Guest Rants

What is a “Good” Garden Photo?

Today’s Guest Rant by famed garden photographer Saxon Holt gives a tantalizing hint of what’s offered in his new e-book Good Garden Photography… and we’re giving away TWO COPIES of the book! See below for details.

Good-Garden-Photography-Cover_1024.jpg

Two lucky Garden Rant readers will receive this new e-book.

Good Garden Photography is the first of a series of beautifully produced e-books in which this award-winning expert shares the mental and physical processes he uses to create riveting images in which every element is carefully considered and contributes to the story.

And now, heeeeere’s Saxon!

******************

I first came across Garden Rant in 2007 when Amy Stewart called me out in a challenge.  While wondering about the lush garden photos we see in the media, she asked: “Are these images misleading?  Do they set gardeners up for unrealistic expectations and, ultimately, disappointment and feelings of inadequacy?”

At the time, the answer to that question was an unequivocal “yes and no.”  And now, I can go so far as to say “it all depends.”  Where you see the photo and where you garden are just as important as the garden in the photograph.  For the sake of garden communication, a good photo tells a story of place — of the place where the photo was shot, not necessarily your garden.

holt_1133_106_1920(c).jpg

A modern home with stone patio and native plants overlooks the Pacific Ocean.

In viewing, studying, or drooling over a garden photograph, put on your critical thinking cap.  What is the purpose of the photo?  Is it meant to instruct you in your garden?  Is it meant to entice you to be an armchair traveler?  Is it simply decoration that an office-bound art director decided might fit the layout and call attention to the writer’s story?

The title of my book Good Garden Photography was meant to be a bit tongue-in-cheek.  Of course the photos in a garden photographer’s book are good. But I am more gardener and plant lover than photographer.  I want to celebrate plants, tell their story, illustrate how they enrich our lives.  A good garden photo is not just technically good; it also pulls you in and tells a story.

When I teach garden photography, I ask students to compose an image using all four edges of their camera. Smart phone or DSLR makes no difference.  Frame your photos with the camera and fill it like a canvas.  It is up to you to decide what story to tell, and the camera is your tool.  Think about what you are seeing and the actual story you want to tell. That is my tip for you, in a nutshell.

But since I am Ranting, I can also get something off my chest:  I am sick and tired of garden photos that actually do damage to the craft of gardening. Too often photos in the media do not match the story.  Sometimes it is an egregious falsehood created by some ignorant marketing person.

How about this ad for lawn mowers using a sustainable lawn concept? But it is an ad; we can cut them some slack. Who believes ads anyway?  What really bothers me are uninformed photos in the media: books, magazines, and the internet — the default source of information.

Holt7

Most of the real garden publishers do a pretty good job of matching photos to stories, since they know something about gardening.  Even there, though, the reader needs to beware and put on the critical thinking cap to question whether the information in the photo matches the story and if it matches your garden.

This lovely spring-flowering groundcover might make a wonderful shady lawn substitute… if you live in Pennsylvania. A California, Texas, Florida, or Idaho gardener would drive themselves crazy trying to do it.

holt_1141_002_1500(c).jpg

Indeed, I’ll bet many American gardeners don’t know that many of the published garden photos we see come from England and stock photo agencies.  Don’t get me started on this issue, since it is one of economics for garden photographers.

But as a gardener, I am particularly pissed off about photos of “drought-tolerant” gardens. I live and garden in California where — drought or not — it’s a summer-dry climate.  Long dry summers of no rain is not drought, it’s normal. Don’t show me drought-tolerant garden photos from Illinois, New York, or even New Mexico. They don’t apply.

If a gardener falls in love with this rock garden because of the picture and wants to do it themselves, good luck if you don’t live in New Mexico.

holt_1107_070_1920c).jpg

David Salman’s drought-tolerant New Mexico rock garden.

And “drought-tolerant” plants?!  No such thing. All plants are drought-tolerant in their native habitat.  Show me climate-tolerant plants and tell me the climate they are native to.  Redwood trees can handle severe drought in Eureka, California, but not in Los Angeles.  A Joshua tree could survive a year of no rain in LA, would die of too much water in San Francisco, and die of too much heat in Death Valley.  Is it a drought-tolerant plant?

How about a classic “drought-tolerant” photo request I get, for Coneflowers?  Yeah, I will sell the photo to anyone, but its up to the viewer to decide if it is a good photo for garden information.

Purple-coneflower-holt_1008_676_1500(c).jpg

Purple Cone Flower (Echinacea purpurea), a native wildflower in this Minnesota garden.

