Photo Overwhelm

– Posted in: Garden Visits

One of my first first lessons to students who take my garden photography workshops is about “seeing”.  If you don’t stop to think what you are seeing, what it is that excites you about a garden, then you will end up with a photo that will be little more than literally, a snapshot of time.  Let’s take this lesson to Chicago.Lurie garden in Milennium Park, Chicago

When you are in a fabulous garden you can start hyperventilating over beauty, not knowing where to start.  It happens to everyone.  It happened to me in the Lurie Garden in Chicago’s Millenium Park.

Tapestry of sun perennials in Lurie Garden

In the middle of downtown, at the edge of Lake Michigan, the City of Chicago has created the magnificent Millenium Park, where is found the Lurie Garden, a rooftop garden over parking garages, an homage to native plants and prairies.  It is by no means a re-creation of a prairie, nor is it meant to be.  It is an art installation, and since it sits right next to The Chicago Art Institute I am sure I am not the first to make the comparison.  The artist of this masterwork is plantsman Piet Oudolf, a Dutchman who went plant hunting in Illinois prairies for inspiration and plant material.

The garden is divided into two sections, one for shade one for sun; and it is the sunny “Light Plate” that stunned me.  I had seen the garden in the fall while working on The American Meadow Garden, a time when the garden is dominated by grasses and seed heads.  I was not prepared to see these colors of early summer.  Oh how I wished I had seen it before I completed work on that book.  I was on photo overwhelm as soon as I walked in.

River of meadow sage in Lurie garden

This view (above) is a purple river of mixed Meadow Sages (Salvia x sylvestris) that arcs back past Amsonia and Tradescantia to the entrance you see in the first, panoramic view at the top of this post.  This ribbon was the first thing I “saw” as I wondered how I would catch my breath, how to stop hyperventilating, and make some photographs to do the garden justice.

The artful block plantings and impeccably placed groups of these sun loving perennials offer ample compositions, but rather than snap away at everything when faced with too many choices, stop and simplify.  Think about what is really exciting you.  What are you really seeing ?

For me, on that June morning at 5:30 a.m. when I knew I would only have a couple hours of good light, the chartreuse foliage of the Moor Grass (Sesleria autumnalis) became my theme.  I look for grasses in every garden I photograph, especially ones that are meadow and prairie inspired, and I had never seen this Sesleria used so abundantly, its own foliage color used so effectively.   There are all kinds of photos to be had.

Let’s analyze how to take advantage of that foliage on this day in this garden and work on one idea, to make the camera lie to tell a story, to slow down and “see” when photo overwhelm overcomes us.  Stay in one area and work it.  Allow your self to “see”.

This is a very wide angle view from a pathway that crosses the middle of the Lurie Garden:

wide view of Lurie Garden

From here, with a 22 mm lens close to the ground and putting the camera on my tripod, I can carefully compose so that I have shapes, colors, lines, and contrasts that fill the frame and tell a story.  The river of Sages seem huge, the color contrasts with the Moor grass breathtaking.  We see the city, the wide lens shows the skyline, and the lens brings in the whole width of the garden.

From almost the same point I begin to use other lenses as I “see” other photos.  Note in the upper left third where the sage and grass converge to meet more of the garden ?  Let’s move the tripod a bit to the left over the  grass and go there:

blocks of sesleria and sage in Lurie garden

This is now a 70 mm focal length, almost a “normal” lens for my full frame 35mm camera.  We get much more of a tapestry effect.  The Sesleria foliage is THE story and the blocks of Oudolf’s perennial plantings become part of the design story.  (Remember this view for later – note the Alliums popping up on the left to orient yourself).  What else to see ?  Now I look around with a telephoto lens.

When I moved to be overtop of the Sesleria and put on a longer lens, I no longer saw the lighter,  blue Meadow Sage that we saw in the wide view.  The river of sage was no longer part of the story; but it’s  still beckons and I want to show the mix of cultivars that make the ribbon.  So with the telephoto lens:

telephoto view of sage  by sesleria

The 200 mm lens really helps isolate items in a photograph.  Planes of shapes and color stack up, focal points become very tight to make a very graphic composition.  Working with these few elements I now try different cropping on the same theme:

panorama, sesleria and salvia in Lurie garden

I envisioned this panorama view in camera and cropped it when I got home.  The blue and yellow seem to fit together like pieces of a puzzle.

Whenever I see a strong composition I make sure I take a vertical too:

vertical, sesleria and salvia in Lurie garden

Now back off again.  I stop to catch my breath again.  I look back at the garden again; and drink it in.  Again.  Sigh.

