Think Like a Gardener

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This photographer sees a flower.

If you want to be a garden photographer you need to think like a gardener.  You are not just taking a picture of a landscape, you are photographing a garden.

This may seem obvious, but it is important to keep it in mind as you look at a scene and try to tell your story.  What is it about the scene in front of you that makes it a garden ?  What is it, within your own gardening experience, that you want to say and share ?  Remember, the camera always lies, and it is you the photographer that determines what the camera sees.

This garden photographer saw another story

This garden photographer, standing in the same place as the child, saw another story.

In this, the beginning of the third section of The PhotoBotanic Garden Photography Workshop, we are going to be working on developing your own style.  Style begins with understanding who you are and your strengths.  Start here: if you are reading this you love gardens.  That was easy.

The best garden photographers are all gardeners.  No surprise that, eh ?  Each has their own, personal understanding of the workings of a garden and will use that to inform their work and how the story is told.  That’s thinking like the gardener within, and that leads to your own style.

We began with “Good Garden Photography”, an overview of the basic elements of telling a story.  The second section, “Think Like A Camera”, showed various ways to use the camera as a tool for composition and framing.  Now it’s time  for you, the gardener to learn ways to see the garden so that you can make the camera a tool of your own vision.

In “Think Like a Gardener” we will look at various elements of a garden that gardeners take for granted and photographers should grab onto.  This is my daffodil meadow.

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A snapshot view that only documents the location.  No real thought went into making this photo.

But thinking like a gardener, I know I planted the dark row of arborvitae to screen the garden from the neighbor, provide a sense of enclosure, and provide background for the meadow.  Using that insight, I make a better garden photograph.

Tazetta daffodils in spring meadow garden with narcissus 'Falconet'

Of course, it is my own garden and it was easy to see this, to anticipate this, to use my own garden knowledge to make the photo.  But it is still my own interpretation of what I want to say, my style.

When you are in your own garden or visiting one with camera in hand (or on the tripod…), use your own gardening knowledge to find the photos.  Think about what you are seeing, trust your instinct, develop  your own style of how you tell a a story.

Here is a garden in New Mexico I visited while working on the Meadows book.

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This wide view is not a strong picture, its theme is ambiguous.  What is the story ?  The gardener in me knows the story is about the little meadow treatment.  The people I want to see this picture won’t care about the house and driveway.What love about the garden are the grasses used in combination with perennials and shrubs.

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The meadow is what the gardener in me appreciated.  That’s what I want my audience to appreciate.  Trust your own judgement when looking for a photo, use what you know about gardening to help you find a photo.  Think like a gardener.

That will be theme of this section and each lesson will remind you of what you already know about gardening, point to themes and features that are the story lines underlining all gardens, and help you tell your own story.

The California native plant gardener inside me saw this final picture.  Were I not a gardener, I doubt I would have seen it, despite the fabulous light.

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Think like a gardener; think what a gardener would like to see.

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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9 Responses to Think Like a Gardener

  1. Gareth March 11, 2013 at 2:15 am #

    The light colour and textures are great in your pictures!! I really like them!!

    Thanks Gareth – Nice to have fans who let me know – Saxon

  2. Sandi Crabtree March 11, 2013 at 5:38 am #

    Very informative post for the gardener who is striving to become a better photographer-loved it and looking for more. Thank you for sharing-Sandi

    Thanks Sandi – I think ALL gardeners strive to be better photographers. We are faced with changing beauty and want our cameras to remember. – Saxon

  3. Donna March 11, 2013 at 7:55 am #

    Great lesson, Saxon. It is much easier to see your points with the images, especially the one in your garden. Pulling in to a tighter shot makes all the difference in the world for the image and ‘says’ much more too about the space. The last photo is one I love too. It is a very inviting image to that scene, it draws you into that landscape to want to explore.

    Thanks Donna – You always look carefully at the post and have great observations. I was a bit hesitant to use that wide shot of my garden, in all its messy early spring look, but it does make the point. – Saxon

  4. Lizzy Sussex March 11, 2013 at 12:01 pm #

    Great tips! Our photographer always preaches to take a lot of shots of your target. Whilst one photo might look good through the view finder it doesn’t always come out like that when it comes to ending! So take 4/5 then you can choose the best one!

    Lizzy – I am NOT one who preaches taking lots of shots, unless it is windy. I find there is much time to be saved deciding your composition in the viewfinder than deciding later in front of the computer screen. Of course I recommend taking multiple shots of a scene as you “work it” and get a better idea of the story or multiple stories you want to tell, but be wary of shooting lots of frames of the same basic scene. – Saxon

  5. I haven’t been successful with my photos in the past so hopefully this year I can change that.

    Well Anna – You sound like the perfect audience for my Workshop lessons. Thanks for dropping by. – Saxon

  6. Mark McKnight March 13, 2013 at 1:59 pm #

    I love taking pictures in the garden, especially of the flowers. Afterwards I edit them on my computer and boost the saturation levels right up to make them look really colorful. I know…it’s a bad habit! lol.

  7. allan becker March 21, 2013 at 6:02 pm #

    Wow! Reading this post has been the equivalent of attending a seminar. Thank you.

  8. Joe March 28, 2013 at 12:50 am #

    Great tips and very practical. In the end though taking better photos is just a matter of practice.

    Thanks Joe – I always advise practicing, making mistakes, trying odd compositions, and pushing the limits of the camera controls as ways to learn what they do. However practice without a conscious purpose will not lead to learning or insight. Photos may get better technically but in order to tell a story, there needs to be intent. The purpose of these lessons is to give photographers something to work on as they practice. – Saxon

  9. Troy April 2, 2013 at 6:21 pm #

    Great tips! I think many photographers capture too much (the entire garden) or too little (just a flower) in their pictures. I think you’ve struck a great balance here.