Photos Tell a Story

– Posted in: Garden Photography, Garden Photography

Feather grass enveloping Phormiums

We finish the chapter on ‘Good Garden Photography’ with part six – telling stories.  I will have a whole chapter, ‘Think Like a Gardener’ that is about finding the themes that can be found in all good gardens, but for now and as you review your year’s images, think about what you are saying with your images.  What was the garden saying to you ?

We started the chapter with good composition, filling your entire frame with just those elements that bring balance to the photo.  We talked about light, and paying homage to what you see in a gardens.  A good photo will do all this and then tell a story, state an opinion, communicate what you really saw.

In the opening photo, I saw the grasses flow around the Phormiums.  I saw companion plants celebrating each other.  The yin and yang of spikes and billowing grass really speak to how grasses add softness, bulk, and movement to a garden; and how spikes add structure.

I saw it right away when I photographed this border.

Summer perennial border

The border photo is fine and serviceable but tells little about the photographer, and really, nothing special about the garden.  Sometimes you have to work the scene a bit to get to the elemental photo, the one where you say something about the scene in front of you.

It is one of the great joys of garden photography to be hunting for these photos, to distill a grand garden experience down to the story you feel and want to tell.  When photos tell stories, when they reveal not just the garden, but what the photographer has to say about it, they are ‘good’ photos.

Now that winter is upon us it is a great time to go through the photos you have taken and look for the stories.  No doubt you took many photos in this past gardening season, and you never really edited them down.  Look back from a distance now and see which ones speak to you, which ones have stories to tell.

Here are a couple sequences of photos where I worked the scene until I got to the story.  The more I looked at the garden, the more I understood what it was that made me want to capture it.

Groundcovers at Bellevue Botanical Garden

This wide view of a stepping stone path is not a bad picture, but all the empty ground and wasted space keep it from being a good one.

Coming in tighter really gets to the story of ground covers and still shows them in a garden context with the path.  A much stronger photo.

In this next sequence from Ravenhill Herb Farm, I remember how I was amazed the first time I saw culinary sage in flower.

Flowering herbs at Ravenhill Herb Farm

At first all I could see was the the herb garden itself but I realized what was exciting me was the purple flowers of the sage against the chartreuse foliage of the golden oregano behind it.

Flowering sage, Salvia officinalis, in herb garden with Golden Oregano

Often the better photo is made by coming in tighter on your subject as you strip away elements of a scene that to do not contribute to your story.  Be conscious of what you are seeing, and compose your picture, fill your frame, with just those elements those elements that contribute.

Bonus feature from the e-book:  Composition Tip

The photo above was cropped so that the block of chartreuse color bleeds off the edges and fills about 2/3  of the frame.  (Remember our 1/3 and 2/3  ratio lesson?)  Here is the original:

Original crop of Salvia photo

As you go through your photos this winter, use your crop tool.  Tighten up some of those photos the way a writer would tighten up a story.

While coming in tighter on your subject is often the way to a better, more graphic composition and a more elemental, balanced photo, sometimes it is the wide angle photo that tells the story.

I was once commissioned to photograph a new gate and entry path for the landscape architect Robyn Sherrill.  The story is not simply the gate but the wider context with the landscape and Japanese maple trees.

Further, when I was in the garden on the shoot day, the story became about the wind and how the trees were moving but the architecture was not.  A tighter shot of just the gate would not tell the same story. Original post Wending and Wind.

I took lots of vignettes and plant combinations in the American Horticultural Society’s meadow garden for The American Meadow Garden but it is this wide angle photo that really tells the story of how I felt in the morning dawn’s light.

Dawn in the Kurt Bluemel Meadow – American Horticultural Society

Let your camera become an extension of your eyes and what you feel.  Be conscious of what it is that you are seeing and find a way to get that “it” to fill your frame.  The final story will often be a series of photos, a series of vignettes, but each one should be distilled down to its own essence.

It is very satisfying though when one photo says it all.  Here in Northern California as we get our first frost, the last  tomatoes still linger.

The Last Tomato

Nice composition(1).  Nice blocks of color (2) and light (3).  Nice mood (4).  A little provocation (5).  A little story(6).  End of Chapter One.