What an amazing place.  I close my eyes, block out the city street noise, and listen to blackbirds.  The light is still holding with some unexpected morning overcast.  Should I push on to other parts of the garden ?  No, here in the midst of these colors and shapes I bet there is more:  I keep finding new compositions as I relax and”see” more clever plant compositions.

Recall those Alliums a few photos above ?  They seem almost insignificant there; but even small elements can be important tools to effective composition, as we see next:

Alliums in the moor grass, Lurie garden

It is a fine composition without the wild onions but their small but robust vertical accents seem to bring the photo alive.  I feel a vibrancy to the meadow, a wildness that seems natural even though my brain tells me it is a contrived garden.  I love this shot.

I hope to get at least one great shot from every shoot, one keeper that years later define my feelings.  In a great garden when the light is good I expect myself to get several, but it starts with one.  It can be overwhelming, but the trick is to slow down, begin to “see” one element, recognize what is turning you on; work it, and don’t try to do too much at once.

I think I got a good few in the Lurie Garden.  Only time will truly tell.  Here is an album of 40 photos from the Lurie Garden on my PhotoBotanic Archive and a YouTube video.

Sigh.  What a great 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

Latest posts by Saxon Holt (see all)

18 comments… add one

Leave a Comment

elaine rickett July 30, 2011, 5:02 am

What wonderful pics and what an amazing garden – it took my breath away too. Great advice to take on board.

Yes,when in Chicago – a must see! – Saxon

Don July 30, 2011, 7:19 am

I have seen this garden photographed before but never like this! It’s so vibrant! Thanks for sharing!

I had only seen in it in fall, never knew it had so much color – Saxon

Katie @ Wildwood Creek July 30, 2011, 7:24 am

What a beautiful garden and gorgeous photos! I must see this garden in person some day.

Looks good in all seasons, though I suppose winter is its own aesthetic – Saxon

Katherine July 30, 2011, 10:00 am

Beautiful!!! I love Chicago- we got engaged there so it has and always will have a special place in my heart. The gardens are beautiful. We have so many photos of us there (we go at least once a year). Great shots- I love the contrast of the purple/yellow gold. I have always been impressed with Chicagos plantings- along Michigan Ave and Lurie Garden, and just all over. You have done a great job capturing it all.

Thanks Katherine – I am also impressed that the garden is right next to the Art Institute. Coincidence ? – Saxon

Genevieve July 30, 2011, 10:39 am

THANK YOU! I call it “garden freak” when I lose my mind and freak it in a super sweet one- now I just have to remember your advice and do a better job of understanding WHAT it is that’s so electric…whether to shoot it or learn from it.

You really need to slow down and learn (and “see”) first. Good photos will follow – Saxon

Cathy July 30, 2011, 11:41 am

I’ve also seen photographs of this garden but never appreciated its beauty in the way I do after seeing these photographs.

I’m not as fond of grasses as Mr. Holt, but his photographs #31 and #36 are among the most amazing pictures I’ve seen of the Lurie and in my view, truly capture the essence of this glorious place.

Thanks so much for helping to demystify the frustration I always feel when photographing my own garden or gardens we visit. There is so much to see… I get so flustered trying to capture it all.

What I take from this is that I need to stop and see the roses as well as smell them. By photographing little bits to capture the beauty and the nuances of individual pieces I can get a far more complete picture…. sort of like capturing it all, not in one fell swoop, but in the sum of all of its parts.

Nice summary Cathy – Saxon

Gayle Madwin July 30, 2011, 12:43 pm

I was surprised to find that when I clicked on the link to the gallery and started picking out my personal favorite photos from there, only one of my favorites was actually included in this post – and that one was near the beginning of this post (the second photo from the top), suggesting that it was one of the earlier photos taken, not one of the harder ones to “see.”

However, on looking through my personal favorites, I also discovered that my personal favorites were all rather similar to one another, suggesting that I have a rather strong preference for one specific way of “seeing” this garden (which I have never seen in person and don’t remember having seen any other photographs of). My favorites, in addition to the second photo included in this post, are these: 25, 61, 74, and 111.

Gayle – What a thorough reading you have done on this post ! Indeed, that second photo in the post is one of my favorites too, but by placing it at the beginning of the post I did not mean to imply it was captured before the others. I put it at the beginning to capture the reader . . . then I could go on to explain a little bit of the process with the other sequence.

And I included the gallery of 40 at the end because it IS so hard to find a favorite. It seems you like my favorites too. I call them tapestries where I try to compose blocks of color and texture out of context of the location.

