Finding Frost

– Posted in: Edible Organic Gardens, Garden Photography

frost on kale leaf

When we go out into the garden to take pictures, we don’t always find what we expect.  So don’t get locked into seeing what you want to see.  See what is.

When my friend Kate Frey suggested I might want to photograph the tapestries of winter vegetables she planted at Lynmar Winery I could hardly wait for the next free morning.  I knew her keen sense of design and plant combinations would be exquisite.  An organic edible garden designed to be an artistic visual treat ?!  Think the Roadrunner cartoons… zeeeeeeeeoooooooowwwwwwwwwwwwwww …. I’m on my way.

Pre-dawn in winter is cold, even in Northern California.  Now, I say “cold” advisedly.  I know we have readers in New England, the upper Midwest, even into Canada where the 30 degree morning I am calling cold would be called balmy.  But when I rose in the pre-dawn morning of the shoot it was also foggy, a very cold fog.  It became a very hard frost by dawn when I arrived at Lynmar.

frosty morning at Lynmar

At first I was completely disappointed.  The garden was a frozen wilt; no life, no color, crunchy underfoot.  I couldn’t take pictures of  what I expected, I was only finding frost.  “Work with what you’ve got” I told myself.  See what is.

As I looked at the frozen leaves I realized I was given a wonderful opportunity.  Rarely is frost so heavy, freezing fog is uncommon and the leaves were covered with crystals.  Macro photography was in order.

frozen vegetable leaves at lynmar

For these leaf studies, the most important technical factor was lining up the camera and lens to be as straight on to the leaf as I could manage.  The plane of the camera and its digital sensor need to be as close to parallel to the subject as possible.  This gives for the greatest depth of field.

frost crystals on kale leaf

Close-up macro work allows little of depth of field, it’s a simple optical function.  To get the most depth possible the photographer needs a slow shutter speed, small aperture, and a tripod.  For really close work one can never have everything in sharpest focus.  The photographer must decide how to compose to take advantage of or mitigate parts of the frame that may be blurry.

yellow stem chard with frost

red stem chard frost leaf

These two chard leaves are not tack sharp throughout but the frost crystals in the center are razor sharp.  The colorful sensuous midrib in each gives a bold design, so whatever may be blurry is not detracting from the composition.

I became a cold contortionist with my tripod that morning, trying to find a place to splay out my tripod legs so they did not land on (and thus break) a leaf, yet have my camera in just the right angle to fill the frame with leaf patterns and frost crystals.  I could not always get as close to the plants as I would like, so I planned another “trick” –  cropping.

Filling the camera frame from edge to edge with meaningful components to your photograph and for telling your story is a fundamental tenet of good composition.  No wasted space in art.

The photos we imagine when we study a scene do not necessarily fit into the predefined shape of our camera sensor.  Don’t feel constrained by what the camera frame shows you, cropping a photo is easy later in the computer.  Have a plan and previsualize what your final photo will look like.

All of these leaf photos have been cropped at least a little so that the patterns  fill the frame, but I had some fun with this next one.

details of frost crystals on kale leaf

It is actually a very small section of a larger photo, but I really wanted to see the frost crystals close up.

frost on kale leaves

I like the larger photo too, but knowing my camera takes huge files I knew I could crop like crazy and still get a photo that looks clean – on a blog.  It would never do in print, as the cropped photo is only 600 pixels wide (450 on the blog page).  The original is 3373 pixels which would print as a 12 x18 print without interpolation.

The super cropped close-up allowed me to show a picture that was much tighter than I could have taken that morning even with my macro lens. I could not get any closer physically, so I simply planned on cropping later.

What I couldn’t catch on film as I worked that frosty morning was the glory of the sun waking the plants.  As the sun warmed the cells, the plants literally woke up.  I was startled at first by the subtle shakes and trembles I saw in the plants that windless morning.   Then I realized I was witnessing private stirrings that only were noticeable on careful observation.

I wish I had planned for some time lapse photography, though I felt a little voyeuristic.  The moment in the sun was so special, so small, so fleeting it could not have been captured.

But the sun began to warm me too.  My own blood cells warmed up and I could feel my fingers again.  As streaks of early light found their way into the garden it allowed for new thinking on what to photograph.  No longer finding frost, I found the light.  Photograph what is.

lynmar garden waking on a cold morning




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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15 comments… add one

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Donna January 8, 2012, 9:14 am

Beautiful study of ice, Saxon. I enjoyed you explaining the process too. I did find out the one about having the plane of the subject parallel but that is always a difficult one to do. I do crop a lot like you said. I live where you mentioned, along the Canadian border and we are usually very cold and icy (not as much lately though). You should stop up here sometime for some really great images. But, be forewarned, it is rarely sunny and icy at the same time. I have a post today with ice images and none are near to what you have shown. All our color fades by this time of year too. Color is what makes your chard images so wonderful, a real art piece, that and the beautiful details only your camera can show.

I think I was lucky we had so much fog and humidity in the air for my shoot. Normally, her in CA, the coldest nights are the driest. I had never seen better frost – but I also don’t go to a lot of gardens at winter dawn. – Saxon

Laura January 8, 2012, 12:11 pm

I am glad you saw the beauty in the frost. Those crystals are amazing. I never heard plants thaw, but I will listen in my garden next time we have a frost.