Photos are often used as eye candy, and it is usually not the photographer’s fault if some well-meaning, non-gardening photo editor uses it to illustrate any ol’ garden story.  Usually no one notices if it is not a “good” photo.

I just hope it doesn’t damage the spirit of a gardener who wants what they can’t have.

******************

Saxon Holt is an award-winning photographer of more than 20 garden books with 25+ years of experience. Visit his site PhotoBotanic to see more of his work. You can also read his tips and philosophical musings about garden photography at the team blog Gardening Gone Wild.

To enter the give-away for Saxon Holt’s e-book Good Garden Photography, leave a comment below about how garden photos inspire or discourage you. Be sure to link your email address to your comment so we can contact you if you win. Deadline: midnight EST on Wednesday 9/23/2015. Two randomly chosen winners will be announced the next day. Good luck, everyone!

This post is part of a week-long blog tour in which Saxon Holt shares garden photography tips, and every blog is giving away his books too! Here are the other blog posts/give-aways :

Posted by Saxon Holt on September 16, 2015 at 2:45 am, in the category Guest Rants.
Comments are off for this post

41 responses to “What is a “Good” Garden Photo?”

  1. Karen says:

    Garden photos inspire me IF the plant material will work in my zone, and if it’s plants that would make me happy in my garden. I see lots of wonderful pictures of plants that I would love to be able to grow in my garden, but when I research the plant…..it would t grow well for me.

  2. Pauline says:

    Garden photos inspire me in so many ways. I look at the photos as a gardener and as a photographer. I look at colour, texture, plants. A good photo gives me ideas about what to plant and how to photograph plants.

  3. Chris N says:

    I read every lesson of your series on garden photography you had on Gardening Gone Wild. Great stuff.

    By the way, your photo of Echinacea purpurea is captioned “a native wildflower in [a] Minnesota garden”. It is a native wildflower in the US but is not found naturally in Minnesota. Your caption does not say it is but a casual reader might assume that. Which is one of my pet peeves about the use of the term “native wildflower.” Frequently, the term is used so broadly that it is useless for making gardening decisions.

    In this case, your caption indicates the Midwest which is fine for generalists like E. purpurea. But I’ve seen examples like your New Mexico photo where there is no indication of where the photo is taken. Few native plants from New Mexico would survive in my Wisconsin garden. I agree with you that gardeners need to look closely at photos to see if it will work in their garden.

    • Saxon says:

      Chris = What a great catch on that caption! Thanks. On the one hand I am embarrassed I put that caption in the photo, on the other hand it is a learning opportunity and leads to another rant about “native plants”. I get requests for photos that want wildflowers that are native to North America, no matter where the garden may be. E. purpurea may be a fantastic plant and adaptable to many gardens but it is an East Coast native

      • Pam/Digging says:

        I was curious because I thought E. purpurea was native to at least the eastern half of Texas, so I looked it up on the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center plant database: http://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=ECPU. It says, “Native Distribution: FL to extreme n.e. TX, n. to VA, OH, IL & IA.” So it’s not just an East Coast native, unless Lady Bird is wrong. 🙂

        • Garden Rant Garden Rant says:

          Actually it’s not native to the whole East Coast. Here’s what the Missouri BG says:
          “Native to moist prairies, meadows and open woods of the central to southeastern United States (Ohio to Michigan to Iowa south to Louisiana and Georgia).”
          I’ve seen lots of sources mistakenly identifying it as native to the Mid-Atlantic and northward.
          I’ve been told it was brought east from the prairies by Lewis and Clark.
          Susan

  4. DC Tropics says:

    My own rant: a photo also tells a story of a TIME. Gardens are not static and photographs generally show them at their best, and very very rarely at their worst. So yes, garden photos are often VERY misleading. For some gardens, that best time occurs for a very short period during the year, and the best photo is taken at the right time of day, with the right lighting. For example, that spring-flowering groundcover is going to look very different later in the year, maybe just a few weeks or even days later. And the best photos are often taken on a bright overcast day, but again that doesn’t represent the garden as it probably looks most of the time.

    • Saxon says:

      Responding to rants is what this is all about DC. Indeed, photos are about time, a very precise time of day in a very precise season and exact location. This is what memories are made of. This is what gives us dreams. Photos always lie, that is their power, whether a politician in an awkward pose, a beauty queen, or a recipe, we learn to put on our critical thinking cap. But I hope you can still enjoy the fantasy.

