Composing a Close-up Photo

It has been 3 weeks since I posted to my blog. I have the blog blahs. Thank goodness I am not a professional writer who must write, inspired or not. Or maybe if I were a professional writer it would be easier to get into the habit of writing something so simple and unconditional as a blog.

I have something deep inside waiting moderation of my soul. Poetry, gardening, life, joy. It is welling up awaiting permission to annotate. In the meantime a photo lesson.

I do not take as many close-up photos as many garden photographers. I probably should as there is a larger market for them than the wider photos. The wider photos reveal more about a garden and the connection of the plants to the world.

camellia blossom on ground

These camellia blossoms on the garden floor nestled among the forget-me-nots say a lot about a gardening moment to me. The photo connects to a much wider garden we can only imagine but is implicit seeing these plants together. It speaks much more to a gardener than any other viewer, and is why I love garden photography. My viewers are predisposed to like what I like.

This is a good photograph about gardening. It captures a moment in this garden that needs no caption, a caption that might lock the viewer into a single interpretation. I think a good photo asks the viewer to become engaged. Giving it a definition can stop the engagement and curiosity.

A good photograph captures a visual symbol, finds in a fleeting moment, and if successful allows the viewer to pause and get into the moment themselves. A superior photo also has strong compsition, tonal range, fresh insight, and and poses a question. A superlative photo has all this and stands the test of time.

I don’t pretend this photo is superlative or even superior. It was chosen as a good one and one that leads to another photo as the photographer becomes curious himself about why the scene is so interesting. It was also chosen for a lesson about close-up photography.

Whenever we stumble across a garden scene that wants us to frame it up in a camera, before taking the picture, ask yourself what you are trying to say. What to do you see ? How can the camera help communicate it ? In the above picture I saw a lot: a complex story about a winter scene in a zone 9 California garden, a manicured estate garden, Filoli. A fabulous statement about plants growing together, about decay, about winter and spring at the same time, about color, about the transitory nature of gardens.

But you know what else I saw about plants and color as I looked closer ? I saw a close-up photo:

Omphalodes cappadocica(c)
Omphalodes cappadocica in spring garden with Camellia blossom

Just plain pretty. Needs no explanation.

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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15 Responses to Composing a Close-up Photo

  1. Lisa at Greenbow January 21, 2008 at 7:29 pm #

    What a difference. Excellent tutorial.

  2. Frances January 21, 2008 at 7:34 pm #

    We are happy whenever you are moved to write in your blog. Your eye for the photos and your explanation of what you see are very helpful to those of us trying to take a better picture in their garden.

    Thanks Frances – I am in a philosophical mood these days and am trying to make the philosophy of a photograph equally as important as the composition. It is no fun to give simple how-to instructions

  3. Saxon Holt January 21, 2008 at 11:11 pm #

    Different yes, very different if considered independently, but as a photographer “working” a scene, trying to get at the “it” to make a photograph they are the same. They both illustrate Camellia blossoms and forget-me-nots, they both solve a problem of how to interpret this garden. I forgot to add my signature phrase “the camera always lies” into the blog entry, but it is easy to see how the camera lies in these 2 photographs which are the same scene and very differnt stories.

  4. Sylvia (England) January 22, 2008 at 5:22 am #

    Thank you for an interesting blog. I liked the two pictures, the first said so much to us even if the second was prettier.

    You have inspired me to go out with the camera, if it isn’t raining, at the weekend and take two photos of the same plant but aiming for something totally different. I will have a go – not sure if I will achieve anything worth while!

    I am lucky to have quite a lot flowering at the moment so I should find something.

  5. Kris at Blithewold January 22, 2008 at 8:47 am #

    As an artist I paint (or these days photograph and write) what I want to see even as I’m looking at it. I know that makes no sense but for me it’s less about interpreting a subject than about just seeing it. “Just plain pretty” sums it up nicely! I like close-ups a lot for the abstraction and the way they teach our eyes to find the details. (and plants are full of gorgeous details!)

  6. jodi January 22, 2008 at 12:56 pm #

    Excellent post, Saxon! This is a post I’ll refer others to, when they want to know about photography. I’m a writer who takes photos, I always stress, and I can’t answer technical questions…just encourage others to really see. This post will help other gardeners and photographers (and me, too)

  7. Saxon Holt January 22, 2008 at 12:58 pm #

    Sylvia – When you are taking those pictures this week-end, there will be plenty worth while whether you *like* the resullts or not. Remember that simply visualizing the garden through the camera view finder and thinking about what you see is an excercise in itself. Even if you do not take a photo this helps you “see” the garden.

    Saxon

  8. Saxon Holt January 22, 2008 at 1:03 pm #

    Kris – I too like the way close-ups teach us to find the details and illustrate with precision. The photo of hte Omphalodes works because I worked for a camera angle that includesd the camellia blossoms.

    And if truth must be told, like in my “Stuffed Photo” entry I had to move the blossoms into place…

  9. Saxon Holt January 23, 2008 at 12:07 pm #

    Jodi – In these days of good auto cameras it is almost more important to rell others to see and not even try to answer the technical questions.

    Thanks for the comment

  10. Layanee January 23, 2008 at 12:42 pm #

    I think it is much harder to get a photo of the garden as a whole than a closeup of a beautiful flower! I am still working on this! Closeups are great but they tell such a small tale! Perhaps in the future, if my garden ever comes into bloom after this interminable winter, I will post the closeup and then the larger picture. The larger picture is the one with the perfection that I strive for! Thanks for this post! Always illuminating!

  11. Saxon Holt January 24, 2008 at 12:43 pm #

    Layanee – It is certainly much harder to get the wide view, and frustrating as a photographer when some of the best, successful wide garden photos, do not look impressive as small photos squeezed into book pages.
    This is a reason I sometimes rant about the industry, not that there is much of a solution, but too many publishers rely on colorful close-ups to grab the attention of the casual reader at the expense of thosee who are willing to study a more complex wide view.

    And interminable winter ?? It’s still January….

  12. Mr. McGregor's Daughter January 24, 2008 at 5:47 pm #

    Thanks for another thought provoking tutorial. I agree that it is much easier to make good photos of closeups. Plants are so artistic that the photo practically frames itself. Not so with the wider garden shots which call for so much more thought (usually more than I have time to give when I venture out with my camera). To respond to the 1st part of your post – I think writers write because they have these words swirling around in their brains that need to be committed to paper (or blog). Without being able to write, they’d probably end up talking to themselves all the time. :^}

  13. Angela January 24, 2008 at 10:32 pm #

    I think it’s much easier to go for the wide shot on an April morning. We can talk about dew drops and berries and stark winter beauty all we want… but the fact of the matter is that January is the bleakest, rangiest, brownest month for a photographer in the garden. Even in California.

    That doesn’t mean we can’t find something interesting in downed trees, brown grasses and wetness everywhere. Interesting photos don’t require any greenery at all. It’s just that photographing the GARDEN at any scale is more challenging (and less fun) right now.

    I think I’d rather stay inside and play on my computer… or learn food photography or something. ;-)

    Saxon, do you ever take your talent indoors this time of year?

  14. Saxon Holt January 24, 2008 at 11:26 pm #

    Thanks for the nice reply. It is nice you see it as thought provoking, As a photographer playing with writing I too have words swirling around my brain. The priblem is to get them to swirl around in any organized fashion….

  15. joey February 10, 2008 at 8:06 pm #

    Have always wanted to pop in and glad I did, enjoying my visit … macro sees the ‘soul’!