Photographing foliage

– Posted in: Garden Photography, Garden Visits

A garden photograph is not simply a landscape photo taken in a garden.  It should communicate something about gardening, something that enlarges the viewer’s understanding and appreciation of gardens.

This photo of fresh emerging, nearly chartreuse foliage of Rhododendron hyperythrum is a fine landscape photo, a nice leaf pattern with a sense of vibrant young leaves unfolding, but it says little about gardening.  True, part of the reason we take photos is simply to share the beauty of plants and the wonder we see, but I challenge my students to “think like a gardener” and find a photo that goes deeper than that.

A recent workshop at San Francisco Botanical Garden was about foliage.  Most gardeners develop a keen interest in foliage as it can provide a long season of drama, depth, contrast, and complexity to any garden.  The challenge of a the day was to find foliage juxtapositions and combinations that a gardener would truly appreciate and learn from.

Here is the branch of the Rhododendron that first caught my eye.

I pretty quickly “saw” the pattern shot that opens this post and filled the frame with the  leaves; but the shade loving, blue forget-me-nots (Myosotis) were part of the essence of the scene.  I moved around to position the blue specks behind the foliage.

Not only do we now get a hint of the garden as opposed to the first photo, the added color is a lot more interesting.  By using a telephoto lens and large aperture for shallow depth of field I was able to isolate the focus point so the eye stays on the leaves and not be confused with busy blue dots.

As I worked the scene I saw I could come over top of that foliage truss and look down onto the forget-me-nots.

I tried and tried to find a way to fill the frame with more  blue so that I did not have that “hole” in the upper right.  But I wanted to see the whole truss isolated without overlapping other leaves, and there was simply not enough forget-me-nots off to the left to come around a bit to the right with my camera.

Easy fix with Photoshop.

Cloning parts of photos is really easy when the area being worked on has soft focus.  And I only did a bit of this “enhancement”.  Did I create a fantasy ?  Perhaps, but my mind did not “see” the lack of forget-me-nots, it saw the scene full.  I suspect the gardener sees it full too; so I am just thinking like a gardener. Right ?

Let’s try another foliage photo.

Good gardens have all sorts of  complex combinations and can be a candy store for photographers.

I am a sucker for silver variegated foliage and this Australian shrub in the Bot garden, Pohutukawa (Metrosideros kermadecensis ‘Variegata’) would be a subject for my camera if only for its useful landscape features.  But throw in variegation and the other plants and leaf textures, I found other photos.  Look under the shrub where a fern and iris leaves are mingling.

These sorts of foliage combinations, with different leaf shapes, colors, and textures really make a strong garden photo with lots of inspiration from which any gardener can learn, even if the specific plants may be exotic.  The strap like leaves are not actually an iris but another Australian native, Xeronema callistemon – Poor Knights Lily.

But once again, my mind’s eye did not see the gap in the composition – the empty space in the upper right where the Ajuga comes to the path.  Once again, cloning to the rescue.

More photographing foliage tips to be in the book, including more photos from the workshop.  Here is a link to one on 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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Donna April 24, 2012, 8:22 pm

I very much enjoyed your step by step improvement of each image. Many of us would stop immediately at your first image and be quite satisfied, yet as you kept evolving the image to include a hint of garden, it kept getting better and better. I like looking for more ‘information’ in photos and am just learning the importance of this.

Thanks Donna. When you look at photos assume the photographer is showing you just what you need to decipher it; no more or less than needed to tell a concise story. This then will improve your own work – Saxon

Charles Hawes April 25, 2012, 5:36 am

Thanks for this interesting article. It is always good to see what the thinking is behind composition. But as for this enlarging our understanding and appreciation of gardens, I am not so sure.

One of the ways that garden photography fails to do this is to present gardens as idealised places where everything looks perfect. Photoshop is a necessary tool, but it does trouble me that the touching up of pics to remove unsightly aspects of the garden (phone lines, telegraph poles, etc etc) or in this instance cloning plant material to fill gaps only increases a sense of unreality about what gardens are actually like.

Charles – Thank you for your comment and opportunity to open a dialogue on the function of photography. All my posts here for more than 4 years have been Tagged “The Camera Always Lies”. It is the photographers job to tell a story, to create a mood, to report the “truth” of his or her vision. The photos we take should ALWAYS be interpretations of our reality. The photos we see are always “lies” that the photographer has chosen to show us.

