also, I would like to do some of the work in order to save money. Anyway, I love your photos. I’m more inspired to make my own. 😀

Al June 5, 2013, 3:19 pm

Thanks for these tips. It’s always difficult to find a good image to focus on when composing a garden picture and I’m tempted to gravitate towards a particular plant but you’ve given me some very good ideas. I particularly like the way the coops frame the image in the second to last shot. water damage Farmington Hills MI

Bert Green June 7, 2013, 8:14 pm

Hi Saxon,
You know I really love a good garden and look at many gardens on the web and where ever I can. But after reading this blog it brings a whole new perspective to view. I can see now how important hardscapes can be. It takes a nice garden and turns it to a beautiful garden.
I think the people who care for some of the botanical gardens I visited should read this post.
Well i’m off to buy a better camera!

Thanks Bert – Hardscapes not only frame how the garden is put together, it can frame the photo and tell the story of the garden. Botanical gardens use hardscape on a vastly different scale and some only exist to preserve plants. They can be forgiven if there are no intimate, classic garden vistas.

And, I love a camera with nice glass, but composition and telling your story can be done with any camera. – Saxon

Otto Hip Hop cloth June 22, 2013, 7:41 am

I love this great ideas, for my wild land!!

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