Find the Photo – Leading Lines

– Posted in: Garden Design, Garden Photography

Native plant gardens tend to be hard to photograph.  Often the gardeners care more about the plants and habitat than the aesthetics.  This is perfectly OK – unless you are trying to photograph them.

We need better photographs of native plant gardens to encourage those gardeners who DO care about aesthetics, who want to do the right thing by way of sustainability, and don’t realize how beautiful natives can be.  To encourage more native plant gardening I have set out to find more gardens, and the photos within.

When trying to find a photo in a garden, one of my key tools is to look for leading lines.  These are lines you, the photographer, find in a garden that can lead the viewer’s eye into the photo.  These lines can frame your composition and lead to focal points as well, but fundamentally they must start at the bottom, out of the frame, and lead up into the composition.

They can be fences, walls, streams, rows of plants, hedges, and especially pathways.  I was particularly happy to find a couple gardens through Kathy Kramer’s Bringing Back the Natives garden tour this year that used pathways effectively.

Path 2 California native plant garden

Note the first two photos are the same path from the same end of the garden.  The second one is a much better showcase of the Sticky Monkey Flower (Mimulus aurianticus) but I like the first one and its sensuous “S” curve as a great leading line, making this small garden seem bigger than it is.

Here is a vertical shot looking back the other direction.

Note, by obscuring the wide part of the patio at the bottom, I am able to take advantage of a relatively small section of the path’s leading line.

Vertical photos that find leading lines in them can become powerfully graphic, as this one using the green foliage of the Achillea to lead the eye through the photo.  Another strong “S” curve.

achillea by path in california native plant garden

(See this location? It is leading out of the garden, upper middle in the second photo.)

In some gardens it is a little harder to find leading lines when you are trying to make a composition and find a photo.  I was particularly excited to find Al Kyte’s Moraga garden because it is so mature, 40 years in the making, but leading lines were not so obvious.

The paths are dirt and not as well delineated as that first Kat Weiss designed garden.  But in trying to find a photo here, look at the repetitive yellow flowers of the Sulfur Buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum).  Let’s make a leading line out of them.

And next let’s use the path itself, but noting it is really the repetitive yellow that helps us see the line that adds so much to the composition.  Also, be aware that all these lines, in each photo, lead up and across the frame.  Unless the garden design is powerfully graphic don’t start your leading line in the center  going straight up.

In the photo above, see the low split rail fence ?  It leads off to another path and was my favorite design element in the garden.

The low fence helps enormously in defining the edge of the path and the border, giving each a clear space and shape.  Whenever you can identify edges like this, you can find a leading line.

The fence defining the edges is really the story here.  The wider shot was more about the habit of the garden.

Looking back down the path the other direction, the fence is the only design element holding the photo together.  The Sulfur Buckwheat in this final photo is the same one (top) of three found in the first examples.

Without the fence defining the line the photo would have never been taken.   When framing up a picture in your camera, always be thinking of composition and how to make the viewer see what you see.

More photos  of Al Kyte’s California native plant garden can be found in my PhotoBotanic Archive

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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Debbie June 8, 2012, 6:21 am

We have a native plant meadow behind our vacation home (read leftover cow meadow) and I have dreams of flowing grasses with islands of color all viewed from the walk out deck. But after three years I’m still not satisfied. Your lesson in a leading line gives me something to focus on (no pun intended) as I replace the pasture “weeds” with natives.

Hooray ! Love to hear this. Hope you will use my “American Meadow Garden” book for some other inspiration. – Saxon

Jean Marsh June 8, 2012, 6:40 am

Fantastic! I always learn so much much from your posts. The other day I was out and about at the nursery with my camera, remembered your advice on taking shots on a sunny day – and voila – beautiful results. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge.

Thanks Jean. Now I gotta set up some sort of group photo site so we can all share what we learn. – Saxon

Pam/Digging June 8, 2012, 9:38 am

Yes, the lack of structure in many native gardens does make them hard to photograph. Thanks for the great tips on finding ways to photograph them effectively.

