Seeing a photo

– Posted in: Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day, Garden Design, Garden Photography

No matter what kind of garden you have or what kind of camera you work with, the single most important thing to remember when you take the picture is to ask yourself why you are taking it.  What do you see ?

I have given several presentations recently about taking pictures in the garden and recently put my advice to work in my own garden – then went one step further to “enhance” what I saw.  The camera always lies anyway, so why not embellish the story…..

My fall shrub border

My fall shrub border

It is a great time of year in my front garden.  I plant lots of things for fall color and the miraculous symphony slowly proceeds, all by itself, from September through December.  This year I cut back my low hedge of Lavender ‘Fred Boutin’ earlier than usual, to keep it more compact next year.  The daffodils (already beginning to bloom elsewhere in my garden) appreciate the extra room resulting from an early lavender shear.  To anyone not living in Northern California the absurd notion of having autumn, winter, and spring all at the same time seems incomprehensible.  But true. Anyway, the neat, gray lavender border became a foil for all the color which is now peaking and I wanted to capture it in the camera.

What am I seeing ?  What is it about the garden that gives me the shivers ? That first photo is not bad as an illustration vignette of my shrub border, Camellia, Hydrangea, Lavender, but doesn’t capture my sudden fascination in the gray foliage. The first photo is not what I am “seeing”, not what I am feeling about this unexpected encounter with December color. That essence is in the gray foliage and transient color that has just happened. To capture a moment is my goal, to reveal something that an ordinary photo does not do, is my work. To distill that moment, first I need to move in a bit tighter than my first “grab” shot.  Using a tripod and my camera viewfinder, I frame a pleasing composition.  Upper 2/3 dominated by Hydrandea quericifolia ‘Alice’, bottom 1/3 by Lavender ‘Fred Boutin’

color on the lavender 1

color on the lavender 1

The essence of what I “saw” in my my border is beginning to take shape as I isolate the key elements, but the photo is not strong enough yet. My mind sees the gray lavender as a foil to lots more color than the photo is showing, so now is the time to make the composition say what I want it to say.  What is “really” there, in this moment, is not being revealed by the camera; so I need to enhance the scene.  Let’s add color:

color on the lavender 2

color on the lavender 2

Now we are getting somewhere ! I have placed a few colorful hydrangea leaves in the frame and dropped in more Camellia petals.  Hmmm, long as I am  going this far, what else might it need ?  I look carefully through the viewfinder and contemplate.  And add some more:

color on the lavender 3

color on the lavender 3

The butter yellow Ginkgo leaves bring in another dimension that my heart “saw” in the garden but the camera did not.  As I studied my photograph through the viewfinder I realized I must add the yellow warmth I feel in the garden.  The yellow is not just a nice touch to the composition but it is there in my mind as I walk the garden.  It is what my garden is “about” right now.

So I help along my composition to suit my heart.  At this point the photograph is not about literal reality but about what I really feel. Should I consider some more changes ?  Are the Ginkgo petals too obviously out of place ?  Do I want to get rid of the dark hole in the upper right side of he composition ?  Let’s try this:

color on the lavender 4

color on the lavender 4

I don’t know which of the last two I like the best but at this point,  with all the artistic license I have granted myself, it does not make much difference – the elements are in place.  When I first walked into the garden and saw the camellia petals on the Hydrangea leaves and gray lavender, the mere newness of this moment and unexpected beauty made me want to make a photograph.  As I thought about what I was seeing and forced myself to get down to picture through the static frame of the camera, I was also thinking about what I wanted the photo to say.

In my December garden the transient beauty of color is enhanced by gray.  I had never seen that before.  Now I can “see” it forever.

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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8 comments… add one

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Frances December 13, 2008, 9:17 pm

Hi Saxon, you are so honest with how these brilliant compositions come about, thank you for those pointers. The yellow addition of the hearts was masterful. You must spend a great deal of time on one shot. I need to slow down instead of race throught the garden taking over a hundred shots at a whack and hope for a couple of good ones. So much to learn, thanks for the tips.