Thanks for the comments – Saxon

Andrea July 30, 2011, 3:49 pm

Saxon, we could’ve used these great tips during our photo shoots during the recent Garden Blogger’s annual meetup in Seattle (#seattlefling)! With so much to see, I like your idea of concentrating on one area.

Thanks, but maybe you needed those ideas because David overwhelmed you ? 🙂 – Saxon

Hoover Boo July 30, 2011, 10:21 pm

I like _36 very much because the white of the foreground Indigo flowers ties in with the white of the buildings beyond.

Some sort of nice balance and connection in that, between plant and concrete.

Most excellent photos. Enlightening to see how a pro thinks. My only thought on my photos is: is it in focus? Usually not. And that’s with auto-focus!

Thanks Hoover Boo – If your photos are out of focus, even with auto focus, either check your camera as it may have been bumped and the lens is out of kilter, raise your ISO speed so that it shoots at a faster shutter or take a breath and hold the camera more steady. – Saxon

Karin/Southern Meadows July 31, 2011, 6:22 am

I was at Lurie this summer as well. An amazing place! I was so taken in that now I want to go back and see it in all the seasons. The garden is always changing and evolving making a very movable piece of art. Thanks for all the photo tips!

All great gardens should be seen in different season. I am making plans now to go back to Chicago in September myself – Saxon

James Golden July 31, 2011, 2:06 pm

What a beautiful garden, particularly as you’re shown it to us. I’ve only seen Piet Oudolf’s work in New York (High Line, Battery Bosque), and in books, of course, but can’t wait to get to the Lurie Garden. Thanks for the photo pointers. I look forward to more of your posts.

Thanks James. I, on the other hand have not seen the High Line and can’t wait to see IT. – Saxon

Freda Cameron July 31, 2011, 2:10 pm

Amazing garden and your photos are pure eye candy. I just had to tweet your gallery for others to see!

Thanks Freda. The garden is the eye candy. Spread the word – Saxon

Judy Nauseef July 31, 2011, 5:00 pm

Marvelous photos and great descriptions of the compositions of the photos. I love this garden and it was a treat to see it that time of year as I have seen it summer and winter. You can exist the new wing of the Art Institute on to a patio-type space and look over the gardens and the city.

Doesn’t it seem like an extension of the Art Institute ? – Saxon

Mr. McGregor's Daughter July 31, 2011, 6:43 pm

A wise sage taught me to hold off on taking out the camera when garden visiting, to experience the garden through my eyes, instead of through a lens. I try to do that now, then go back with the camera to capture my impressions. But, dang, it’s hard to do that in a breathtaking garden that brings on the hyperventilating.
I’ve never been to the Lurie in June, for some odd reason. You photos demand that I schedule a date for next June to see that river of Salvia. Wow.

There’s a lot to be said for just experiencing the garden, not trying to capture it; and often I surprise garden owners when I don’t show up with a camera when I go to meet them and the garden. On the other hand that feeling of hyperventilating and exhilaration comes only once. (Often with careful planing around good light). Impressions later will be different. – Saxon

Cathryn Farr August 1, 2011, 5:13 pm

Interesting to note the sea of blue was not swimming with bees.
Beautiful and thought-provoking perspective; as a homeschool mom, I liken it to studying a subject for in-depth understanding.

Cathryn – I don’t know if there would be any bees in Millenium Park downtown Chicago, but probably not at 6 in the morning anyway. Nice observation though. – Saxon

camilo villamizar August 1, 2011, 10:40 pm

You are right, one must slow, stop and think about what we look at, color, shape,texture and the special feeling it produces when it is admired. To take pictures for the sake of taking pictures doo not produce any feeling. I usually use my pictures to produce my art work, it helps me to remember details and colors. You photographs are very beautiful.

Thanks for your comment Camilo. No matter what our art from may be, trying to capture that special feeling is always the goal. – Saxon

Carol @ August 2, 2011, 6:47 pm

I think its kind of like a one-week vacation. You can go to many different spots, visiting each for just a short time. Or you can stop to do one place really well. You have stopped. You have done one place. You have done really well!

And I want to go back and try to do another section well . . . -Saxon

Jack Holloway August 5, 2011, 4:53 am

Thank you, Saxon! That was not only a valuable photography lesson in many ways, it was also a lovely insight into the way Oudolf does things… the more I see of his manipulation of space and colour, the more I admire him.

Jack – Thanks for the nice omment. I too am more and more in admiration of Oudolf, though I must admit as I look at many of his designs they are quite similar. But why mess with success ? – Saxon

[shareaholic app=”recommendations” id=”13070491″]