Looking for Photos

– Posted in: Garden Photography

Come in to my garden while I look for photos:

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Some days you just know the garden needs to be photographed but can’t quite find the photo or don’t know quite where to start. The first and most important lesson to taking a good photo is ….. grab the camera and go to it. You can’t take a great picture if you don’t start.

So let’s start in my garden looking along the long axial view in the front garden. In one regard it is a mess: weeds, pruned clippings everywhere, dormant shrubs, and the paths have not been raked this year. But my daffodils are at peak bloom and I will go toward the daffodil meadow. The rustic pergola that I made from tree saplings should be a good place to frame up a picture:

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OK, things are about to happen. The first thing to notice is I have changed lenses. While the pergola is more or less still in the center of the photo I am much closer to it but with a much wider lens. In the first frame I used a long telephoto lens that emphasizes the long view down the garden, but now I want to frame the pergola and invite the viewer into the garden room beyond. To do this I must carefully frame the photo – no hoses, no unnecessary space that does not contribute to the photo.

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I have not moved the camera at all, but changed lenses to frame up a nice photo, which says a lot about the garden. Every part of the frame is important to both the composition and the message. On either side are shrubs that create the walls separating the 2 garden rooms. (Pittosporum tobira Variegata on the left, P. tenuifolium ‘Marjorie Channon’ on the right). In the foreground we see just a piece of the split rail fence which I use as visual decoration but gives the garden (and photos there-in) a stronger sense of separation. (In front of the fence is Rose ‘Mme Isaac Pereire’, climbing on the pergola are 2 Rose ‘Lavender Lassie’, in front are 2 Carex secta ‘Western Hills’ in ruddy winter color with Narcissus ‘Martinette’)

Now that we are invited into the daffodil meadow, let’s go in, slowly:

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First, notice again I have not moved the camera, but have now put on a telephoto lens to pull the eye through the pergola into the meadow. Again in this composition, every part of the frame is important. Study all the elements noting blocks and shapes. In the next frame I will actually move into the daffodil meadow, but before we move, look back where we have come from. There are many photography lessons to be learned from staying in one place while you look for photos in any garden. Take your time to think about what is going on, drink it in. On those days when the garden is being photographed, consider context, details, juxtapositions, viewpoints, framing. Not every place you rest your eye or investigate with your camera is going to make a photo, but every part of the garden should be considered as you think about what you are feeling and think about how to illustrate it.

So, what is in this daffodil meadow?

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I am now in the pergola but have lowered the camera and tripod so my point of view is just above eye level of the daffodils. (Most of these are the Tazetta narcissus ‘Falconet’). The small statue (‘Peace Fist’ by Warren Arnold) gives the entire garden a focal point which will be swallowed up later in the spring when the wildflowers take over. Now the Phacelia, Clarkia, Eschscholzia, are just a green fuzz. At the end of the meadow, against a dark green tall hedge of arborvitae, Calocederus decurrens – Incense Cedar, are containers of 2 Miscanthus juncatus and a Cordyline, all 3 of which desperately need repotting.

I ventured out with my camera because I knew I wanted to photograph the daffodils. I found them in my meadow garden, backed by a dark green hedge with wisps of ornamental grass, a simple white statue, and some green wildflower fuzz.

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A simple photo really; but it took a while for me to find it.

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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Darla March 28, 2009, 7:43 am

This is a lovely garden for a nice stroll!

Thanks Darla – glad you got the sense of a stroll. Slowing down looking for photos makes it seem bigger … Saxon

Ewa March 28, 2009, 8:39 am

great photography lesson on how to photograph the garden. I like a lot the way you write.
thanks for sharing.

and thanks for the nice comment. It has been really fun sharing lessons out of my own garden – Saxon

Gail March 28, 2009, 9:40 am

Steve, I love the statue…fantastic focal point. My tripod needs to come out of storage…it would be indispensable in shooting clear photos! Thank you for the reminding me of that important piece of photography equipment! …and it’s nice to know everyone has messy times in their gardens! gail

umm, Gail, this is Saxon here. Steve is a fabulous photographer himself and no doubt would appreciate your comments , but he is a much better a gardener than me and might not want to be associated with a post fessing up to a messy garden . . . Saxon

Diana March 28, 2009, 9:42 am

Great photos and a nice photography lesson to boot! Love that daffodil meadow…I have them scattered around border beds, but I have the space to make such a place and I think you’ve inspired me with a possible fall project! Thanks!

Thanks Diane – about 20 years ago my youngest daughter, in a moment of childhood insight and innocence, let it be know to me that daffodils are my favorite flower. I have thousands now and can’t seem to let go of this obsession. …Saxon

salix March 28, 2009, 11:47 am

Beautiful garden and photos. I really want to get a new camara and to learn how to use it!!

The best way to learn how to use a new camera . . . is go out and use it. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. – Saxon

Mr. McGregor's Daughter March 28, 2009, 5:36 pm

You make me long for my old SLR camera with the different lenses. Thanks for the tutorial. I’ll try to apply the lessons with my crummy little digital.

hey M. McGregor. Hopefully your crummy little digital has a zoom lens ? You can still stand in one place, size up what is happening around you, zoom in to see what the camera is seeing, and be thoughtful about the photo before you take it. – Saxon

jodi (bloomingwriter) March 28, 2009, 6:36 pm

You know, I’ll never likely get to do something I’d love to do, Saxon, and that’s follow you around for a few days and learn from you. This, however is an awesome alternative. Thank you for sharing it. Now, if I just had some spring weather….