Sometimes I have to run around a garden when I am on an assignment and the light is right; I feel lucky when I get the great photo that really gets at what the garden is about. Other times, and in my own garden, when I can take the time to build a photo, the process is quite meditative and gives me great pleasure in thinking and responding about the moment, what I am seeing and how to portray it. Thanks for your comments. Saxon

Nancy Bond December 13, 2008, 10:31 pm

Beautiful shots, and great tips, too. 🙂

Thanks Nancy. Hope you can actually use the tips . Saxon

Amy December 14, 2008, 12:18 am

These are wonderful tips indeed! I’m also finding, like Frances, that I need to slow down and think more about what I am trying to say with my pictures.

Thanks Amy – Sometimes there is not time to slow down, as I said to Frances; but other times there is no need to slow down. When all you want to do is document the garden in a given moment the camera is perfect. People don’t need to be intimidated about using the camera to get the one photo. The first step to getting a good photo is to get the first photo, then work the scene as you distill in your mind what it is you are really seeing. But don’t miss the first photo thinking it is not a great one – Saxon

Lori December 15, 2008, 5:01 am

Oh, you just gave me some ideas for my own garden photography! I was worried about things looking staged, but I think you’re right– the goal really is to evoke a sense of what you saw, since capturing the entire experience as you saw it is impossible.

Lori – Glad to have inspired. It is certainly possible to over stage a garden photo and we have all seen them in certain publications. In some cases that overstaging creates a fantasy, which may be the photographers intent. I try not to do that, as I want gardeners to “see” something, if not literally real, something believable and doable. – Saxon

Lisa at Greenbow December 15, 2008, 7:41 am

It is difficult enough for me to express “feeling” when verbalizing let alone with a photo. This does give me a different way to “look” at a composition.

It is very hard to express feeling in a photo and have that feeling actually communicate to another viewer. It never works for all people and all photographs. One could argue it rarely works. But the art and craft of all creative endeavors is in the trying- Saxon

Mr. McGregor's Daughter December 19, 2008, 12:22 pm

Thanks for sharing your thought process along with your photographic method. I will now try to start thinking about what I’m trying to say with a photo.
I like the photo with the black hole. I find, in the last photo, the light in the corner is too distracting.

Thanks for the perceptive feedback – you obviously studied my process. You picked up on my own thought process in making that photo. The “black hole” can actually be a strong compositional element that disappears when the leaf is put in place. I am still not sure which of the photos I like best. – Saxon

Lois J. de Vries December 19, 2008, 12:44 pm

Hi Saxon and Nan,
Saxon’s remarks about the “feel” of a garden meshes somewhat with the topic of a book that I’m writing.
As I migrate from taking my “documentation” style photos towards fine-art style photos, I’m finding it very difficulet to find on-line photo classes that address my interests, which center on how to get the photo to portray the atmospherics of the garden (or plant), rather than taking a technically competent photo.
Maybe other readers of GGW would also be interested in learning more about Saxon’s thinking process.

What do you think?

Lois – maybe I should be figuring out how to do an on-line class that could actually pay me to do what I do for free here at GGW. I tag all my posts under The Camera Always Lies but there is no lesson plan or structure. So much of getting beyond the simple documentation of a garden to something that conveys what it is “about” takes patience and time to consciously think about what you are seeing. best – Saxon

Jim/ December 19, 2008, 7:05 pm

As an art director, I think that staging or retouching’s purpose is to take out distractions so that the viewer can more easily see what the intention of the photo is, whether it be a product or a garden photo. Thanks for providing a rationale for what a photographer does. Hopefully, it’ll make others better photographers.

Thanks Jim, I try not to stage too many photos at all, and have talked about this several times at GGW. I have seen too many overly staged gardens in certain publications and advertisements that mislead the viewer as to what a “real” garden looks like. But sometimes the intent is not about a real garden, rather to evoke a mood. – Saxon

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