Pam – Thanks for dropping by. Lack of structure is sometimes the very point of some native gardens, but little design techniques can really raise the bar on their aesthetic appeal (to us humans anyway). – Saxon

Kathy Fitzgerald June 8, 2012, 10:08 am

Mr. Holt–
Loved the low split-rail fence, especially the last photo showing how it was done. We’re always on the lookout for different ways to define gardens, and this one’s a winner.
By the way, isn’t the buckwheat “sulfur” rather than “sulfer”?
Cheers, Kathy

Ms Fitzgerald – Thanks for the copy edit. Which will be changed before anyone else catches it. Split rail fences are fabulous focal points all by themselves. Put one section of split rail fence almost anywhere in any naturalistic garden, meadow, woodland, bog, for instant definition that this is a garden – an intentional space. – Saxon

Charlie June 8, 2012, 10:52 am

Those pictures look beautiful; the plants are so green and luscious. I think this shows that you don’t need to buy exotic plants to create garden beauty.

Charlie – I loved that you point out the green not the flowers. Indeed this is key to any garden. – Saxon

Donna June 8, 2012, 11:05 am

I loved your clear explanation and illustrations. The photos really do tell the story quite well. You can easily tell that you shoot for magazines and books, because these type of leading line shots are often used. Like you said, they expand the garden visually, and fill the frame too with all the pertinent information. Thanks again, Saxon, for this wonderful post.

Thanks Donna. I appreciate that you recognize the photos need to tell a story. Hopefully they are nice to look at too, but I am honestly hoping to communicate garden information in these pictures. – Saxon

Jan LeCocq June 8, 2012, 11:34 am

This is a fabulous post. And, your images are beautiful. Keep doing this! We all like to improve our “eye” and skills.

Best, Jan

Jan – Thanks for stopping by. Remember you can look at all my past posts under the category here “The Camera Always Lies”; or wait until my e-book is done – Saxon

Bria June 8, 2012, 12:04 pm

Thanks for this! Lovely gardens and great advice for anybody trying to capture a garden in photos. My background is in fashion photography and I am brand new at trying to photograph outdoor spaces so this is really helpful. I’m sure that the more I train my eye to look for the best shot the more it will help me in my garden design too.

Glad you stopped by Bria. Gardens and landscape photography are SO different from fashion. People move ! Yikes. – Saxon

ricki - sprig to twig June 8, 2012, 2:16 pm

I’ll be watching for that group photo site: great idea.

Stay tuned – Saxon

Sheri Fresonke Harper June 8, 2012, 9:55 pm

Enjoyed your photography and your lessons on photographs and garden design elements.

Thanks Sheri – Good garden design goes a long way toward making my job easier. – Saxon

Kat Weiss June 9, 2012, 5:23 pm

What fun! I’ve enjoyed your photography for years and have been dreaming of having you photograph some of my gardens. So wonderful to see this one with your expert eye!

Kat – Great you got the link and am delighted to show your beautifully designed garden. I’ll have to see more .. -Saxon

Hoov June 10, 2012, 7:17 pm

Really helpful post, thank you. Reinforces the lesson that a good design is easy to photograph.

Well the lesson is not that good design is easy to photograph, but rather bad design is impossible – Saxon

Debra Lee Baldwin June 14, 2012, 8:29 am

There’s a lesson in garden design here, too. I tend to think in terms of focal points, but it’s as important to consider lines that lead the eye to them. Or distract. In my garden, I have strong lines that get in the way—tree limbs, linear pathways—no wonder it’s so hard to photograph!

oooh Debra Lee… If you have strong lines then you can use them – for framing, for angling, for leading. Get crossways to those lines not straight on. _ Saxon

Gail June 14, 2012, 8:14 pm

I have a native garden and boy are parts of it hard to capture…You’ve given me much to think about. gail

Gail…I’m impressed that you’ve gone native. I don’t know where you live but the Lurie Garden at Millenium Park is a great place to see (some good photos on line). As I mentioned in the article, Roy Diblik has outstanding native specimens. Just keep on playing and enjoy the process. Each year I find that I learn a lot as long as I experiment…and not do the same old. Fran

Sara June 15, 2012, 6:21 am

Nice post. You hit the nail with this post while no one can easily find such an article about this issue. I have a blog about gardening and nutrition and I learned many things about photo shooting as I am trying to upload more photos from my own garden. Thank you for sharing!

commonweeder June 21, 2012, 9:24 am

You’ve just pointed out why I find my garden so hard to photograph. No structure. Mostly I’m stuck with single blossoms, or small plant groupings. Even the Rose Walk doesn’t lend itself to photography. this insight needs serious though.

I like to think my posts on photography are equally as interesting to designers as to photographers. You have to confirm that. Thanks. – Saxon

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