Finding the photo

– Posted in: Garden Design, Garden Photography

Sometimes we look at our garden successes and wonder how to photograph it. What is the essence? What makes it work? I walked down my driveway this morning where I have a mixed shrub border and once again fell in love with Ceanothus ‘Marie-Simon’.

Ceanothus Marie-Simon in border

Ceanothus Marie-Simon in border

While I like this straight on photo, composed to evoke the shrub tapestry that I am attempting in my border, it is not the essence. How do I find that photo? What is about this plant that works so well for me? How to communicate ?

First, I think it is important to know what it is we want to say with our photos. If only a memory jog or a documentary photo for our own scrapbook, almost any photo will do. Our memory and cognitive systems will allow us to re-live the scene even if the photo barely reminds us of the beauty. But when we want to share the photos, communicate to others, or in my case sell them, the photographer needs to get to “the thing”.

Detail of Ceanothus Marie-Simon

Detail of Ceanothus Marie-Simon

Here, in this detail photo, we begin to see what grabbed my attention today. Ceanothus x pallida ‘Marie-Simon’ is one among the group of French hybrid, deciduous California Lilacs that are appreciated only by gardeners. Now is not the time to discuss how many of our native plants, whose potential as garden plants have been recognized by gardeners in other countries, are overlooked even while we as a culture are supposedly looking for sustainability.

Ceanothus (California Lilacs) are, or should be, one of the backbone shrubs of any California garden. Tough, dependable, and drought tolerant they provide profuse trusses of spring flowers born on terminal branches much like traditional Lilac (Syringa). But what is so extraordinary about the French hybrids are the red stems, delicate green leaf coloration even in hot, dry summer, and, in the case of ‘Marie-Simon’, the beautiful seed pods from the faded flower trusses persist for months.

Seed pod of Ceanothus 'Marie-Simon'

Seed pod of Ceanothus 'Marie-Simon'

Now this next photo is getting to the essence of what I see when I look at ‘Marie-Simon’ in my border. Her seedpods are very ornamental: mahogany-red, not gray-brown like so many shrub seedpods. These red splashes of texture are what I see in the garden (first photograph) as I walk by. To capture that, to find the photograph in the garden that communicates well, I go to the essence of the scene – the close-up of the seedpod itself.

As I work the scene and look for the best angle to isolate the faded flower truss, I find I need to set my tripod in the border amongst the lavenders. This allows me, with selective focus, to compose an image at once simple but sophisticated because of the complimentary colors.

lavender beyond Ceanothus

lavender beyond Ceanothus

Isolating the Ceanothus in front of the lavender is done carefully in the viewfinder of the camera and is a big reason photographers need to use tripods. Slowing down the picture taking process allows for careful composition and thinking about “the thing” we are trying to capture in our image.

This is not about making the camera “lie” or making the garden seem better than it really is, it is about getting to the essence. Our sensory impressions of the garden are made up of many details, what we say with or camera can only do so much. To find the photo in a garden scene that captures our successes one must consider carefully what we want to say.

I could say “tapestry” as in the first photo or I can say “colorful seed pods” as in the detail. What I can never do is truly capture the garden. In standing in my lavender hedge to take the picture I released fragrances that linger on my trousers now. It was a marvelous cool day. I had fun in my garden. Does a photo show that essence to anyone but the photographer who was there ?

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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Nancy Andreasen July 29, 2008, 6:33 pm

I totally agree that capturing the essence is the art of garden photography, and not easy. It is fun to compare photos of iconic gardens and see which photographer seems to have done so. I looked you up after seeing some of your photos used by speakers at the Garden Conservancy seminar last week – I admired your work. It was fun to see Marion Brenner there, taking photos. I hope I can see the results of that too some day. Thanks for your comments!

Nancy – thanks for dropping in and for your kind words. I was in attendance at the Conservancy event Friday and was pleased that many of my photos turned out well but cringed when the Powerpoint format mangled others. The photographer you saw taking pictures (Friday) was not Marion Brenner but Margaretta Mitchell. – Saxon

Mary Beth July 29, 2008, 8:02 pm

You’ve inspired me to get our my tripod – well, you’ve inspired me to THINK about getting out my tripod. Great post!

