Bare Trees

– Posted in: Garden Design, Garden Photography

Winter’s stark beauty.  Color vanishes from the landscape.  Bare trees dominate the garden.


Valley Oak tree bare branches

Valley Oak - Quercus lobata

On cloudy overcast days, the somber gray sky can become a clean white background, perfect for silhouettes with just a little bit of camera manipulation.  You can override your camera meter’s calibration which is designed to read each scene as a neutral gray.


No matter if your camera has a single meter setting, a spot setting, or any number of zone readings, it is designed to render the area it reads as an “average” gray.  My un-pruned Cotinus ‘Grace’ has a tangle of branches that offer all sorts of wonderful graphic compositions.  I “see” them in my mind’s eye but I have to make the camera lie.  I want silhouettes.

To give my compositions the drama I want, I overexpose my photo by 2 full f-stops.  I have a very fine camera and shoot with manual controls but most mid price point-and-shoot cameras have a meter compensation button.  While it is fairly easy to do the same exposure compensation in post production, back at the computer, you won’t be able to see the full graphic effect in the garden while you are working.

The exposure compensation is only the first step.  Composition is what makes a silhouette really work.  It is hard to get excited about the murky gray preview photos you will see if your let the meter read everything as gray.  Once you brighten up your photos – while you are still taking pictures, it will be easier work on composition.

I almost always use a tripod when I work.  I can carefully align each element and fill the frame with positive and negative space, working the angle ever so delicately to get a balance that pleases me.  Sometimes I envision a cropped image which I have to do in the computer, but even then, I will have used the tripod to get my horizontal and vertical lines clean and balanced.

Bare winter branches of Cotinus

The balance of the lines is all you have to work with for these winter silhouettes and it is much better to spend time thinking about this before you take the picture rather than hoping to make something work out later from a grab shot.

Different plants will suggest different ways to interpret their bare shape.  In each case spend some time thinking about filling the entire frame with shape and line.  The shape can be negative space or white spaces in these silhouettes, but use your entire frame and let the camera help you compose.

Bare branches Viburnum 'Summer Snowflake'

The dried remains of the flowers stems of Viburnum “Summer Snowflake” seem almost to suggest snowflakes on the winter branch.

And a remaining apple on the tree gives the photographer a target and fine compositional element.

A very practical reason to study your deciduous trees and shrubs in winter is to better understand the plant’s own structure and pruning needs.

On fruiting tree it is not just a matter of shaping, now is the time to look at the fruiting spurs and prune for healthy production.

Japanese maple trees benefit especially from proper pruning and mine are works in progress.  After 10 years nipping at my own trees I have starting making some large pruning decisions that I hope will give them the characteristic beauty I see in Japanese gardens.

For the time being I will overlook some of the stubby cuts revealed in winter.

So even if it is too cold to set up the tripod and make silhouette photos, go out into your garden now while it is winter and think about your pruning decisions.  Any excuse to go into the garden is a good one.

Happy new year to all!

Whoops – postscript here to our loyal GGW friends who take the time to Comment.  A new upgrade to WordPress has me mixed up.  Rather than adding my  own reply directly to you your Comment, my responses have become new Comments.  Sorry.  Will try to get back to the routine .  – Saxon

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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Lisa at Greenbow January 13, 2010, 7:54 am

Although I am not a photographer, I always like to read about how you look at a prospective photo. It makes me look at my garden with a different perspective.

Debi January 13, 2010, 8:04 am

I love bare trees and enjoy photographing them in the winter months. However, I’ve not done that in quite some time so you’ve lit a fire in my belly to do just that! I’m afraid I rely on Photoshop to help me with various elements you mention, but that’s not a sin……is it? ……is it? Great post!

Nancy Bond January 13, 2010, 10:11 am

I just love the abstractness of these photos! Lovely.

elizabeth ~ so wabi sabi January 13, 2010, 10:29 am

I really appreciated the tips you offered here.

jodi (bloomingwriter) January 13, 2010, 10:34 am

These are just so great, Saxon. Sinc ethe wind has abated here and it’s watery-sunny, I’m actually thinking about bundling up and going outside to take photos of my trees, bare or conifer. Just to get a little fresh air on my brain.

Mr. McGregor's Daughter January 13, 2010, 11:39 am

Thanks for the timely lesson. It’s hard to get inspired to shoot out in the garden at this time of year. I’m ready to go look at shapes now.

Saxon Holt January 13, 2010, 11:50 am

Hey Lisa – Sounds like my posts are doing the job. Photographers or not, we need to “look” at our gardens with purpose: fanciful, meaningful, or simply with angst or pride. – Saxon

Saxon Holt January 13, 2010, 11:53 am

Debi – You should know from my previous posts that digital editing in “post production” (as we pros like to say ) that these techniques are guilty pleasures. It is beyond my capacity to judge where guilty pleasure becomes sin … – Saxon

Saxon Holt January 13, 2010, 11:55 am

Thanks Nancy – It is fun to play with these patterns and I think I may even make some graphic prints for my own walls. Does that make it “art” hmmmm – Saxon

Saxon Holt January 13, 2010, 11:56 am

Glad to know they are appreciated. Many of these tips are ideas I am working on myself. We are learning together. – Saxon

Saxon Holt January 13, 2010, 12:03 pm

Jodi – The need to just get out of doors and DO something not centered around business and my computer is exactly what gets ME going too. I am going to a conference in New Mexico to promote my American Meadows book at the end of February when their landscape is still deep in high desert winter (stark and barren are an understatement). My contact there doing her best to understand my (somewhat feigned) enthusiasm for the challenge of finding the subtle beauty. Fresh air is so cleansing – Saxon

Joanne January 14, 2010, 1:27 pm

I really must come back for more photography tips I say that every time I see your blog on my dashboard and then don’t make time to come back.

Many thabnks for your tips.

Who can keep up with all we want to do ? Glad you keep us on your dashboard.
– Saxon

healingmagichands January 15, 2010, 2:26 pm

Hi Saxon! I wish I had the discipline to take my tripod out when I am on a shooting expedition. Most of the time it is collecting dust in the corner of the living room. Perhaps it is time to re-visit that habit!

I love your tutorials and suggestions, and think that I possibly might be becoming a better photographer because of them. At least I am having a fine time studying the art!

Glad the tips are useful; and especially glad to know you are having fun – Saxon

Jayne January 16, 2010, 1:39 pm

I just found your site – these winter tree photos are awesome. I’m looking forward to browsing the rest of the site, getting blogging ideas and learning how to take better photos. Ive added you to my dashboard 🙂

Glad you found us Jayne – Keep comin’ back – Saxon

Barbara E January 19, 2010, 12:55 am

I love these images – so simple and direct. Can’t wait to give it a try. By the way, I also really enjoyed your article in Pacific Horticulture.

Thanks Barbara. The Pac Hort article is the theme of my lecture series this year: “The Aesthetics of Sustainability” – coming to a town near you. – Saxon

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