A recent garden photography workshop at Denver Botanic Garden became a classic lesson on finding photos.  By “finding photos” I ask students to use the full frame of the camera to create composition within a scene that captures their excitement.

Find photos using ‘Lady in Black’ Calico Aster in photography workshop at Denver Botanic Garden

It is too common for photographers, flush with excitement in a beautiful garden, to point their camera at a picture and come away with … blah.

Work the scene, find the photo, make a careful composition using the camera on a tripod to slow you down, and then fill that viewfinder so that every shape, line, color and texture works together like a jigsaw puzzle.  Read on:

I had a fantastic group of students for the workshop, and in the early morning, before the Garden was filled with visitors, we had quiet light working in the magnificent double border just opposite the visitor center.

Garden photography workshop in Denver Botanic Garden

As soon as I set them loose I saw them gathered around this Calico Aster, ‘Lady in Black’ (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum). Yes, I required them to bring tripods.

Symphyotrichum lateriflorum ‘Lady in Black’ Calico Aster flowering in autumn mixed border at Denver Botanic Garden

As so often happens in a workshop, the students inspire me. I had not noticed this beauty when I scouted the location but quickly felt that rush of adrenaline I get when in the midst of extraordinary plants, have my camera, and the light is right.

What a remarkable combination of plants in this autumn perennial border.  It is late September, in Denver, and in glorious flower!

So, it’s the ‘Lady in Black’ aster that inspires my rapture ? Then let’s look more closely and not simply take the wide view the border.  Work the scene, find the special photo.

Aster ‘Lady in Black’  flowering in autumn mixed border at Denver Botanic Garden

I am particularly drawn to shapes and color combinations when I make pictures.  The key to using shapes effectively is to enclose them within the frame of the composition. Note here that the Calico Aster uses about two thirds of the composition with triangles of purple and blue New England Asters in opposite corners, and a streak of Red Bistort (Persicaria amplexicaulis) helping to frame the ‘Lady in Black’.

Having the camera fixed on the tripod is what allowed this careful composition as I studied the scene through the camera viewfinder: finding the photo.  Using a medium zoom telephoto lens I could compress shapes and very deliberately zoom in and out for  precise framing.

As long as I am working the scene, I tried this other composition, which really plays off the white of the Aster and the red of the Bistort, while still leaving a bit of a blue triangle in the corner.

‘Lady in Black’ Calico Aster flowering in autumn mixed border with Persicaria amplexicaulis ‘Firetail’ Red Bistort.

The clever color combinations in this part of the border create an opportunity for some close-up flower photography.  I have said it many times when discussing macro work, the background is just as important as the main subject.

Remember that magenta flowered aster underneath the ‘Lady in Black’?

Look for color combinations

Looking closely at her flowers I noticed the centers were purple, so that if I came overtop I could place the purple asters behind the white one.  I suspect it was no accident the gardener put these two together.

Then if I want to come in really close, I can compose to take full advantage of the shapes created within the frame around the white flowers.

Symphyotrichum lateriflorum ‘Lady in Black’ Calico Aster flowering at Denver Botanic Garden

Whenever you find a good situation when shooting the garden, be sure to walk around it and look back the other way.  Very often good combinations look good from many angles.

~ Read On ~ 

Still transfixed by this beautiful Calico Aster that I never dreamed existed, I want to make more pictures as it dances with other partners in this complex border.

Before and After Slider


I wish I knew the names of all these other playmates, but they sure make beautiful music together.

Symphyotrichum lateriflorum ‘Lady in Black’ Calico Aster flowering in autumn mixed border at Denver Botanic Garden

Again, I have used the four edges of the frame to enclose shapes surrounding the ‘Lady in Black’.  And again, this is only possible by using the camera on the tripod to study the finer elements of composition, deciding how much of each shape to include.

I keep trying to find photos. There are many to be had simply by looking for different ways to combine the plants.  Whether you are in a workshop or on your own with intention of making serious photos, always take your time, enjoy the process, open up to what is happening.

I could not tear myself away, there seemed to be so many ways to photograph this beautiful perennial. Rather than to run off looking for some other photos, I have learned it is better to stay in the moment and work the scene, using the old adage, the photo in front of you is better than the one you haven’t seen.

Notice the dark purple Berberis shrub behind the Calico Aster?

I sense an opportunity to play off  this color combination.

Careful cropping allows me to find just enough of the dark purple to fill up the background of this arching branch of the Aster.

There is almost no end to the number ways to find photos when there’s so much to work with. And so far I have only try to portray the ‘Lady in Black’.

Before I move down the border and try to catch up with the students in the workshop, one last shot, using only the Aster and it’s multi-floral branches for its own background.

Symphyotrichum lateriflorum ‘Lady in Black’ Calico Aster  flowering at Denver Botanic Garden

For more ideas and lessons on Finding Photos check out the ebook “Think Like A Camera” in the Store, the second in the PhotoBotanic Garden Photography Workshop series.