  5. Pam/Digging says:

    The absolute best gardening info is local, and the more local the better since climate and terrain can vary greatly even across one large state like Texas or California. Of course this applies to photos as well, as you rightly point out. This is where garden blogs have done an enormous service for gardeners, as compared to traditional gardening magazines, books, or syndicated columns. On a blog, you can see what a local gardener is growing, how the plants grow there, and learn to appreciate real-life gardens, not the cover-girl, air-brushed images so prevalent in the magazines. (And are many of them really from English gardens? Argh!) This is where your e-books come in handy and will reach the right market, Saxon — teaching amateur garden photographers, each of whom is now his or her own publisher (on blogs, FB, Instagram, etc.), how to take better pictures.

    Of course, we all love to see beautiful, pro-level garden shots, and why not? They’re delicious eye candy! But we need to keep in mind it’s like looking at a supermodel who’s been professionally made up and photoshopped to perfection. It’s not real life (maybe just a perfect moment in time, in that particular place), so just enjoy the fantasy.

    • Saxon says:

      Thanks Pam – I honestly believe by helping others take better pictures all gardeners benefit, because as you perceptively note, many gardeners are searching for local expertise and local garden writers need to take good photos to enhance their message. Like it or not it is still a visual medium.

  6. Heather O says:

    I like this idea of the photo telling a story. Don’t we always hear that a picture is worth a thousand words? It’s up to the photographer to tell the story correctly, and up to the viewer to understand it how it is meant to be understood.

    • Saxon says:

      Heather – For years I used the tag “The Camera Always Lies”. The power of the photographer is knowing that simple fact, and “telling the story correctly” is only the *photographers* story. It is never the whole story. But that is the point of all this. Be aware of what you are seeing and make every effort to tell *your* story.

  7. Laura says:

    I couldn’t say that I ever find garden photos to be necessarily discouraging, but it is important to develop a discerning eye and understand the context in which the photo is being presented. A photo of Echinacea posted by someone on a gardening forum is not the same as one in a gardening book is not the same as one in a catalog trying to sell seeds or plants. If someone becomes interested in a particular plant or gardening style based on what they see in a photo, it is up to them to do the research and decide if they want to try it themselves.

    • Saxon says:

      One of the most exciting things about gardening with native plants Laura, is the diversity found in them and the creative opportunities that allows for gardeners who absolutely do NOT want a predictable “just like the magazine” garden.

      Here I would urge gardeners to get their plants from local nurseries that hopefully used local sources for their nursery stock. Your garden will become your own and NOT like the one in the picture.

  8. Martie Brown says:

    I am just learning but I know when I get a good photo. Delete a lot. Forme, it is the lighting. Thank you.

    • A. Marina Fournier says:

      Some times, for me, the quality of the natural lighting IS the subject. I do love me some skyscapes.

  9. Vicki says:

    Thanks for your article on garden photography. I have fallen for some of the garden book “lies”, drooling over photos and trying to emulate them.
    Then, I started taking my own photographs of my garden and realized I was doing the same thing. . .. Taking a photo and framing or editing it to make it beautiful, if perhaps a bit misleading.
    I really dislike the use of stock photos, especially in books. I understand using them for newspapers and magazines- it’s quick and time sensitive.

  10. Deborah Hudson says:

    This is such a good article and expresses very well what i have been hearing from lots of gardeners, both new and experienced. There are so many photos available now and so many choices of plants that it is hard for us experienced gardeners to determine what to plant to get a full rich looking yard. Luckily there are resources in people who have studied the science and art of gardening so that we have a few people around who can help us decide on where to put what without the normal experimenting. It depends is the best answer ever!

  11. Thank you for a beautiful post (quite literally). My bedside table is stacked with garden porn and boy do I enjoy it, but if the gardener is fighting feelings “of inadequacy,” – and amateur gardeners often do – the photographic evidence supporting such a theory is enormous and it’s everywhere.

    Magazines filled with rustic chic potting tables. Austin roses that have never known anything but the purest of health in the best of conditions in the kindest of lights. Chicken coops that look better than my first apartment. Community garden parties lit entirely by hanging tea lights in Mason jars, as guests sip signature cocktails and presumably discuss heirloom seed saving until the wee small hours (they’re not only better gardeners than you, they even drink with more sophistication).

    Those pictures are inspiring, and gorgeous, and valuable; but unless you know how to use a camera (and where your skill ends, how others with greater skills use theirs), you’ll have a hard time holding your head up when you put down the magazine/turn off the internet/close the book and gaze at a four-week-old pile of browned and vicious rose canes in your own garden, or look at a galvanized pail filled with oily water and wiggling mosquito larvae or stare at the dried up strawberry six-pack that never went into the ground in May – the ugly realities of EVERYone’s gardening life.

    Thank you for helping others to catch a glimpse of the wizard behind the curtain, and help them build their own skills – and in turn, their gardening confidence. Such work is incredibly valuable.

