Photographing Grasses

Toe Toe Grass in the garden of Linda Cochran

Toe Toe Grass in the garden of Linda Cochran

More than any other group of plants, I love to photograph grasses.  They bring light, motion, and texture to gardens.  They range widely in size and color, and mix well into all garden styles, from beds and borders to meadows and in containers.  Because they are so versatile in blending into gardens they can be hard to photograph.

I began to understand how to capture their ornamental effects years ago while working on my Grasses book with Nancy Ondra.  Of all the pictures in the book, the one above in Linda Cochran’s garden, of the tall arching Toe Toe Grass (Cortaderia richardii) was to define how I saw grasses and how I photographed them.

Placed at the end of a mixed border that reached like a peninsula into the garden, the Toe Toe Grass dominated every view of the garden.  When the sunlight kissed the grasses’ plumes, it revealed itself against the shaded forest beyond the garden.  This separation allowed the grass to shine.

That’s the trick.  Grasses are often wispy, almost ethereal garden plants.  To get their picture you need to isolate them from the background.  There are several ways to do this.

Look at this picture of Wallis Fescue (Festuca valesiaca) in the Chicago Botanical Garden.


Festuca valesiaca, Wallis fescue by path in Chicago Botanical Garden.

Saying the grass is indistinct is understatement.  So let’s look for a different view and a dark background.

Festuca valesiaca, Wallis fescue against dark background.

Festuca valesiaca, Wallis fescue against dark background.

I found this angle by walking around the plant and using a lower point of view so that I did not see so much of the neutral gray color of the path.

Sometimes you can use the sunlight itself to isolate a grass from its surroundings.  In general I advise students to keep away from strong light when photographing gardens, but grasses have a way of harvesting light, revealing it.  In this California native plant garden, the grasses nearly disappear in soft light.


But in sun, in this next view hardly moving the camera, we see the grass snap out of the background.


This works for several reasons.  It is now isolated from its background.  Technically, the extreme dynamic range of exposure from sun to shade can not be captured by a camera, so an exposure to show the grass highlighted will make anything in the shade go particularly dark, darker than the eye will see it.

As I have better understood this lighting phenomenon, I now look for situations where grasses are in sun against a shaded background to get dramatic shots.

Feather Grass, Pennisetum alopecuroides backlit in garden

Feather Grass, Pennisetum alopecuroides backlit in garden

Backlight will often give a glow through the grass making it stand out even more.

But not every trick to photographing grasses is about light.  There are other ways that grasses separate from their companions in the garden.  Understanding how grasses are used will often determine how you will photograph them.  Look closely at the garden and decide what story the grass is telling.  It is not always a story about light.  It could be about color, or texture, or shape.

Light airy feather grass with dark stolid Agave

Light airy feather grass with dark stolid Agave

Many, many more examples in the e-book…


About 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.

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20 Responses to Photographing Grasses

  1. Kerry February 26, 2013 at 9:31 am #

    Thanks, Saxon. I’ve been wrestling with shooting grasses for some time and your spectacular photographs illustrating fabulous tips will surely help.

  2. Jan LeCocq February 26, 2013 at 10:14 am #

    Another nice article. Thanks for your insights!

  3. Lynda February 26, 2013 at 12:37 pm #

    From time to time I got lucky but didn’t understand why. Now I get it!

    Thank you!

  4. professorroush February 26, 2013 at 1:58 pm #

    Great points, Saxon. I’ll try to put them to good use.

  5. Saxon Holt February 26, 2013 at 6:14 pm #

    Kerry – Glad to help – a few tips can go a long way for someone who is already photographing them.

  6. Saxon Holt February 26, 2013 at 6:15 pm #

    Thanks Jan. I appreciate you following along

  7. Saxon Holt February 26, 2013 at 6:16 pm #

    Lynda – We ALL need to get lucky from time to time and the trick is to only show the successes…

  8. Saxon Holt February 26, 2013 at 6:18 pm #

    Thanks prof; but you may have to wait til summer ….

  9. pete veilleux February 27, 2013 at 1:26 am #

    i fell in love w/ grasses and photography at the same time – about 10 years ago – while photographing grasses w/ my little Nikon Coolpix in the Sierra. i was there for 4-5 days and shot photos of grasses about 8 hours per day every day that i was there. i still take a trip to the sierra every year just when most of the grasses turn golden and are full of their little fruits. watching them sway in the wind is like listening to great music. i have no other way to describe it.

    thanks for another interesting piece, saxon.

  10. Gareth February 27, 2013 at 2:15 am #

    I’m a fan of grasses planted in swathes in borders or large specimens like pampas on thier own. Great pictures!!

  11. Saxon Holt February 27, 2013 at 2:40 am #

    Pete – Thanks for stopping by and I love your own pictures. I look forward to seeing some of your garden designs this spring; though the grasses will be too early to make much music….

  12. Saxon Holt February 27, 2013 at 2:43 am #

    Thanks Gareth. I’m a fan almost any way I can see them. All my work photographing them as ornamental specimens led me to see them as meadows, now my favorite style.

  13. Fran Sorin February 27, 2013 at 2:52 am #


    I’m obsessed with grasses and have been playing with how to use light when photographing them. This post is extremely helpful ~ as always, the photographs are compelling and outstanding! Fran

  14. Saxon Holt February 27, 2013 at 8:56 pm #

    Thanks Fran. Check out these grass photos if you want to see more possibilities of grasses and light.

  15. Elaine February 28, 2013 at 11:22 pm #

    Thanks for the tips and I really enjoyed your talk at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show, you gave a great presentation! I really am looking forward to growing more grasses as well as photographing them more thoughtfully.

  16. Shannon Currey March 1, 2013 at 9:42 am #

    Thanks for these tips, Saxon. We love your grass photos. We take and collect tons of grass images for our nursery publications. It’s really frustrating when the image doesn’t capture the real beauty of a grass. Switchgrasses, to me, are particularly challenging. I’m eager to keep your suggestions in mind.

  17. Saxon Holt March 6, 2013 at 12:08 am #

    Shannon – Switchgrasses look great in fall color; try backlight thru the blades

  18. Saxon Holt March 6, 2013 at 12:20 am #

    Elaine – Thanks for commenting on the show. I was really nervous with the first presentation of a new talk. Thank goodness I have photos to fall back on… Grasses are sooo much fun to have in the garden and as you will remember from the talk – take time to know where to place them as companion and accent plants.

  19. Charlie@Seattle Trekker March 19, 2013 at 7:34 pm #

    I love how you have used color in your garden, it has major eye appeal.

  20. Turf suppliers kent March 21, 2013 at 7:28 am #

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