And the last picture, it seems to have come out of a fantasy book, outstanding!

Thanks Laura. When the plants thaw it is soundless. They tremble quietly, almost like a gopher is tugging at the roots; and slowly you notice the leaves are lifting up. A wonderful process – in all meaning of the word. – Saxon

Debra Lee Baldwin January 8, 2012, 12:58 pm

So many great suggestions, Saxon! I’ve had that experience too, when what I’d hoped for isn’t there, but something even more visually captivating is. I agree, you have to hunt for it, and be open to it. Don’t let your expectations get in the way. I once went to a nursery hoping to find aloes in bloom, but they were past peak. I hung out a while, and the light became magic. I saw a forest of columnar cacti with their spines backlit and golden by the late afternoon sun. Breathtaking! I experimented with letting light into the lens for dreamy, halo effects I enhanced in Photoshop. Luck does play a part. You were fortunate to find frosted Swiss chard, the ribs still colorful.

Excellent comment, Debra Lee. You can’t take a good photograph unless you put yourself in a position to get it. Many a photographer will admit to the genius behind a great picture is simply going out with your camera to a good location. – Saxon

Jan LeCocq January 8, 2012, 2:49 pm

Great shots!! I know what you mean about having to deal with the scene that shows up and not necessarily the one you wanted!

As I just said to Debra Lee, just putting yourself and your camera into a good location and dealing with whatever turns up is the best start toward good photos. – Saxon

Bracey Tiede January 8, 2012, 5:01 pm

These have almost an undersea look to them. The brilliant colors and ice that looks like fine sand. Beautiful.

Thanks for stopping by Bracey. It is always surprising what new worlds we see in macro photography. One day I would love to get a microscope attachment. Saxon

Janet Loughrey January 8, 2012, 6:14 pm

Stunning-great images. Great advice and a job well done, as always.

Janet – you are too kind, as always. – Saxon

Town Mouse January 8, 2012, 9:18 pm

Amazing! I wish I’d read this before I shot my frosted poppies the other day. Those colors are amazing, what a show!

Thanks Town. I think we will still be having enough cold weather to still try those poppies. Though I am hoping for some rain rather than frost. – Saxon

Joy January 9, 2012, 6:30 am

A wonderfully informative and lyrical post. Thank you for sharing this miracle of life!

Thanks Joy – It is indeed wonderful to simply experience the moment. If I communicate some of that my day is even better. – Saxon

Karen Chapman January 9, 2012, 10:45 am

I learn so much from your posts. You make it simple enough for those of us who are keen amateurs to understand backed up with superb images that show us what we’re aiming for.

Thank Karen – You’ve made my day. I want to do more of this type teaching through a new on-line venture and want to believe there is a market. – Saxon

Ellen Sanford January 9, 2012, 2:06 pm

I love these photos, Saxon. Your sharing the process and the poetic stirrings in the garden is the “icing” on … the kale?!?
Definitely keep up the teaching; there are many of us who’d love to learn more!
Please send my best to Mary.
Warmly, Ellen

Ellen – How cool you are following the blog. You are on my list already and will know more soon about more teaching I will be doing…

Theresa Forte January 9, 2012, 10:01 pm

Beautiful images and valuable lessons for all of us. I love the way you turned your thinking around to work with what you had in front of you. I’ve experienced similar epiphanies in the garden when I’m out on a shoot. Slowing down and really looking at Mother Nature’s handiwork with a sense of wonder is truly inspiring. Thanks for sharing!

Thanks Theresa – Mother Nature will always have something wondrous if we open our eyes. – Saxon

Janis January 10, 2012, 7:21 am

Fantastic, Saxon!!!

Thanks Janis. I wish I had thought about shooting a video of the plants as they awoke. I bet you could use it at….. – Saxon

christina Schneck January 10, 2012, 6:56 pm

Hi Saxon: Only you could take a photo of a frosty garden and have the photographs come out looking like your doing a photo-shoot of underwater plant life. Really, really wonderful. My son Stephan is signing up for your l day class at tilden, in April.

Thanks for dropping by Christina. Perhaps only you would see underwater plant life in those images … Saxon

Candy Suter January 11, 2012, 1:43 am

Beautiful photos Saxon! As I was reading it was as if I were talking to myself. Thank you for putting into words what I can’t seem to. I don’t mean to say that I am as good a photographer as you but I strive to be. These are the things that I think of when I go out to photograph. Conditions are usually not ideal so you use your imagination and go with what you’ve got. What I think about the most is what perspective am I going to shoot. Does that make sence? So I do many and see what turns out best. And yes cropping is one of my favorite tools. A half way decent photo can turn into a stunner with a little cropping!

Thanks for the thoughtful comment Candy. Cropping is so easy to do and with some pre-visualization as you look through the camera, you begin to see all sorts of possibilities. – Saxon

Kallie January 12, 2012, 10:48 pm

Very interesting at it’s best. I thought at first it was some micro

Kallie – I think some of the fun of macro photography is creating images that look different from what they really are. I would love to get my hands on a microscope to photograph fungus. – Saxon

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