Photography – Space and Shape

– Posted in: Garden Photography, Garden Photography

Lesson 2.3 in PhotoBotanic Garden Photography Workshop

Most of us see in three dimensions but the camera sees in two.  In this chapter, as we learn how to Think Like a Camera, we will need to understand how the camera flattens shapes and how to use those spaces we see in three dimensions to become building blocks of our compositions in two dimensions.

In the opening cover shot, note how all the plant shapes are stacked up and arranged in the composition to overlap and fill the frame.  When a photo is filled with such shapes and textures I call them tapestries and many of my favorite photos use this technique.

Framing the spaces of a garden into two dimensions will create blocks of shapes, and when those shapes are consciously used to compose the full frame, it becomes a tapestry.

For some reason I have always loved medieval tapestries, and I will go out of my way to visit museums that feature them.  The best ones tell intricate stories of great deeds and fables from ancient times.  Woven with no sense of depth perception, tapestries are crammed with shapes and the spaces around each shape always seem balanced.

Be aware of how completely flat and two dimensional a tapestry – or a photograph, will present itself.

The concept we want to be aware of when we are taking pictures is to think about how the blocks of shapes that will be rendered.  To be a pleasing composition those shapes need to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.

Even a typical garden scene needs be considered in the shapes you put together.

The three dimensional garden becomes two dimensional blocks of shapes.

The shapes are nicely balanced. Note how the main shape, with path as a leading line, combines with either of the other shapes to create a nice 1/3 and 2/3 balance.

The three dimensional scene becomes two.  The spaces each of those shapes will occupy within your frame equals the composition.  We have already worked with focal points and forced perspective but these now we need to work within the blocking of the composition.

Another very useful tool for using blocks of shapes to create a composition is color.  Blocks of color are graphic ways to allocate space.

Note the three distinctive parts of this photo: the block of color, the buildings, and the texture of the prairie meadow. Lurie Garden – Chicago

The three parts of this photo become shapes in a two dimensional composition.

Note the shapes of these spaces are nearly identical to the earlier photo with the path; and again we are taking a three dimensional scene and finding some fundamental shapes so that it translates into the two dimensions of a photograph.

Before I go back to the more complex tapestries, let’s look at another example of color blocking with shapes.

This photo of the native bunchgrass, Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) is its own shape and dominates 2/3 of the composition.  I found a vantage point where I could find two other shapes to compliment the remaining 1/3 space.

Actually, in my original frame I confused myself trying to  include a fourth shape at the top.  I think this was a mistake and cropped it in post production.

OK, I am going to treat myself to one of my current favorite photos, a tapestry of shapes.

All the shapes contribute to this tapestry effect, including the block of off white at the bottom left – a balancing shape to the dark area in the upper right.

And now with the artistic potential.  (More on artistic treatments in Chapter 4 – The Camera and the Computer)

Another example of this painting technique is on my Mental Seeds blog.

A really important concept about shapes in a composition involves negative space.  Negative space is a block within a composition that is not part of your story.  It carries no real content but is a balancing shape, and is usually bounded by the edge of the frame.

It can be a single block of muted color and texture, like the sunlit garden in the out of focus distance behind these Iris.

Note the other interlocking shapes and the many triangles that make up this composition.

Or negative space can be a a group of dark spaces with strong graphic appeal in this macro detail of frosty Berberis leaves.

Conscious framing will often create unused spaces that the artful photographer will use to balance the composition.  The five background shapes around these frosty leaves were carefully created by using the edges of the frame.

From my  November 2009 Gardening Gone Wild post Composing With Color comes an example where negative space is fundamental to the composition:

Look closely and the Tupelo leaf becomes a hole into a red world.

Space and shape.  This is a concept that is not easily taught.  We must each develop our own sense of composition and balance, our own style.  Carefully and with firm intention fill your frames with shapes and spaces.

As the book continues we will dissect even more examples.  The most complex examples, the tapestries, tend to be the most artistically rewarding.  Lots of interlocking shapes.

Spring trees tapestry at Filoli Gardens

Stay tuned…

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 November 9, 2012, 7:58 am

Honestly, there is so much to think about in composition. I rarely think in blocks of shape consciously in photography (painting, yes), but often think of garden tapestry, blocking of shape in garden design and of course, massing in architecture. It is time to get the disciplines working in concert, yet is hard to do with photography which is so much more immediate of a medium.

I realized, that is the major difference with photography. You often don’t have hours or days at a time to design the piece. This makes photography a more innate art in my opinion. It is based on learning, but also a feeling and a sense of knowing. A painting, building design or garden design works through with a lengthy process to completion. Photography’s process is so quick and deliberate on image capture generally. There are conditions that cause quick response. I notice post processing comes in very handy on tidying up a composition, yet it is far better to get it right from the start.

Much I do in composition is second nature, but looking at blocks of color in thirds is another design principle to incorporate. What I realized from one of your older posts on filling the frame, was I do it in camera often, but never really thought about it once the image was published. I find many lenses help to fill the frame, but again was never something I thought about until your post pointed it out. Same with color blocking, thanks for another great look at composition. It made me really “think like a gardener.”

