Photography tips from a Garden Photographer

By Saxon Holt

As a professional garden photographer for more than 25 years, I have seen all sorts of gardens and have learned a lot from many expert gardeners, designers, and plant enthusiasts. California native plant gardens are my favorite, but they are absolutely the hardest to photograph. The reason for both my preference and the difficulty is the same – good native gardens are so hard to find.

To change the way gardens are portrayed in the media we need more good photographs of good gardens.

I am thrilled when I find a photogenic one because I know it to be an opportunity to change the aesthetic of what we expect to see in a garden photograph. Too often the media image of a garden is a lush English style garden with manicured flowers around a carpet of lawn, which is an unsustainable style, on many levels, for California gardeners.

To change the way gardens are portrayed in the media we need more good photographs of good gardens. All of you reading this are on the front lines of this effort. You are interested in the horticultural use of native plants. You know there is unparalleled beauty in natives, but perhaps your photographs don’t yet capture what you see.

I am here to help. As I contribute here, I will focus on two themes: how to take better pictures and how to design gardens that photograph better. The mo’ betta’ photos all of us have, the more we win friends to our cause and influence the shape of gardens to come.

What is out of my control and where I have no authority to instruct is the growing of healthy plants, but good photos start there. It is damn hard to take a good picture of a bad garden or poorly grown plants. So when you set out to get a good picture be sure you have a good subject.

Peeling bark of Manzanita Photo: Saxon Holt

Know what your camera sees. “Think Like a Camera” is the title of one of my workshops and doing so will force you out of what your heart sees to what the camera sees. A single flower in a clump of iris is dull subject for a landscape view of a garden though it may make your heart sing and evoke thoughts of the glory of our native plant communities.

If you love the gnarly mahogany bark of manzanita, don’t take a picture that hides the shape under the foliage. You may see it but the camera won’t. Think about the story you want to tell and think how the camera can help you tell it.

Always shoot in soft light. Yes, there are some spectacular photos to be had when the sun is just right, maybe back lighting a grass or sweeping through trees, but generally sunlight is hard and contrasty, especially in California. More than any other tip, you will vastly improve your photos if you only shoot in the soft light of early morning or late afternoon. Cloudy or foggy days can be a godsend.

CA Native plant entry garden with Ceanothus ‘Yankee Point’ (Ceanothus griseus var. horizontalis ‘Yankee Point’ ) Photo: Saxon Holt

This is about all we have room for in this first article, only a few real tips but I hope I can begin to excite you to try and take better pictures, to make you aware your own pictures can have a powerful influence on those you show them to.

Be conscious of what you are seeing, think how the camera will see it, and take the picture in soft light. We covered lots of ground actually. Next time: Design tips that make a garden easier to photograph.

Part 1: Photography Tips from a Garden Photographer
Part 2: Design Tips for Photogenic Gardens
Part 3: Framing the Garden


Saxon Holt  is a member of the CNPS Marin Chapter. His work as a professional garden photographer is well known in EBMUD Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates. His most recent book is The American Meadow Garden. In addition to his workshops as Photography Program Director at San Francisco Botanical Garden.

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