Finding the Photo

– Posted in: Garden Photography, Garden Visits

Whenever I travel to make a presentation I try to incorporate some local gardens into the show to better connect with the audience.

Let's find the "good" photo in this border

My presentation in Chicago to the Garden Club of America’s Show of Summer was titled ‘What is a “Good” Garden Photograph’ and  The Chicago Botanic Garden was the obvious choice to go find a photo.  It is a great botanic garden and has an especially strong focus on home landscaping, so the day before the show I went looking for something to illustrate a “good” garden photograph.

I put “good” in quotations because my definition of a good garden photo requires that it have real and authentic information that will help gardeners have success in gardening.  Sure, a good photo should be easy to look at, but I know well that the camera always lies and is oh too easy to mislead.  A “good” garden photo should lead to good garden practice.

So I was a bit nervous with the Chicago audience because my presentation is heavily dependent on California gardens and California gardens are not the best examples to encourage good gardening in Illinois.  I have often railed against lush lawns and English borders to my West Coast audiences so I was all the more eager to find some local examples.

There is an entire section of The Chicago Botanic Garden devoted to using bulbs in the home landscape.  The Alliums were at their peak and I was delighted to find them so well used, satisfying the the first trick of finding a good garden photograph – finding a good garden. The taller alliums such Persian Onion (Allium aflatunense) can be really hard to photograph.  To show them in relation to the rest of a garden, their tall stems often look naked and leave a lot of empty space in a photograph if you try to show them to scale.

One doesn’t always notice this in the garden because the eye sees all the rest of the garden, but the camera crops out all the rest out –  the stems can dominate any photo of tall onions.  But in the borders at CBG, the gardeners have allowed the Alliums to come up within other plantings of just the right scale, with the added bonus of interesting textures and colors.

So where is the good photo?

Think like a camera.  Crop out all that does not contribute to what you are trying to say and fill the frame with your message.

The onions are now the true focus of the photo but there are enough stems to show how these “stars” got  to be where they are.

The horizontal is good, a vertical might be all the mo’ betta’.  It not only accents the vertical nature of the Alliums it will incorporate even more garden information, not just Persian Onions and Purple Smoke Bush used together but also  the low Euphorbia at the bottom and the wonderful pinnate foliage of the vine on the garden wall, now illustrating a more complex garden.

Chicago Botanic Garden border with Allium

The great added bonus for me is that this “good” garden photograph does not simply apply to gardeners in Illinois, we Californians can grow the same plants.  Maybe this is why I was attracted to this garden scene to start with – the lawns around here are ubiquitous and green.

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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Lynn June 17, 2011, 5:50 am

The horizontal pic put a smile on my face as soon as I saw it. The Alliums reminded me of a beautiful fireworks display! Beautiful!

Thanks. Alliums can do that, like nothing else. Cropping makes it obvious. Saxon

Chookie June 17, 2011, 5:57 am

Would a shot from below horizontal have turned out reasonable (I’m thinking blurry euphorbia but the alliums showing more leg) or would there not have been enough contrast against the vine?

Good thoughts Chookie and I tried various compositions. In order to bring in the Euphorbia into the horizontal, one would have to be really low and in my opinion a “line” of Euphorbia at the bottom of the frame would interfere with the nice triangles that are formed with the Cotinus and vine. _ Saxon

Donna June 17, 2011, 6:39 am

This was the most helpful post I have read on framing a shot just about ever. You explained, not only the how and what, but the why. It helped in photography and it helped in garden design. My favorite tip… “Think like a camera. Crop out all that does not contribute to what you are trying to say and fill the frame with your message.”

Oh would I love to have lessons from you. Your posts are always inspiring, so much that your words will be ringing n my head next time I am out is a garden shooting. I will be looking that much closer for my message.

Wow. thanks Donna. “Think Like a Camera” is actually one of my lectures I give in workshops. Perhaps coming to a location near you one day … Saxon

Cathy June 17, 2011, 2:13 pm

Not only a fabulous post on how to properly frame a picture and why it works, but how to frame “difficult” flowers in the garden bed itself. Thanks for some terrific guidance!

Thanks Cathy. Each instance is always a bit different, learn to let the camera be your guide. – Saxon

Eileen June 17, 2011, 4:27 pm

Great post! I am always looking for the best part of a picture and I am sure I do not always find it. Photography is a lifelong learning process just like gardening.


No photographer always finds the best part. Learn not to take the photo until you think you have found it. Even then, learn to edit – and only show the ones that work 🙂 Saxon

Cameron (Defining Your Home) June 18, 2011, 3:59 pm

As always, I learn so much here. Great photo lesson. Thanks.

Thanks Cameron. We appreciate that you come back so often. – Saxon

Chris Maciel June 18, 2011, 10:08 pm

Great! I specially like that you show us all the photos you made; they’re all fine but one says it all: garden, great form, great color, great alliums.

and thank You, Chris. Finding the photo is a process and you have to slowly “see” the better one. – Saxon

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