  12. Cathy Insley says:

    Would love to learn how to do such inspiring garden photography!

  13. gwen rose says:

    Love the photo tips. Ideas for composition and design inspire me.

  14. Dianne says:

    Well for me the garden photos inspire not discourage. Every season I am trying different plants, while trying different locations on our own acreage. After some 30 and 50 years some plantings are calling it quits. Even a 52 Year old Clematis that has been moved twice. Now I get to try some new plants and flowering shrubs. At least they are new to me! Local Photos inspire me what to choose next for my location.

  15. Ruth says:

    I’m looking after my garden club’s garden tour photo archive for social media purposes. I love that the labeling issue gets you ranting, like the issue of watermarking original images, the original version often gets lost in repetition, so even if the original iteration was well labeled, by the time one gets to see the image, that text may have been replaced, or the watermark cropped out making it harder to detect the images origin, and with it the hope to trace it and the plants within its suitability for our own circumstances. That said, I think we all push our plants zone hardiness from time to time don’t we? Or a site that might be damp enough etc.

  16. Val says:

    I take lots of photos of my garden. Sometimes just to record what blooms when, and where I planted something. But when I want a beauty shot, I’m surprised how it makes me see my garden differently. It isn’t until I’m framing a photo that I notice details that had gone undetected. Sometimes good, a contrast of form that I hadn’t appreciated, and sometimes bad, an overlooked weed ‘ruining’ the shot, but the camera always makes me look more critically at my garden.

  17. anne says:

    Matching the photos to the piece they’re included in seems important too. It chaps my hide to be reading a how-to book, and the photos are all decorative or artsy, not instructional. On the other hand, I do love inspirational photos in the right piece to dream and plan around.
    When I take photos myself, I am usually recording something I want to refer to later–plant combos or development stages, etc. And also I often take closeups, enjoying the aesthetic minutiae of flowers and insects. But I love the idea of telling a story; I will keep that in mind next time I’m in a garden with a camera.

    • Barbara Bach says:

      I completely agree. I once took a picture of a flower that was in front of our tiki hut, which is over our pond. I had an autumn clematis covering the hut. When I looked at the picture, I realized the vine looked so messy, it gave the impression that a storm had come through! That clematis came out.

  18. Barbara Bach says:

    Thank you!!!!!
    Over the years or gardening and working in garden centers, I realize how misleading “doubt tolerant” is. Cone flowers are not very drought tolerant here in the southern portion of the NC coast.
    A pet peeve of mine? “Full sun.” In cooler climes it is 6-8 hours. Here? If the sun is in the afternoon, it’s 4 hours. Roses bloom just fine in light shade or 4 hours of sun.

  19. Joanna says:

    Thank you for a very informative article. I too have browsed longingly at the beautiful catalog pictures. After a while you realize that what they are selling is the picture. We have to try out what works for us in our specific climate. I am always trying new plants. This year I planted bananas and brugmansias. Some are successful and some are not.

  20. Joanna says:

    I was wondering where the cover photo of your book was taken, Saxon. It looks very British to me. 🙂

  21. Dawn says:

    Photos of my garden inspire me to look at it differently, to see things I didn’t see before, have new ideas about what might work better

    Photos of other “native” gardens also inspire me, while photos of traditional gardens don’t, because they are not my area of interest. I love when the photo shows the habitat being created and the critters that are using it.

  22. A. Marina Fournier says:

    One of my pet peeves is being unable to figure out which caption goes with which photo. This happens all over the place. If only there were numbers or letters given each photo and each caption, so that we might know.

    I get APOD and EPOD: Astronomy and Earth Science pictures of the day. I really wish more of the photographers would include the date the photo was taken–recently? last season? last year? A decade ago?

    That photo-shopped Viking ad has so many things wrong with it, it could choke a horse.

    The photo with the house overlooking the Pacific has my favorite kind of light. Just makes me happy.

    I’m with Joanna–that top photo of a garden room does look awfully British.

    Photographs of garden rooms are among my favourite, as I’d love to have a couple or three with special themes, even if I have to do one each along the sides, and a division of the backyard to create them. Being in the SF Bay Area, I don’t get to have lush right now, but screens and espaliered plants and vines over them will do. They don’t require a chain saw to groom!

    I’ve always loved enclosed gardens–the Italianate buildings in California from the early part of the 20th C. are one form. Spent most of my youth in San Diego, and the gardens within the main museum area in Balboa Park affected me a lot. They are very much like the enclosed gardens of the medieval religious houses–and my time in the SCA did not dissuade me of wanting one of my own. I see photos of the Cloister Gardens at the NY MMofA, and think, why limit it to so few herbs, and why are there not more roses around the perimeter? Why are there no espaliered fruit trees?

