Composition 102 – Balance

– Posted in: Garden Photography
filoli fall tapestry

The PhotoBotanic Garden Photography Workshop: 1.2

Our last lesson, the first of the series in my new e-book, and the most important lesson to remember in creating a good garden photo is to fill the frame of your composition with only those elements that contribute to your story.  A painter doesn’t waste canvas, a photographer shouldn’t waste space either.

OK, using the entire frame is a given.  Every other technique assumes this.  Look at any photo in my Gardening Gone Wild posts tagged “The Camera Always Lies” and consider full frames.   Now, how do we arrange the elements into a balanced composition?

Throughout the book we will discuss balance and the many techniques artists use to fill the frame and guide the viewer to engage with the subject.  The Rule of Thirds will underpin many of these ways to achieve good weight and balance in the shapes and spaces, the colors, textures, lines, and focal points that make photos interesting.

Here is the Fill the Frame succulent tapestry from lesson 1.1 that has a diagonal line of thirds that helps create a nice balance to the various shapes.

succulent tapestry with balance

From lesson 1.1 – Full frame crop and thirds balance line.

This will be the fun part of teaching gardeners who are photographers – each will have their own style, based not just on photographic technique but an individual understanding of a garden.  The weight and shape of succulents are very different from flowers, or vegetables, or trees and foliage.

In the autumn tapestry of fall color in the opening photo, the garden photographer (me) was giddy with foliage and garden color.  I filled the frame and arranged a pleasing balance of three blocks of yellow, three blocks of orange/red, and used the garden wall to balance the top and bottom of the photo, as well as the line of the tree to balance left and right side.

I will admit it is a fairly sophisticated composition, and it takes years of trying to get a personal style.  But it is a constantly evolving and fun process, for beginner or pro, and evolves as we better understand photography and gardens.  We are here to take good garden photos, not simply nature photos or landscapes.

No matter how complicated the composition it needs to feel balanced.  In the autumn tapestry I was careful to use the composition Rule of Thirds to include the piece of garden wall in one of the most important parts of the photograph, the part that identifies it as a garden photo.

rule of thirds grid on fall tapestry photo

Grid of thirds overlaying photo composition

That bottom right third is a sweet spot and impossible to miss in the composition.  It also helps that the line of the tree (which divides the photo left to right into thirds) points down to the wall (which divides the photo top to bottom in thirds) and the sweet spot is an area of negative space, all elements we will talk about later in the workshop, but the first “rule” of balance in a composition is this Rule of Thirds.

The understanding of thirds can be thought of in many ways and work in various concepts.   On a very basic level a horizon line provides an easy reference tool .

tulip festival horizontal thirds

Skagit Valley Tulip Festival

Actually the bottom row of tulips is almost exactly 1/3 of the frame, but the horizon offers a nice way to consider the compoistion in the camera.  Note the hill on the left is about 1/3 in from the edge.  No accident … as I framed up the camera on the tripod.

This same scene will reappear when we talk about lenses [chapter 4.3].

3 blocks of tulip row colors

 Here we still see thirds as an important element, but I didn’t want to be too perfect which might make the color bands too static.

Late in the book we will get into special effects and computer manipulation [chapter 4.5] and the same photo will morph with a series of computer filters.  Note how the green element now becomes a prominent 2/3.

abstract photo field of tulips

I really like to use such interlocking blocks of color when composing.  Here in this vertical photo we see the rule of thirds working as bottom 2/3 of the frame, the lavender, merges with the top 2/3, the orange wall.

blue lavender against orange wall

I often talk about lines and triangles within a photo that help achieve balance.  We saw triangles in the succulent tapestry and now take  a look at this from Light Kisses post May 24, 2010:

The light streaming into the photo creates a fine triangle which, combined with the reflection and the line of the water’s edge, makes a composition that moves the eye past the chairs to a rock focal point, creating a bit of yin and yang dynamic balance.  And can you also see the various ways the photo has elements of thirds ?

Thirds are not the only way to create balance and the yin and yang idea is well illustrated in this photo from the Dec. 18th,  2009 post “Frost in the Garden“.

The diagonal line, carefully composed to achieve balance with the negative space and leaf shapes,  divides this photo neatly into two equal shapes.

Dividing a photo carefully in two was the culminating image of “The One” from July 25, 2010 where I got to:  “The One.  Balanced yet interconnected.  Blocks of color with lines zipping through.  I love it.”

Yet even though the obvious balance is found in the two halves of the photo, careful study shows a wedge triangle in the middle, taking up about  . . . 2/3 of the space.  Love those thirds.

