Unusually Clever People

What I learned from garden photographer Saxon Holt

Big doings in my garden! California garden photographer Saxon Holt came to capture in pixels the lawn alternatives growing here, as only he can do. Wonder if he can make them look as good as the meadows in his meadow book or the grasses in his grass book. I had the usual gardener doubts but he declared my garden "photogenic" (Whew!) and, to my surprise, "small."  (I'll tell that to my aching back.) 

Saxon's oh-so interested in solutions like better lawns than turfgrasses, and more sustainable gardens of all sorts, especially ones that don't require much water (Californians are like that).  In fact, that's the point of the work for him.

Now you may not think a left-coaster like Saxon would know much about my Mid-Atlantic plants but actually, he's a Virginian just like me, having grown up in the Newport News area. Plus, he's learned a lot photographing gardens throughout the East. So we did some poring over my photos of carexes, and some friendly arguing about whether it's ever worth it to use herbicides. (Hey, Saxon, what about if the goal is to create a five-acre meadow like the one at the AHS headquarters that I found in your portfolio? Not even for that?)

Of course I'm eager to improve my photography skills and watching Saxon at work did teach me a thing or two. About slowing way down and just looking before taking the first photo, then coming back the second day to capture the same garden. Saxon says his bests shots usually come after hours in the garden, so he's in no hurry – nothing like my usual running around snap-snap-snapping like a frantic tourist.

Also, he has no faith in his own steady hand and keeps that tripod close at hand. And he demonstrated some mean cleaning techniques in the prep phase, wielding a whisk broom on the walkways and rags for removing bird crap. Pruning skills, too, like removing dead leaves and flowers.

And after all the cleaning and prepping is done, his long looks through the viewfinder seem meditative.  Then at long last the snapping begins. Don't know if there's a term for what he does – maybe Slow Photography, or Inner Photography – but it's sure as hell not what I do.

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More Good Ideas in Garden Photography
So readers, do you have any tips you can share with us?  Or just tell us what you think of Saxon's methods – can they really work for us amateurs?

Posted by on May 24, 2010 at 3:28 am, in the category Unusually Clever People.
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14 responses to “What I learned from garden photographer Saxon Holt”

  1. Michele Owens says:

    Wow, Susan. That is immortality.

  2. If I may, ahem….

    The photos are the one thing lacking on Garden Rant.
    They often look like they were taken with a phone camera, are blurry and low res.

    So, spread Saxon’s good ideas and bring the photos up to par with the written content.

  3. I find myself doing a little gardening with the photography too – deadheading, deadleafing. Spreading a nice, even-toned mulch under plants also helps make for a less distracting background (not that I do that very often).
    Saxon’s method of looking and coming back later should work for our own gardens, except that in spring, things can change so much in a day, or even a few hours. With digital cameras, it makes sense to shoot something, then come back later and shoot the same thing again. Then delete the inferior shot.

  4. Michelle D says:

    Over the years I been fortunate to learn a thing or two from professional garden photographers such as Saxon ( my neighbor) Marion Brenner and Lee Anne White.
    The common main ingredient for success is ‘your quality of light’.
    That golden hour ( if you are lucky) of seductive low angled soft muted light comes very early in the morning or in the moments prior to the sun setting.
    Another good time to shoot outdoors is when it is still bright out but there is overcast cloud cover. The clouds can block out hot spots thus providing more opportunity for the lens to capture more detail yet the entire garden vignette is evened out.

  5. Hoover says:

    I wrote some blog posts about photographing gardens, I’m not trying to drive traffic to my blog, but I can’t copy it all into a comment post…the biggest thing I have learned is photographing at what professional cinematographers call “the magic hour”–the time right around sunrise and sunset when the light is at an angle and everything is aglow with angled, rather than harsh sun.

    http://pieceofeden.blogspot.com/search/label/Garden%20Photography

  6. greg draiss says:

    Shoot at morning or evening light when colors do not get washed out

    Get down with the subject as in down on the ground when shooting low growing or even young plants

    kids and plants always go well together

  7. Christine says:

    I suppose it’s a matter of how much time and energy you are willing to dedicate. I don’t really meddle much, not even moving around mulch or deadheading…I guess I like an “organic” shot, lol. That being said, I do tend to snap spontaneously but try from all angles and with different settings (flash, macro, etc.). My favorite time of day to snap my garden, though, is late afternoon. The light is just magical at that time.

  8. Laura Bell says:

    Unless I need to see a whole plant, whole setting, or whole landscape, I get close. Really, really close. For me, the garden is all about the tiny little wonders in each plant.

    Yesterday I volunteered to take photos for the local chapter of the California Native Plant Society. Chris, my guide kept apologizing for “editing” the photo before hand – deadheading, pulling interlopers from the subject’s immediate area, etc. I figured that it’s easier – not to mention more honest – to do this kind of editing than the photoshop kind.

  9. Sue says:

    People have said it – but early morning lighting, a tripod, and a good macro are my secrets. I don’t mind a bit of leaf litter either – it adds to the character.

  10. Saxon Holt says:

    I knew it ! I knew it as soon as a comment over a Gardening Gone Wild simply used “Susan said” to describe my photographic style; I knew that my great friends here at Rant were up to no good talking about me again. First, I do thank you Susan for the very kind words but jeez, I am just doing my job. I bet when you writers get to work you are meditative and slow as you pick and choose your words.

    Susan’s description of my visit went up here at Garden Rant, the same day as my own description of photographing with quickly changing light went up at GGW. You asked for tips from readers….

    For those who wonder about a photographer’s day, the photos I took for my “Light Kisses” post at GGW were taken the same day as the one’s Susan took of me when I visited her garden 150 miles away later that afternoon.

  11. I have always been impressed with the work of Saxon Holt. I buy his books, not necessarily to garden or plant turf, but to see the beautiful perspectives Nature offers if one knows, like Saxon, how to find them.

    I admire Saxon not only for his beautiful photos but also because his life mission, that is to think green in all we do.

    If everyone followed the path of Saxon, all would be well in the world.

    I always come away from Gardenrant with a smile on my silly face.

    Thank you for being here, Gardenrant.

    Leone

  12. Flowers says:

    Nice blog. The best way to get better with your camera is to walk around and practice.

  13. commonweeder says:

    Great tips. I like the reminder that we can, or should, prepare for our photographs with a little weeding and clipping and cleaning. I’m only in the business of using tips, not giving them.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Great article. Nice to see an excellent photographer in your garden.

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