Saxon Holt

Saxon Holt is the owner of PhotoBotanic, a garden picture resource for photographs, workshops, and garden photography stories. A landscape photographer and award winning photojournalist with more than 20 garden books, he lives and gardens in Northern California.

Saxon Holt

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Cherie Smith December 8, 2012, 9:50 pm

I have really enjoyed the photography tips, especially this last one one!
And actually I liked the photo0 of the stepping stones rather than the close up, best. I think the photo looked more balanced, and complete.

Thank you!

Thanks Cherie. I DO like the stepping stone photo for its balance too. Good observation. The stones are composed to draw you into the scene and the “story” ends up being about the path not the groundcovers. I should have said, (and will re-edit to explain) I was looking to take a picture of the groundcovers and because of the empty areas the photo became a path photo – a different story than what I wanted to say. – Saxon

Donna December 8, 2012, 10:19 pm

Numerous lessons in this one post, Saxon. The photos are all beautiful, and tell the story as you explained. I do remember the 1/3 – 2/3 lesson. It was a good one.

Thanks Donna – I will be adding those references back to previous posts and integrating some hyperlinks in the e-book. – Saxon

Saif Malik December 9, 2012, 5:54 am

Hi,
Just happened to get through your blog and I must say you are doing great. I’m a landscape horticulturist from Pakistan, please visit my Horticulture weblog: http://www.hortist.com. Have a nice day :)

Thanks for dropping by and you are doing a good job on your own site. – Saxon

Cathy December 9, 2012, 4:17 pm

Saxon,

Although I haven’t taken the time to comment on your posts much since spring (we’ve been insanely busy here), I just want to tell you how much I appreciate each and every lesson, which I eagerly await and then dive into every time I see one posted. When, oh when, is the ebook subscription photo course coming!? The anticipation is killing me!

I also want to share a humorous anecdote about an experience I had while putting one of your lessons into action. It gave me a first-hand glimpse of your national following.

In late October, we traveled to San Diego where my husband was to attend a medical conference. My husband’s brother and sister-in-law live not far from there, and we were able to combine a visit them with the conference. While my husband spent his days confined to hotel meeting rooms earning CME credits, my wonderful sister-in-law, who shares my interests in gardening and photography, planned some excursions for the two of us to share some “gal time”.

Just before the trip, I printed out all of the lessons you’ve posted on GGW over the past couple of years, put them all into a notebook, and brought them with me so that she and I could practice what you preach. Armed with our cameras and the notebook, we went first to Old Town and then on to Balboa Park, where we attempted to fill our frames according to your instructions. Even without a wide angle lens, we were able to take some pretty amazing photographs of trees using techniques from the lesson on “Vantage Points” that you posted in March.

At one point, it occurred to me that the only way to adequately capture the scale of one tree in particular was to lie on the ground underneath it and try to shoot the image straight up along the trunk. Owing to my physical limitations from a longstanding disability, getting down was quite easy but getting back up, not so much.

A small group of tourists who were also taking photographs in the same general area of the park saw me on the ground struggling to get up and believing that I had fallen and become injured, they rushed to my aid. I reassured them that I was fine and that I was simply trying to attempt a technique for photographing a tree that Saxon Holt had taught. Mention of your name started a very animated, excited conversation during which we discovered that they were scientists from Washington DC who were also in San Diego to attend a professional conference. When they were originally planning the trip, they had wanted to add one of your workshops to their travel itinerary. I guess there was something scheduled in San Francisco a couple of days after their conference ended which would have given them just enough time to travel there but when they tried to register for it, it was either already full or had been cancelled, I can’t recall which, so that part of their trip fell through.

They had arrived in San Diego that morning and had the afternoon free before their conference even started so they decided to visit Balboa Park. It was pure happenstance that they were in the same area of the park where we were and overheard me mention your name, which caught their attention. A while later, when they saw us refer to the notebook and then take photographs, they deduced that you must be teaching a workshop at the park and that we were out taking photographs as part of a class exercise. They couldn’t believe their good fortune to have stumbled upon someone actually taking a class with you and that the class was there, that day, at Balboa Park! Who knew!