Thanks jodi, well at least you can follow me around GGW blog . . . . What ?! it is not spring everywhere ? Saxon

Kathy in Napa March 28, 2009, 7:45 pm

Once again, a very helpful lesson clearly written. I hope to incorporate your advice into my fedgeling attempts with my CNC (that would be Cool New Camera) which fortuately has an auto mode that I am still useing while I educate myself.

Kathy – As I have said to others, don’t be afraid of making mistakes as you learn the new camera. Can you turn off the auto mode to experiment?
PS – While I am happy to have all sorts of comments, if your e-mail address means you are a Dodger fan, I may not be so polite in future responses. Go Giants ! – Saxon

Shady Gardener March 28, 2009, 8:32 pm

Thank you for the guided walk. Now, if I could only be there in person! :-) I really like the final photo, but for a nice over-all shot, I also liked #3! :-) (Esp. since I was so enjoying the tour!) You have a beautiful garden, Nan.


Nan – thanks for the kind words. You obviously realized the final photo was the one I was looking for. The others fell into place as I was exploring, but I began looking for a daffodil photo. – Saxon

Kathy in Napa March 28, 2009, 9:22 pm

Saxon, after 20+ years here in the Beautiful Napa Valley among enemy combabtants, I have a thick skin ! There are at least 2 addtional LA fans here that I know of. They too are strong and brave. I still think your photo advice rocks in spite of your unfortunate baseball proclivities.

Kathy in Napa

Kathy – thanks for disclosing that in 20 years you have only found 2 other Dodger fans. There is hope for Napa… Saxon

Jean March 28, 2009, 9:48 pm

I love the way you teach us Saxon. And once again I’m reminded to take my tripod out – why can’t I remember that?! By the way, congratulations on your AHS Book Award for Hardy Succulents!

Thanks Jean. and now you will her it here first – Hardy Succulents also just received an award from The Garden Writers Association for an outstanding book published in 2008. Every photo taken with a tripod… Saxon

Sue March 28, 2009, 11:55 pm

I can’t change lenses on my camera, but I am getting pretty good at cropping. LOL

I enjoyed your garden photos, even the one with the hose.

Thanks Sue. I figured the one with the hose would show the reality of the garden before the camera allowed me to “lie” – Saxon

Don March 29, 2009, 10:42 am

i love your garden. it is something i want to build here at our place. a quiet restful place where i can work hard and enjoy the hard work.

cool lesson on photography!

I confess it is very comforting to be able to photograph my own garden. For many years I felt it was not old enough or complex enough to be a good garden to communicate any lessons but no it seems to have life of its own. It takes a while to get to that point. Start soon. – Saxon

eliz March 29, 2009, 5:54 pm

You found it! But we knew you would. Love the statue.

I sort knew I would find some sort of good picture, just not sure what. That’s part of the fun though, being open to discovery – Saxon

Meems @Hoe & Shovel March 29, 2009, 10:42 pm

Great post, Saxon. Thanks for all the tips and the step by step. You made some really good points… I will try to follow with my simple little point and shoot. I DO love standing in one place and really like to drink it in for all it’s worth in pictures.
meems @www.hoeandshovel.blogspot.com

Thanks Meems – even if you don’t get the great photo, by standing in one place to drink in the garden, you get to really see and appreciate it. I find myself transfixed in the garden many times without the camera, just looking at all the plant relationships and planning for future changes (and photos). – Saxon

Debra Lee Baldwin March 31, 2009, 1:52 pm

Hi, Saxon — So cool to learn from the master! What sort of light were you shooting in, and what time of day? Here in SoCa I battle what everyone assumes is a blessing: bright contrasty sunlight. Gardens go flat and uninteresting at midday. If only I were a morning person (and lived in a misty, overcast climate)! Btw, I have a motto: When the light’s not right, go tight.

Gee Debra, “the master” ? a little flattery goes a long way, no need to make me blush. Thanks! The day I took those pictures was overcast and, indeed because it was overcast, I went looking for photos. Hate to waste a photo opp. I can find any excuse to pull me away from the office. Saxon

Jan(ThanksFor2Day) April 2, 2009, 10:21 am

Such an interesting & informative post on photography, thank you;-) I have an SLR that I got a year ago and have been ‘playing’ with in my yard ever since. Very much a non-professional and un-skilled (!) photo-taker, I love it just the same!

Thanks Jan – Glad you find it useful. Continue to play with the camera, it is the best way to learn; but don’t forget to take a few moments of reflection with the photos once you see them to learn what works and where you can improve. I have to do this as a pro so that I don’t send my clients too many average photos but I always learn from this and hopefully improve my own work. – Saxon

Jeannie April 8, 2009, 4:19 am

I will look more carefully when I venture out tomorrow and look for the beauty. It’s all too easy to just see the work that needs to be done.

Ahh Jeannie – the beauty of venturing out with the camera is you can compose what you want to see, not just what is actually there. No matter how grand or modest, every garden has work to be done. – Saxon