My job, here as an instructor, is to help other photographers learn how to use the camera to tell their story and how to see a garden through the camera. I would argue all gardens are idealized and often that is why the amateur photographer is disappointed with their photos. They get so caught up in the moment of photographing the ideal they don’t see the warts, not just the obvious ones like the telephone pole, the dead branches, hoses, or bare mulch, but the not so obvious distractions like busy camera backgrounds, conflicting shapes, or in the case of my cloning, “gaps” in the garden.

I certainly appreciate your concern about creating unrealistic expectations when we see photos in the media that have been enhanced. Media images have manipulated our ideals of food, fashion, and nearly everything else. It is none-the-less true that we tend to idealize what we see with our eyes. We see what we want to see. Our brains use all our other faculties to come to a final reality of what we actually “see”.

I hope I am helping photographers use the camera to capture what they “see”. I am urging them to think like a gardener, to show images that “enlarges the viewer’s understanding and appreciation of gardens”. At the core of this post was encouraging the photographer to include other garden elements that give the photo more character. The cloning was just the icing of my reality.

I will try to do a better job of reminding everyone that the camera always lies, and the truth to one person can be fantasy to another. – Saxon

Cathy April 25, 2012, 6:59 am

Like Donna, I appreciate being shown how an absolutely adequate photograph can become spectacular, and it starts with being able to see the possibilities of this in the garden. After your last photography post, I started really looking at what I had photographed while still in the garden and correcting things like depth of field, and balancing the complexities and filling the frame and re-shooting the shot then and there. (It’s fine too do it later, when downloading and editing, but by then it’s often too late to go back and do it “better”.)

Thanks for yet another wonderful post about setting up really beautiful frames in the garden!

Cathy – Thanks for following along. You are absolutely right that the time spend getting the photo right while you are still in the garden is far, far better than hoping to make something happen later. If you don’t understand, by thoughtful contemplation, what you are seeing when you take the picture, you have little chance of making anything of it later. – Saxon

Jan LeCocq April 25, 2012, 10:31 am

Very nice post, and great images!

Thank you Jan. Hope you might have learned a tip or two. – Saxon

Elephant's Eye April 25, 2012, 3:10 pm

I don’t have photoshop for the final tweak, but your words go with me, camera in hand, to my garden.

Thanks E – As Charles pointed out, perhaps that final Photoshop tweak was a bit much anyway. – Saxon

Gillian April 25, 2012, 7:10 pm

Oh I do enjoy your lessons, and enjoy the foliage in my garden but often tend to try to include too mcuh. I am off into the garden now with camera in hand. thank you for sharing your knowledge.

Thanks Gillian – With all these readers saying they are going out into their gardens with their cameras, I may have to set up a sharing site for all to see… -Saxon

Donna April 25, 2012, 9:10 pm

I think of Photoshop as another tool in the process. What is the difference really from the old darkroom days. There was many things to do that would alter the image. I am just thankful that Photoshop makes it easier, although learning to get some of the effects in camera is far preferable. If one puts on a filter on a lens, is that considered any different than applying one in Photoshop?

It is funny, but for a post I just prepared, but did not post yet, I removed telephone lines in front of a church structure. I never do that for blog posts, but was hoping the local museum (former church) would like my photo. Charles made me rethink this a bit.

If you are trying to be historically accurate, a photographer should be very careful about any sort of image manipulation, but if you are looking to tell your story the way you “see” it, I think it is important to use every tool you want.

For me, following my eye surgeries and attemptes to communicate new vision in my Mental Seeds blog, I was forced into exploring Photoshop to figure ways to show what I saw. Now I feel unburdened to use it in my “normal” work to help show what I feel, though only with a delicate touch. – Saxon

Allan Mandell April 26, 2012, 12:00 am

Excellent post – clearly thoughts from a pro. I agree ‘working the scene’ can definitely peel back layers of discovery. The coolest thing to me is that not only can a fully composed photograph give insight into the subtleties of a garden, but it can simultaneously have a foot firmly planted in an even more lyrical world. This to me is the ultimate garden photograph, one that leads you by way of the garden into a world of pure beauty.

Allan – What a treat to have one of the most lyrical garden photographers I know chime in and enhance this lesson. Indeed the goal is always to lead to that pure beauty that is only really in the mind of the beholder. Thanks my friend – Saxon

Susan April 26, 2012, 6:10 am

This was a great post to wake up too. I love discovering gardens through photography. I also enjoyed the thread that followed. I find that the camera really helps me “see”. Thank you!