I think that’s like saying a diet book will inspire me to count calories – or THINK about counting them… Saxon

Lisa at Greenbow July 29, 2008, 9:15 pm

I don’t know if I could use a tripod. I am always getting into odd positions to try to get the best shot. I would find the tripod cumbersome. I might get better pictures. Hmmmm Maybe I will try it sometime and just see. I have a better tripod than camera. Ha…

Everybody finds the tripod cumbersome and the main reason pros feel they have to use it is for technical reasons, image stability, etc; but I truly find it forces you to carefully compose and think whether the photo is even worth taking. We all take the “grab” shots to simply show the scene to our buddies but to get to the next level I depend on the tripod. – Saxon

Pam/Digging July 30, 2008, 2:30 am

Oh, I got hung up on the comment “It was a marvelously cool day,” and everything else went out the window. Sorry, but after the 33rd or whatever triple-digit day we’ve had, your cool day is all I can think of now. πŸ˜‰

I don’t know how to answer this without getting into trouble. I live in Northern California and will say no more about weather… :-> Saxon

Nancy Bond July 30, 2008, 9:31 am

I like the first photo where your Ceanothus is a part of the whole, a warp or woof in that beautiful tapestry. On it’s own, it’s a lovely plant and a beautiful photo, but I believe its essence is found as a thread, woven into the whole cloth. πŸ™‚ JMHO, of course.

Nancy – I genuinely appreciate your comment because, in truth, the first photo with its tapestry feel is the essence of what I see and try to do in gardening. However, it is an even greater challenge to capture in camera because it is much harder to show wide garden scenes. (But I think it more important and instructional for photographers and publisher to show this type photo.)

I did not feature that first photo as the “essence” photo because a) it is hard to show such small photos in a blog and b) it really wasn’t as clean a tapestry photo as others I want to be known for. The grass beyond was in the wrong place as a composition (it should have filled the entire dark hole at the top), the lavender is not filled in (too many dark holes), and on close inspection (which is hard to tell in the small photo), the Carpenteria shrub on the left side of the frame has lots of ratty dying leaves.

However, one of the unexpected surprises of my garden this year, (and don’t we all love it when our gardens go wild on us and do something on their own ?) is the nearly weedy annual Balsam, Impatiens balfouriana that has filled in the shrub border creeping in from my meadow beyond. It definitely finishes off the tapestry feel and makes the photo special. Thanks again for your comment. Saxon

Jean July 30, 2008, 5:34 pm

Boy, great question – how do we capture the essence of a garden? That’s something I’ve struggled with for a while. But you’ve inspired me to think about getting the old tripod out as well. I’m also with Pam on the “cool day” comment. πŸ™‚

If nothing else, getting the tripod out once in a while will help you think about composition and “essence” for those times you don’t have a tripod. Oh, and the cool day comment? I sit here now in my office almost 5 in the afternoon on a summer day now opening my windows to let in the cool 76 degree breeze, which is bringing in the evening fog when I will need 2 blankets to sleep tonight… Whoops, I responded to Pam saying I would say no more about Northern California weather. Saxon

Mr. McGregor's Daughter July 31, 2008, 10:30 am

I should dig out my old tripod, but now is not the time. Lately, I’ve had to do drive-by shootings because the minute I stop moving, the mosquitoes start swarming. This does not make for the best photos.

Heavy duty mosquito repellent is actually one of the must have items in any photographers bag of tricks. I would not go East without it in the summer. Light is always best early and late in the day – just when those pesky critters like to dine. Is there any ecological reason for those things ? – Saxon

mss @ Zanthan Gardens August 12, 2008, 3:05 pm

“Our memory and cognitive systems will allow us to re-live the scene even if the photo barely reminds us of the beauty.”

I like the way you phrased this. What is meaningful to us relies a lot on our memory and connections. But, as you point out, to have communicative power, it must stand apart from our memory and connections.

I think good writing is the same. Some blogs are personal memos; the writer is making a verbal snapshot of the moment. Other blogs focus on interpreting the personal so that they communicate something larger.

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