holt_714_0581.jpgMost of us see in three dimensions, but a camera sees in only two. In this lesson, as we learn more about seeing the garden by thinking like a camera, we need to understand at the outset that the camera flattens a scene. Our photographs become interlocking shapes; learning how to consciously organize those shapes, within the boundaries of the camera frame, is fundamental to building a composition.

In the opening photo, which shows flowering onions interlocking with various plants at the Bellevue Botanical Garden, note how all the shapes are stacked up and arranged in the frame to overlap and fill it edge to edge. In two dimensions, each plant has its own block that becomes an element of the composition.


Organizing your photo’s structure and balancing it with shapes within the frame is equally important for vertical or square compositions, not just the horizontals. Sometimes, when you can not get the shapes to work, yet you know there is a strong photo somewhere in the mass of shapes before you, simply turning the camera sideways may give you that “aha!” moment you were pursuing.

When a photograph is filled with colors and textures, and there are no composition tools other than the combinations of shape, I call the resulting photo a tapestry. Many of my favorite photos use this technique, which is inspired by tapestries produced during the Medieval period, before artists had become comfortable with the concept of perspective in two-dimensional art.

To be a pleasing composition, the shapes within these two-dimensional tapestries must fit together like a jigsaw puzzle—overlapping and balanced. This is a good time to remind you of the importance of a tripod in making good photos. A tripod allows you time to study and adjust the delicate balance of shapes within your frame.

This is also a good time to refresh your memory on the “rule of thirds,” first introduced in Lesson 1.2 (“Good Garden Photography”), the first book in the workshop series.  Balancing the overall space of your composition with a 1/3 and 2/3 balance between major elements will often help create a pleasing balance.


In that lesson, I presented this example of finding a photo within the overall garden, using the rule of thirds to divide the photo into a pleasing frame. The dividing line might be a horizontal horizon line, a garden fence, a border, a path, or a change in color or texture. Here, I created a diagonal within the composition that filled 1/3 of the frame with the distinctive texture of a block of aloe.

Now look at it as a tapestry of shapes:

Before/After Slider – move bar to visualize lines


You can see a series of triangular blocks within the frame that give it balance. I particularly like working with triangles: they zip through a composition and pull the viewer’s eye. In this case, the golden barrel cactus are clearly the focal point (Lesson 2.2), and the framing is enhanced by the juxtaposition of shapes that forces the perspective (Lesson 2.1).

Even when you don’t visualize a flat tapestry but want to evoke three dimensions to pull your audience into the frame, remember that the photo is only two dimensions. Every garden scene becomes a collection of shapes that you arrange in the camera frame.


The pathway in this garden clearly wants to pull you into a three-dimensional stroll, but the composition is constructed with shapes.


The shapes are nicely balanced. Note how the main shape, with the path as a leading line, represents about 1/3 of the space, but it can be combined with either of the other shapes to create a nice 1/3 and 2/3 balance. The three-dimensional scene becomes two dimensional. The spaces that each of those shapes will occupy within your frame creates the composition. We have already worked with focal points and forced perspective as workshop lessons, but now we will work with space and shape in blocking the composition.

In the theater world, directors “block out” a scene, directing the actors to work in various spaces on the stage. Visual artists think in the same way; when you, the photographer, compose a photo in your viewfinder, you should always be aware of the spaces you can create, and how you set your stage.

Physical elements, such as the garden beds and borders above, occupy obvious spaces in a composition, but the colors and textures of plants, like the aloe in the succulent tapestry, can be useful tools for blocking. Color is both fun and difficult to work with, since certain colors carry more weight, and some hues will not always pass through the camera processor the way we intend. We will deal with the technical side of cameras and computer in Section Four (Cameras and Computers).

But the fun side is all about color in the garden. Learn to see colors as occupying spaces and shapes.


Again thinking thirds, note the three distinctive parts of this photo of Chicago’s Lurie Garden in Millennium Park: the two blocks of color and the buildings. The shapes of these spaces are balanced in nearly the same way as the earlier photo with the path and borders.


The three parts of this photo are composed of two-dimensional shapes.

I think this a good time to point out that the shape of your photograph is not fixed by the horizontal aspect of your camera. I suggested earlier that you consider vertical compositions as an alternative to horizontal. A final cropping of an image is easy to manipulate later in the computer, where you may see a strong composition that did not fit neatly into the viewfinder.

As an example, let’s look at another block of colors from the wonderful Lurie garden.


The full frame seems a bit off, even though I gave the green shape of the prairie dropseed grass a full 2/3 of the space. By cropping a bit off the top to eliminate the pale fourth color, and then a bit off the bottom to retain a 2/3 balance of green, I ended up with a composition that had not been obvious in the frame of the camera’s viewfinder


The only “given” in a composition are its four outer edges. Those lines are powerful components of the shapes you use within. Use them to your advantage.

Those edges become especially important in a composition that involves negative space. Negative space is a block within a composition that is not part of your story. It carries no real content but is a balancing shape, and is usually bounded by the edge of the frame.

Negative space can be a distinct block of muted color and texture, like the distant sunlit garden out of focus behind these Siberian iris at Quarryhill Botanical Garden:


The negative space is a carefully considered shape that completes this composition. In light of our previous examples, study this photo for a moment. Think about thirds and triangles, colors and shapes

Negative space can also exist in a photograph as dark space, with strong graphic appeal, as in this macro detail of frosty barberry leaves. Here you can really see the importance of the straight outer edges of the frame in determining the shapes you have to work with inside that frame.


The five background shapes around the frosty leaves were carefully created by using the edges of the frame. They fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.

Occasionally, negative space is fundamental to the composition:


If you look closely, the tupelo leaf becomes a hole into a red world. The single shape of color is strong enough to hold this picture together.

The use of space and shape is the glue that holds together any composition. This is a concept that is not easily taught and comes together as you develop your own style.  It falls into place as you use the other tools we have covered in previous lessons. Framing, focal points, leading lines, and points of view are tools to juggle the elements—and each creates shapes within the composition.

As you go out to work on this, remember every scene will be reduced to two dimensions.  A quick trick I use is to squint, using only one eye as I size up a scene, before I look through the camera. This helps me see two dimensions the same way as the camera does. It really makes shape more apparent.

You may even start to see tapestries with lots of interlocking shapes.


Supplemental Posts

Composing With Color

Too Much Fun

Fill the Frame Basics