Seeing the Garden – Details and Vignettes

– Posted in: Garden Photography, Garden Photography

frost leaves on meadow lawn

When you set out to photograph a garden, don’t miss the details and vignettes. Often the essence of what you see can be distilled down to distinct details, details that tell the story of what you feel.

This is the last lesson in “Seeing the Garden”, chapter two of the PhotoBotanic Garden Photography Workshop.  Throughout this chapter I have been talking about seeing the garden with a camera, how to compose, how to use focal points, space and shape, points of view, leading lines when you go looking for photos.

As you look, as you consciously look for ways to capture what you see with a camera, look for the details and vignettes that are pieces of the puzzle.  Don’t forget that you are likely to share your photos as an album, gallery, or group share of some kind (more in chapter four on Sharing).  Tightly composed shots often convey an intimacy and spotaneaity that is only hinted at in a wide shot.

flowering thyme as groundcover by path

Vignette of thyme in flowering groundcover tapestry by stepping stone path.

I am not talking here simply about macro, close-up  shots.  This is another subject and will also get its own lesson, but the vignettes I want you to look for are combinations of only a very few elements that you combine in the camera frame.  Show a detail you see in context of the garden around it, find a vignette.

These photos CAN be macro shots, such as this frosty Berberis leaf:

frosty berberis leaf

But, the composition and framing uses multiple elements such as the frost and finding an angle in the garden that brought in the gauzy fall color.  Then I let the camera viewfinder help me frame with good balance, use of shapes and negative space, leading lines, etc.  – all things you have mastered from earlier lessons.  (right ? 😉 )

As long as I am writing this on a cold winter day I will use another example of a detail shot that is not simply a macro.

fall color oakleaf hydrangea

This Oak-leaf Hydrangea is not simply a picture of a leaf, it stacks up 3 layers (remember the rule of thirds ?) in a combination of elements that tell a story, not just a story of leaf shape or the frost, but also of how the plant grows, how it turns color.

Always, always, remember to use the entire frame of your frame.  This was lesson 1.1 and you may be tired of hearing this repeated every lesson, but presume you are going to share this photo, presume it is something others will look at, presume it is more than eye candy.  It has a story. The better you get at seeing the garden with your camera, the more your story will come through.

Imagine cropping the top off that hydrangea photo.  You would no longer see how the leaves grow.  Take a wee bit off the bottom and you no longer see the leaf shape in that third row. These are elements of MY story. Your results may vary.

Let’s jump to summer and find vignettes in a garden.  This is in the magnificent O’Byrne garden at Northwest Garden Nursery in Oregon.

woodland garden, O'Byrne

Path in woodland garden leading to bench and Hydrangea, O’Byrne garden.

The wide view is nicely composed, uses all the tricks we learned in this chapter, but doesn’t quite get the essence of what I was feeling.  I was giddy here, seeing the bench at the end of this woodland walk enveloped by the Hydrangea.  How very cool, I thought, to use this abundantly flowering shrub to shelter the bench.

Hydrangea paniculata flowering shrub by wooden bench in O'Byrne Garden

Hydrangea paniculata flowering shrub by wooden bench in O’Byrne Garden

The vignette tells a simply story and brings intimacy to the scene.

Often there will be something in the garden that you are seeing and you think the camera will see too.  But if that something is not the entire story of your particular composition, your viewer will not see exactly what you see.

Here in the shrub border in my own garden.

drought tolerant shrub border with ceanothus marie simon

I remember walking down my driveway one mid summer day falling in love once again with Ceanothus ‘Marie Simon’ because of its durable and multifaceted beauty.  It flowers in early spring, provides a drought tolerant backbone to my shrub border, AND its seed pods are downright stunning.

The seedpods.

red seedpods ceanothus marie simon

Reddish seedpods of Ceanothus x pallidus ‘Marie Simon’

But not a macro close-up, the red-brown seeds are seen on purple stems with luscious green foliage, and the soft silver blue of the lavender hedge.  Now that is a vignette.  A garden picture with a simple story that is hard to miss.

When I first went to the Lurie garden in Chicago’s Millenium Park I was overwhelmed.

lurie meadow at millenium park

My blog post was Photo Overwhelm and I remember very consciously telling myself to find a theme or nothing would come of the shoot, it would be  a mismash of grab shots hoping something would be distinctive.

I decided to use color, particularly the harmonious blue Meadow Sage (Salvia x sylvestris) and yellowish foliage of Autumn Moor Grass, Sesleria autumnalis.

sesleria autumnalis in meadow garden

Two elements, two shapes, two colors, one detail – getting to the essence.

And just because every rule can be broken, I will include a photo I consider a vignette, a small section of a larger garden story; but is NOT simply a few elements.  In this tapestry of groundcovers in my friend Maile Arnold’s garden, the detail, the simple message is ‘tapestry’.

ground cover garden tapestry

It is not meant to be a picture of any one plant. There are eight. They combined to my eye as one idea, one detail, a vignette of the garden that is part of a larger story of the garden.  A good garden has multiple stories to tell, and as you tell your own, try to distill each idea into a vignette to accompany the ‘big picture’.

See the garden through your camera’s eye.   And fill its frame.