    Why haven’t I got enough land and enough money to make the gardens of which I dream?

  23. A. Marina Fournier says:

    Saxon, I love your attitude on the why of one’s photograph.

    Some photographs make me want to be in it–as some of Monet’s painting in the Day in the Country exhibit of the mid-80s made me want to step into them and explore what lay behind–some just give me peace and delight. Some instruct, some inspire, and some take my breath away.

    What you said about framing the photograph to ensure that what you and others see is telling a story just rings truth to me. Otherwise, why take the photo?

    And this:
    I want to celebrate plants, tell their story, illustrate how they enrich our lives. A good garden photo is not just technically good; it also pulls you in and tells a story.

    The best ones do. If Frank Browning’s APPLES had had photos, or more of them, my swoon for the art and poetry of that book would never end.

    I will track down the links above, and find a copy of your upcoming book. I will do my best not to drool on the book itself.

  24. Marty says:

    As an amateur gardener and amateur photographer, good garden photos both discourage and inspire me. “If only my garden looked like that, I could have taken a photo like that.” “If I were a better photographer, I could make photos of even my scraggly garden into beautiful pieces of art.” Then the optimism sets in and I determine that next year’s garden will be perfect—I just have to plant a few things there and there, and move that plant from the back to the front yard—and then I can spend my summer taking such pretty pictures too.

  25. kermit says:

    I’ve been buying a lot of soil amendments as I expand my garden, and the cashier asked for photos of what I’d been doing with it, I brought in a few printed photos, and she said “It’s beautiful!” I explained that I had carefully chosen the shots, most of the garden was a mess. Then… “and I didn’t know the leaves on that plant [heuchera] got so big!” I almost didn’t have the heart to explain that it was a closeup.

    On the other hand, like Dianne above, most of us have seen things in our own garden for the first time only when looking at what a camera shows us. Photos lie, often without meaning to, but they also reveal truths. They can uncover secrets we hide from ourselves, which we didn’t have the eyes or heart to see.

  26. Very nice article, thank you for sharing it! I think many people should read it and take lessons when it comes to creating garden photography. It’s not like taking pictures of people. Photographing a garden is a very precise activity, and the correct positioning is everything. Many people just can’t find the right point, from which they can create the perfect shot of the outdoor space.

  27. Tess says:

    The photo has to have good lighting, a good mixture of dark- and light-colored plants (not too busy, about 5-7 plants in the mix), the plants have to work in my zone AND be readily available at a nearby nursery. THEN I’m inspired. Photos that have too many plants, expensive plants, not suitable for a semi-rural garden just don’t do it for me. I’ve long stared at photos of smaller, city gardens and would get too frustrated so now I just pass them by. My gardening time is precious as is my pocketbook so I don’t waste time with photos of “too done” gardens, formal gardens, arid zone gardens, etc. I know I might be limiting my imagination, but I also want to reduce my frustration and focus on what I can achieve successfully.

  28. Nell says:

    Maybe it’s that I’m just a visual person, but I don’t want to linger over only pictures of what will work for me. If a garden photo has good composition and happy plants, it can be from almost any eco-system and still give great pleasure.

    Some of the best photography in garden blogs is from gardens that are have almost nothing that will work in my climate — but gazing at them is still instructive and enjoyable.

    Pinterest has helped sharpen my understanding of what draws me to an image. Impulsively pin whatever appeals for a while, then review the collection: you may be surprised by what jumps out at you, and what they have in common.

  29. Jennifer says:

    In a perfect world/ gardening mag, photo captions would be at least a paragraph long, identifying all plants in photo according to their most recent taxonomy, photo location, zone, season/ month, time of day, weather conditions and any other extenuating circumstances.

    Alas, it may be that the best we can hope for is that the plants are identified correctly and that 15% of plants pictured might actually grow in our gardens. It does chap me a little to see photos taken in England, however lovely they may be, they don’t translate at all in my hot and muggy Atlanta garden!

  30. HBernstein says:

    Good garden photos inspire to both plant and get out there to take my own photos. Mostly, though, good garden photos humble me.

  31. Thank you all for your comments! Congratulations to our two randomly chosen winners, Karen and Marianne.

    If you were not one of the lucky ones but would like to purchase a copy of Saxon Holt’s Good Garden Photography, it’s available for $9.95 at this link : http://photobotanic.com/store/books/ebooks/photobotanic-garden-photography-workshop-book-1/.