Capturing Spring

– Posted in: Garden Design, Garden Photography

Is it possible for a gardener not to be thrilled to the bone with spring?   It is in the DNA of our marrow to be renewed and hopeful for our Earth when spring rolls around.  The feeling is in our hearts but we know it with all our senses.  How do we see it and how can we photograph it ?


I picked up my camera last week and went out to capture spring in my own garden.  I just had to get some photos that said spring, that evoke a feeling, that celebrated both the plant and the season.  Normally photographers want the image to speak for itself but this is a blog not an art gallery so let’s see if we can use my photo shoot as a teaching tool.  Allow yourself to look at each picture before I explain it.

The lead photo is the dogwood in my front yard, Cornus florida ‘Cherokee Chief’.  I spent about 30 minutes looking for an angle that illustrates the shape of the flower and bud, shows the relationship of flowers, twigs and branches, and captures the glowing color.  The flowers burst forward from the bud, leaping to the sun, eager to grow.  This angle allows backlight to give the petals some translucency and silhouettes the twig against a distant green blur of a hedge.

I have said in many of my posts that The Camera Always Lies.  What I mean is the photographer is telling a story with the camera that is only a partial truth.  A photograph is not reality, it reflects the point of view of the photographer.  Whether consciously or not there is intent to every photograph and careful thought and composition can communicate intent – and maybe evoke a feeling.


Rhododendron ‘Golden Comet’ inspired a long post O the Joy in December 07 when its leaves turned with fall color and now, here in spring, it shows off its shining name.  But there is nothing in the color that says spring; it is in the unfolding of the flowers and the abundant profusion of a single truss that we see spring.  We find spring in the details.  In looking for this photo I wanted a composition that paired two buds together, expressing the innocence of two hands separating after a joyful prayer of thanks; a moment at the heart of the flower.


My weakness for fragrant, specie Rhododendrons is not simply that I melt with quiet ecstasy at their exhilarating fragrance, but they embody spring shrubs for me.   Yet not every bud that forms at the end of every branch is a flower and an explosion of leaves can say even more than a flower about spring’s rebirth and renewal.  In this photo there is something embryonic about the unformed cluster of leaves emerging from the bud scales of Rhododendron nuttallii, leaves that will become among the biggest of the Rhododendron family, easily 10″ long.  The quiet and tender intimacy of this moment seems somehow embarrassing to reveal – a voyeur at a private, delicate birth flush with virgin color and vulnerability.


I have long since lost the name of this Azalea which is in a pot by my front steps this time of year.  How one plant can have so many sudden flowers after winter’s twiggy  dormancy astounds me every year.  I sought a composition that would isolate an unfolding bud held jewel-like in a bract of leaves.  The sweep of the tiny branch  and upturned flowers indicate a power and determination to grow, to greet the spring, and to carry on with another cycle of seasons.  I also like a composition that might be salable – a graphically simple shot with dark blurry area at the top in case a publisher wants to add type.  This is me being crass …


The Gingko tree is said to be one of the most primitive and ancient trees and there is certainly something primal about these leaves exploding from their bud.  I can almost imagine the leaf petioles drawn down through the bud, linked by delicate synapses through the branch into the tree’s trunk and down into the roots – sucked into, connected to the earth itself, their expression of birth being the earth in bloom.

Or maybe you didn’t see all that.

Maybe you didn’t see any of what I saw, but if you take your camera out into your own garden with some intention and purpose the images you capture will forever remind you, if only you, of those fleeting moments.

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 May 7, 2009, 8:59 am

Saxon, not only can you weild a camera like a warrior you can express yourself like a poet. I saw some of what you saw and more. Those fuzzy places in the photograph are always a challenge for me to try to paint. I was thinking about you earlier this spring when I was trying to get a photo of three different things, at varying heights composed in a photo as I saw them. I did take a few pictures but they are only good enough for what I call memory shots. Sigh~~ Happy Spring. Your posts are always an inspiration to me.

Lisa – Thanks for the kind words. Keep taking the photos and learn from each. When composing 3 elements in one photo you may need to work a very selective, shallow focus to make one really stand out and be the “point” of the photo. – Saxon

Dave May 7, 2009, 9:26 am

Awesome photos! I really like the dogwood and the ‘Golden comet’ rhododendron.