You really need to get that book out. All your tips and tricks are so useful.

Thanks Donna for another thoughtful addition to these posts. I want to acknowledge here that I totally ripped off the way you used a full page photo with text to mimic a magazine cover.

Anyone else interested in seeing this cool effect and her own fine photography should check out this post of Donna’s at her blog Garden Walk, Garden Talk.

A lot of this particular post deals with an innate way of seeing. As you say, the photographer can’t really spend a lot of time blocking out a photo during a shoot but often after its done, certain photos will stand out when you get down to editing. For me, I find the photos that are well balanced due to use of shape and space end up being the ones I choose; not JUST for that of course, but because they simply look more “artistic” to MY eye. I may have spent more conscious effort with framing, or leading lines, or focal points, or juxtaposition of the my elements at the time I was trying to figure out how to tell my story, but underneath all that is my style, my blocking.

The hope of this book is to give photographers a way to investigate gardens to find their OWN style, tell the their OWN stories. – Saxon

Debra Lee Baldwin November 9, 2012, 11:38 am

Thank you, Saxon, for opening my eyes to the world in a fresh way. I love the way that looking through a lens makes my awareness of a scene more intense, and I notice things I would have missed otherwise. OK, now to see the tapestries that surround me! I’d like to know more about negative space, too, and positioning the subject off-center. I love it when other people do it, but I can’t seem to pull it off. It ends up just looking like a mistake.

Hey Debra Lee – Always glad when someone says they can see the world in fresh ways. Thanks. With negative space you first have to recognize the empty spaces that may creep into a photo, then use that shape or shapes just like any other shape when you balance the composition. Always be aware when you are wondering how to use those negative shapes, that the edge of the frame creates part of the shape you will eventually see in the final photo. – Saxon

Donna November 9, 2012, 9:02 pm

Thank you again Saxon for mentioning GWGT. I am doing a series of posts and will be mentioning you in an upcoming post as a photographer that has influenced me greatly over the past few years. You will be listed with a few really great photographers as ones that I have learned quite a bit. I think it is important for readers to go and learn as I have done from some of you that are very generous with your time and talents. Many of my followers are photographers themselves, and may not have heard of GGW, but may have heard of you. I hope to turn them on to your work and the fact you have a book soon to be offered.

Thanks Donna – I appreciate being one of the community of photographers you follow and they can find all my posts here under “The Camera Always Lies” – Saxon

ks November 9, 2012, 9:46 pm

This is a splendid lesson, and I am really drawn to the tapestry effect. I have taken hundreds of images at the Lurie Garden over the last few years and I look at them over and over. I think it is because I find the tapestry so compelling. You have prompted me to think about other gardens I have photographed that are similar this way; the knot garden at Filoli and the heather garden at Mendo Coast Botanical come to mind. Funny how we can be so drawn to something, but might need someone else to shine a light and tell us why. Thanks for another great post.

As long as you can see garden patterns (shapes and spaces) you can see the tapestries they can create. One of my all time favorite tapestry photos is this one of the knot garden at Filoli:
Here is a whole gallery of photos from the Lurie Garden:

and you remind me how much I want to get back to the heather garden in Mendo – Saxon

Candy Suter November 10, 2012, 12:54 am

Great post Saxon. You have given me some different ways to look at things through my lens. Your cropping of the extra color in the 1/3 section of your photo is what I would have done also. This may sound strange but sometimes I will take a photo of a large scene and then make copies. I then will crop out sections until it speaks to me. LOL I am a photographer that doesn’t necessarily go by the rules. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. But it sure is fun in the making isn’t it?

Candy – Never any harm in learning how to use your crop tool to refine what you thought you were seeing. “Rules”? Whata re they ? 😉 – Saxon

Arthur in the Garden! November 12, 2012, 1:03 pm

Great articles. I enjoyed the tips!!

Thanks Arthur – Now go USE those tips 😉 – Saxon

gardenbug November 14, 2012, 11:10 pm

Your article affected me in several ways…
I have followed some of your work over time for the simple reason that my last name is also Holt.
And then my son gave me a digital camera, and I began to take close up shots… Too many of them I think. As a gardener I am rethinking the use of space in photos, and standing back seems more important to me these days…and seeing those “empty spaces” as well as the whole plant at times as well.
You sent me on a chase this evening, which I haven’t completed yet, involving tapestries. When I was 18, in 1960, I attended a conference in France with my parents on the Enlightenment. As a part of that, we attended a Jean Lurçat tapestry exhibit in Annecy. I need to piece together the names of people there, the site where it took place.
Thank you for the pleasant memories as well as ideas on improving my photos!

Kathy August 15, 2016, 10:51 pm

Love your pics. I’m also an avid garden photographer but find getting a wider shot, like you do here to just wonderful effect, much harder. As soon as I go wide, my detail seems to suffer, whereas yours looks compressed, as if through binoculars. Is that lens choice? I only have one lens.

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