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What is a “Good” Garden Photo?

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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.

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!

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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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 :

  • Photographing the Late Summer Garden (Deadline: 9/16)
  • Shooting a Garden in Death-Star Light (Deadline: 9/16)
  • Macro Photography Tip: Photographing the Last Flowers of Summer (Deadline: 9/16)
  • Photographing the Leaves of Fall (Deadline: 9/23)
  • Photographing Grasses (Deadline:9/22)

Posted by

Saxon Holt

on September 16, 2015 at 2:45 am, in the category Guest Rants.

11 Comments

  1. 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. 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 = 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

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

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