Thanks Susan – The camera is a great too that way – Saxon

ricki - sprig to twig April 26, 2012, 1:39 pm

You have given words to a phenomenon that has plagued me: seeing one thing with my eyes and then being shocked by what is captured by the camera. Thanks for this tutorial on bringing the two things closer by whatever means necessary.

ricki – there are SO many reasons why we get shocked this way, but I am willing to bet the no 1 reason is shooting in bad light, where the brain compensates for it but the camera does not. – Saxon

Tracy Zeltser April 26, 2012, 1:42 pm

It is great to see the process your artistic mind went through put into words, analyzed and applied to the garden photos, as well as seeing the photos you took along the way. It is a great exercise that I am inspired to try on my own. Your garden photos are beautiful! Thank you!

Yea ! Another is inspired to put the lesson to work. Thanks – Saxon

Pam/Digging April 26, 2012, 5:15 pm

Thanks for this post, Saxon. I always learn a lot from your series of photos and explanations. Like Elephants Eye, I don’t use Photoshop either (due to a lack of time, not interest), but even simple things like changing the angle of your shot and, as you point out, capturing flowers in the background, can make a photo better.

Pam – Thanks for dropping by. I know from your own work that you understand the benefits of small shifts in camera position to bring in or out certain other garden elements. – Saxon

Chookie Inthebackyard April 27, 2012, 8:16 am

Fascinating to see how ‘cloning’ is used. Thank you for helping me educate my eyes too.
Just a correction: Pohutukawa are from New Zealand, not Australia; the cultivar here is from the Kermadec Islands. Cultivars of M. excelsa (New Zealand Christmas Tree) are common in coastal gardens here in Sydney. I don’t think we have any native Metrosideros at all. Xeronema callistemon is also from New Zealand. There’s a genus Callistemon which is endemic to Australia; no doubt that is where the confusion arose.

Chookie – Very grateful, and I have corrected the post (for anyone who may read these comments in the future…) I will confess to sloppy thinking here in California, where we have great interest in Mediterranean climate plants and many Australian plants have become staples in the garden. Whenever I see a plant from “down under” I assume (hope) it is from the summer-dry region of Australia. So sorry to be so ignorant of the rest of the continent. Anybody want to send me on a photo shoot . . . for educational purposes ? – Saxon

Janet Davis April 27, 2012, 11:42 am

The camera always lies, but this photographer always speaks the truth! Kudos to you for elucidating the tools available, and why they are useful in certain situations. I airbrush petals to take away the midge’s bites, the rain spots, the folds from my own fingers – how is that different from adding a little cloud of blue forget-me-nots to soften a dark hole? If I want to write about midges or rain damage, I’d leave the marks. But shooting for stock means finding as unblemished an example as you can and rendering it as well as you can. Nature isn’t always like that, of course. In the case of achieving compositional balance, I think 1% of the people looking at that shot would notice the little dark hole (including you, obviously). The other 99% see the gorgeous juxtaposition of blue and green and the contrasting shapes, which was what drew you to the possibilities in the shot. Most would never look at that image and say, “shame about that little bit of dirt where the forget-me-nots are missing”. That wasn’t the point. Keep teaching!

Janet – Thanks for joining the conversation. So nice to have fellow pros chime in. The relatively minor retouching we do really just reinforces what most of us “see” when we look at garden flowers. The still photograph force us to stop and really see. In one way, by not retouching we are destroying the fantasy we love rather than creating a fantasy we can’t have. – Saxon

Chookie Inthebackyard April 28, 2012, 10:03 pm

Come to Australia and I’ll have a cuppa with you in Sydney!

I’m gonna hold you to it … -Saxon

Carolyn May 2, 2012, 8:39 pm

I smiled as you described your efforts to work the scene. I’m actually attempting to do that as I photograph. I do have Photoshop and while I’m not opposed to using it, I’d rather not as it takes away precious time. I’ve learned over the course of the past two years of my photographing experience that if I take the time to experiment with framing the shot, I always get a better picture. I learned this gem through trial and error… ok lots of error. But since I only photograph for my own pleasure, all is well. And by the way, I love your pic with the hole in the forget-me-nots most. It seems more “real” to my eye. I always enjoy your words… thanks for sharing!

THanks Carolyn – Learn by doing is by far the best way get better at anything – Saxon

Capital Gardens May 4, 2012, 10:05 am

There are so many lovely images on this blog, I can’t tell if you guys are gardeners or photographers! Lovely blog.

A fine compliment for sure. It takes a good gardener to take a good garden photo. Thanks – Saxon

Capital Gardens May 4, 2012, 10:06 am

Oh and by the way, the History link in your left side bar doesn’t work.

Jenn May 11, 2012, 7:33 pm

That first image wants to be a textile pattern. Very nice color range and repeat.

Lots of foliage patterns lend themselves to textile patterns I think. My favorites I call “tapestries”. Thanks for the comments. -Saxon

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