Thinking they might be able to learn where in the park the course was being held, they decided to keep an eye out for us and that is how they happened to come upon me struggling on the ground to get up from my perch under this enormous pepper tree.

We all had a chuckle when I showed them my collection of your posts from GGW which they were familiar with. They did help me to my feet, happy to assist me just the same, but they were definitely disappointed that they wouldn’t have an opportunity to at least meet you and perhaps even join in for part of the class. We chatted about some of your books and your web sites and clearly, they are long time devoted fans of yours.

Meanwhile, another young couple walking nearby, seeing all the “excitement”, headed over to offer their assistance as well, arriving as the original Good Samaritans and I were comparing notes about which books of yours we each have. They heard us raving over the book you wrote with Nancy Ondra (Grasses), and misunderstanding the context, thought we were discussing a blue grass musician and a concert, not a garden photography workshop. They asked about the details, thinking they might try to get some tickets. My guess is that if you ever decide to branch out, you already have some name recognition out there in some rather surprising areas LOL.

Cathy

Cathy – With Comments like that you can wait months for the next one for sure ! Thanks for sharing your San Diego “workshop”. I do hope the book will produce exactly that sort of in-the-field lessons. – Saxon

Jason December 9, 2012, 5:03 pm

It’s my wife who does almost all of the photography, but I appreciate how you wrote about composing photographs. I liked the meadow photograph which reminds me of the frustrating challenge of getting a long view of a garden bed without things becoming indistinct. Also the grass with the phormium was great – made me think of mountains coming out of the mist.

Thanks Jason – Long views usually only work when there are some strong architectural elements: paths, walls, patios, pools, pergolas, etc. In that meadow shot the big tree and the light are everything, while all the plants become a tapestry to catch the light. – Saxon

Sarah December 9, 2012, 9:43 pm

This post gets exactly to one of my problems with photographing gardens. Often the (smaller) gardens of regular people are not as perfect all the way around as some of the gardens you photograph. Any wider angle shot will include patches of open dirt, or less than perfect lawn, or someone’s gutter or driveway, etc. Thus, to capture the enchantment of these gardens I often find myself needing to take photos of details and not being able to capture the bigger picture. This bigger picture is often quite lovely as the eye can edit out the weedy lawn – but the camera does not and so the photos fail. I struggle to take more holistic photos of these gardens. I’ve been enjoying your posts, btw. Thanks.

Sarah – I genuinely appreciate this comment about the difficulty of photographing “smaller…regular people” gardens. These are the gardens most of us have and hangout in with friends, and of course they are not perfect and are thus hard to get wide angle shots without showing the imperfections. But that is precisely your challenge as a garden photographer; and why I am writing the book.

I admit I do not photograph bad gardens, but I photograph many small ones and do my best to avoid the gutters, driveways, dying plants, and bare spots. Most gardens have areas in transition or needing work and indeed, these are the areas many gardeners apologetically show me first when I am scouting around for photos. But if the garden is good enough to be photographed (and that is your decision) there is something there that speaks to you. There will be some way to make the camera see what you see even if it means making the camera lie. It always does anyway.

When faced with the challenge to find the wide angle shot you know is there, try coming back another time with completely different light, of changing your vantage point high or low, or do some juxtaposition of key elements and focal points. Or if the weedy lawn keeps finding its way into every composition … make the story be a meadow garden. I did. :-) – Saxon

gardenbug December 10, 2012, 5:18 pm

I’m glad you made the comparison to effective writing and editing. It spoke to me.
I often feel guilty photoshopping photos…and shouldn’t I think. I’m 70 and learning….
and share your last name!

Glad you stopped by Gardenbug. Don’t feel guilty with photoshopping – it’s a great tool. It is easy to get carried away with it and important to know what you want it to do with it; and then it becomes a great way to communicate with your own style. – Saxon

Ismail N December 11, 2012, 8:37 pm

All the photos are great, but I especially love ‘Wending & Wind’. It’s almost surreal. I also like the contrasts between the Sage & Golden Oregano – thank you for sharing your tips.

Thanks Ismail – It’s great to know which photos the readers really respond to. – Saxon