Thanks Dave. It would be impossible for me to pick a favorite (… though I am pleased by the light on the dogwood…) – Saxon

Nancy Bond May 7, 2009, 9:37 am

Nice shots — I especially like the azalea. What a beautiful colour.

I thought that color was so special until today. I am in Seattle and walked along “Azalea Way” a path in Washington Park Arboretum. Wow. I am here at exactly the right time, by accident really – part of a book tour. That color will continue to be special in my garden but I have some new plants to lust for … – Saxon

Town Mouse May 7, 2009, 11:32 am

Yes! That’s spring all right! Maybe this weekend I’ll go out hunting myself.

Well those were taken a couple weeks ago now and spring may be gone for you guys. Thanks for coming to the book event in Palo Alto! – Saxon

Mr. McGregor's Daughter May 7, 2009, 5:21 pm

Spring is so fleeting, and plants grow and change so quickly, that it seems one can stand out in the garden every day and find new visions of spring to photograph. There’s such an abundance of bloom, that I can really use your reminder to aim for simplicity in the shots to capture the mood and the moment. Thanks for another great tutorial.

Thanks Daughter – I try not to rely on the tight detail to tell the story but sometimes, in a poetic mood, one can see the big picture in the little picture. – Saxon

Chookie May 7, 2009, 8:06 pm

Lovely photos, as usual, and thank you for your explanations. My good shots are really pure luck at this point, but what you write will sink in somehow, I’m sure!

Don’t downplay luck in getting good photos. Listen and learn from your luck – it is intuition – Saxon

Frances May 7, 2009, 8:09 pm

Hi Saxon, there is so much to learn and you have once again instilled a lesson for me. Intent. Slow it down and think. Rather than mindless clicking and hope for a good shot. The ginko speaks to me and your words flesh out the story.

Thanks Frances, yes, intent is at the core of a photo that tells a story. And it doesn’t hurt to have this blog format to add a few words to explain what I see, though one hopes the thoughtful viewer would get it anyway. – Saxon

Debra Lee Baldwin May 7, 2009, 10:41 pm

Wow, Saxon, I don’t know which I like more, your words or your photos. You’re a poet and an artist, and a businessman, too (nothing crass about anticipating a potential sale). I grow that amazing azalea, too—it was given to me years ago by Rose Sarver, a wholesale grower in my area who has since passed away, so no hope of getting its name. But I do remember her fondly every spring when it blooms.

Thanks Debra Lee ! So nice to have a writer compliment the words. And welcome aboard as a “full time” GG Wilder . . . Saxon

Jamie Rex May 8, 2009, 8:59 am

Just wanted to say ‘I feel ya.’ Your pictures, and depth of thought about them is inspiring.

Thanks Jamie – getting a feeling out of a photo, even if it has been explained, is every photographers hope. – Saxon

Country Mouse May 8, 2009, 4:16 pm

I also spent many hours attempting to capture spring in my camera this year – just wonderful to share in your similar passion. And thanks for the great talk in Palo Alto the other night – I really learned a lot and enjoyed your images and friendly tips. For the benefit of other amateur photographers, I wrote up some “take-aways” here:

Wow – thanks for the nice write up. If I ever need an agent …. – Saxon

Kathy in Napa May 9, 2009, 10:02 pm

Wonderful Saxon, and such a subtle tutorial. Just look at the photos and read your comments and it’s all there. Today I went to Ruth Bancroft and when I came home and hooked my camera up to the computer I found I had taken 298 photos. It was one of the most pleasant 2 hours I had spent in awhile (other than certain baseball games) and was pleased with the results , many of which I have you to thank for .. Carry on !

298 photos ! that sounds like way too much work. And seeing the day you went was the only day that the Dodgers managed to beat the Giants last week I wonder where you would have rather spent your time. – Saxon

Heirloom Gardener May 18, 2009, 11:32 pm

Wow, those are beautiful and inspiring photographs of spring. If only I had 30 minutes to find the exact right angle! Instead, I run around my garden for 5 minutes at a time capturing as many images as possible before some other responsibility catches up to me.

Well, fortunately for me, it is my job to find the exact angle. But job or not, I urge you to slow down as you take photos – you will see the garden better and be more efficient in your garden work time – Saxon

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