Later in this lesson subscribers will learn more about shapes, line, and color that contribute to balance and each of these ideas will have their own lesson in chapter 2 “Seeing the Garden”.

lurie garden balanced photo composition

Advanced balance study with shape and color

Now we move beyond composition that makes a good garden photo.   Next: color and light.

morning light on palms in worth garden

Gauzy morning light in Worth garden


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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10 Comments… add one

Leave a Comment

Ginny Stibolt July 12, 2012, 5:11 am

Beautiful photos as always. It’s so interesting to also see them analyzed–now we’ve learned some of the reasons WHY they are beautiful.

Thanks Ginny – and hopefully how to apply the analysis. – Saxon

Margaret (Peggy) Herrman July 12, 2012, 6:27 am

thanks! loving this! still not sure I “get” thirds. When we create Orchid Ladies arrangements, I use 3 textures (of stem or leaf materials) so the eye reads the entire composition. You using the same idea? not dividing the composition into thirds? I also hear triangle. just a tad confused here & wanting to learn. I appreciate the lesson. Peggy

Peggy – thirds works in relationship to the whole frame of a picture whereas an arrangement stands alone and its various components need to work together for a different sort of visual balance. I will be sure to add a bit more on thirds and will illustrate more with grids on the expanded, subscription lesson. Thanks for the feedback. – Saxon

Capital Gardens July 12, 2012, 9:43 am

Wow, that photo of the field full of flowers is simply stunning! I didn’t realise there was so much technique behind a good shot, I thought you just had the ‘eye’ for it or you didn’t!

I think most gardeners have an eye for beauty; learning to capture it with a camera requires some understanding of what it is we are really seeing. – Saxon

Diana of Elephant's Eye July 12, 2012, 1:24 pm

For me there is a HUGE gap between what I see, and what the camera says is there. Easier to catch a bird in the hand, than an image with a camera. Bit pot-luck when I download the images and find treasure or well that was a waste of effort!
Much appreciate that you take us step by step thru the how to.

Hopefully you will learn to see what the camera will see and not waste your efforts. Unless you are simply documenting something to jog your memory later (or a quick social media share) it is best simply not to take a picture. Stay tuned and learn about light. If it is bad, taking a picture is doomed. – Saxon

Debra Lee Baldwin July 12, 2012, 1:39 pm

Ah, Saxon…so we need to fill the frame but also include negative space?

Hey DL – Well one does not ‘have to’ have negative space, but faced with it in an otherwise nice picture, it can be used to your advantage. More often I would recommend looking for negative space opportunities, using the edges of the frame to define those spaces. – Saxon

Candy Suter July 12, 2012, 8:03 pm

Fabulous lesson Saxon, thank you so much! I always forget that the 1/3 rule applies in both directions! LOL

Candy – Not just both directions, but any direction, with any tool of composition. The succulent tapestry was divided on a diagonal and the advanced lesson shows subscribers more about shapes, line, and color that contribute to balance. – Saxon

Gail July 15, 2012, 7:32 am

I never fail to walk away with a good lesson from your posts Saxon~I especially appreciate the ones that show up in your answer to comments! “More often I would recommend looking for negative space opportunities, using the edges of the frame to define those spaces.” Thank you, Gail

Thanks Gail – Saxon

Karen Chapman July 15, 2012, 10:44 pm

You leave me thirsty for more every time I read your posts. I realize I seem to do some of this intuitively but understanding these principles is invaluable in helping me when I get stuck. bring on that book! Where/when can I sign up?

Thanks a lot Karen. The workshop book will be 6 lessons in 4 different chapters. Once the first chapter is done, the rest will be by subscription and I will let GGW readers know. I will also “harvest” names from those of you who have commented on my posts to let you know personally. Thanks for your encouragement – Saxon

Donna July 18, 2012, 1:39 pm

Hi Saxon. I am late commenting, but did see this post while I was away. Limited internet access meant no comments. I see you did answer what I was wondering in your reply to a previous commenter. I am sure you will ‘harvest’ my email address too. I am anxiously awaiting. I really did enjoy this post, it is packed with great info and tips. I have been reading a lot about the triangles lately, but you explain it so well.

Donna – Your are such a great ‘regular’. You will certainly get a notice. Thanks – Saxon

garden maintenance tips July 19, 2012, 6:00 am

Wow, These photos are cool to my eyes. Really i like these places. I saw skagit valley tulip location in some cinema movies. which country has skagit valley tulip?

(Donna ?) Glad you like the photos. Skagit Valley is in Washington State. The festival is every April. – Saxon

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