The next chapter is Think Like a Gardener and we start to look for themes.  We are all garden lovers here, we all bring certain expertise and bias.  Let’s learn to use those assumptions to develop a distinctive style, our own voice as we tell stories with the camera.

Bonus photos for the e-book will include:

Sambucus "Black Lace'

 I think there is something from all 12 lessons so far in this photo.  Details later ….

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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cynth February 9, 2013, 7:48 pm

Very helpful for me…been using phone camera a lot to snap my garden… have edit options = )

Cynth – yeah, you will need those edit options for a camera phone … but glad to hear that this is useful – Saxon

Donna February 9, 2013, 9:02 pm

This post was one of your best. It has a lot to digest and much to really grasp. I think the O’Byrne photo really made a statement. I readily saw what you were saying by focusing in on the intimacy of the scene. The last photo will have me looking for all 12 lessons until I figure them out. Your images in this post are all stunning, especially those frosty ones.

Cathy February 10, 2013, 3:37 am

One more in a long line of fabulous posts, Saxon. I want to sit in that chair with the hydrangeas tickling my shoulder and my neck LOL.

Mother Nature dumped 2 feet of snow here, so my first thought as I was reading this was that this would have to wait till spring. Then I realized that in winter, I am taking photos DAILY of the birds and our resident squirrel in the garden, so I looked at some pix I took today and you gave me some great ideas about how to crop what I have and also, how to frame shots better to get better pictures when I am out there tomorrow. Here’s hoping that I can extrapolate this to birds in the snow covered garden!

My biggest frustration with living creatures in the garden is that I see these fabulous shots but by the time I get the camera, they have taken off. Even taking it with me from room to room for chores hasn’t helped much. Sometimes I will just sit and wait patiently, hoping I’ll get another opportunity to catch it on film. And every once in a while I do.

Thanks for all the ideas and inspiration!


Thanks again, Saxon

Marian StClair February 10, 2013, 7:38 am

I have just recently found Gardening Gone Wild (after starting my own blog and diving head first into this new and engaging medium) and want to tell you how much I enjoy and appreciate your tutorials. I don’t know that I’ve ever come across anyone as unsparing with information and I applaud your generosity. Plus, you’re truly gifted. Looking at your work makes me want to grab my camera, like seeing a Cezanne and being inspired to paint. Simply put, you’re making me a better photographer. Thanks.

Pam/Digging February 10, 2013, 1:18 pm

Great lesson, Saxon. I especially love the “tapestry” image — it’s not a typical garden shot on blogs or even in many garden books.

Saxon Holt February 10, 2013, 3:37 pm

Thanks Donna – As I write more of these I am getting the hang of how to present them so that they have ideas to digest and implement. The problem now, as I actually put together the book, is going back to the older posts an bringing up the standard

Saxon Holt February 10, 2013, 3:43 pm

Thank Cathy – I can not imagine the patience and skill it takes to photograph animals. I get so caught up in precise framing and composition that the very concept of the subject moving (!) makes me crazy

Saxon Holt February 10, 2013, 3:52 pm

Well Marian you sure know how to be generous in your praise. Thank you. The passion behind what I am doing here is for the sake of gardens really,not photography. There are truly many good photography books by some amazingly gifted photographers doing tutorials, but I am a gardener and want gardens to look good so that other can appreciate them. If I can help a gardener take better pictures, whether to share with family or blog, audiences everywhere will better appreciate and celebrate garden.

Saxon Holt February 10, 2013, 4:01 pm

Hi Pam. Thanks for dropping in. Tapestries are my private goal in every garden shoot. They are the core of lesson 2.3 Space and Shape and underlie the entire idea of blocking out a photo. AND, much to my personal delight, they are exactly the type of photos that lead to abstractions, leading me to ‘waste’ days on these new expressions.

Lee@A Guide To Northeastern Gardening February 11, 2013, 2:42 pm

Wow! This is your best post yet. I have been working on my photography and can learn a lot from these photos…which by the way are ABSOLUTELY outstanding! I just bought myself a new Nikon camera to go along with my Canon Rebel (which I love) and am having fun with it. It is a point and shoot with a 42 optical zoom and the resolution is greater so I can see a difference when I want to crop photos. My last post is a play on the new camera, which I am getting used to a little more each day. I can only hope to end up with photos like your Oakleaf Hydrangea. Nice work!

Gareth February 12, 2013, 4:48 pm

I’ve got a very close affection for two of the plants in the pictures above heucheras and salvias as they played a big part in my best in catergory win and silver gilt medal at RHS Tatton Park flower show 2012

Karen Chapman February 12, 2013, 6:59 pm

These are my favorite type of garden images simply because this is how I design – one plant vignette at a time then linking them together. I am very much a detail person using the color of a thorn or a stem as a springboard for color combinations. Love this!

Dona March 3, 2013, 2:55 pm

Your article has inspired me to submit some of my garden photos taken with my IPhone and IPad. The hydrangea in your picture was an Oakleaf or Pink Diamond? Also, your pictures are a sure pick-me-up for the northeastern Ohio winter doldrums!!! Thank you s

Saxon Holt March 6, 2013, 12:14 am

Thanks Dona – Indeed, the Hydrangea is Oakleaf ‘Alice’. I guess northeastern Ohio has a much different experience with frost than I do – I never see snow…

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