holt_1054_0297.CR2Every garden story needs details and vignettes, especially plant portraits – but the portraits needn’t be mug shots. The plants should be “of the garden” and give some sense of connection to it.

For a recent Garden As Creative Source workshop with fellow garden photographers David Perry and Allan Mandell I created a new individual workshop just for plant vignettes. My teaching cohorts established their own themes that made the day full and interconnected.


Allan Mandell in PhotoBotanic workshop – looking for lines


David Perry in PhotoBotanic workshop – telling stories

Allan worked with ideas of seeing a garden in broad lines and composing images in brush strokes; while David urged students to tell a story, and to find compositions that would fit into a magazine layout.

For my session on plant portraits, I introduced the idea of an “extraction”, pulling plant details out of the scene in the manner of the PhotoBotanic illustrations I have been doing in the Plants Illustrated section of the Learning Center.  The extractions are intended as illustrations from the garden, rather than the drawings of botanic illustrators in a studio.  They are a time consuming, computer intensive labor of love that are quite satisfying, but far behind the scope of our recent workshop.

Before and After Slider

A PhotoBotanic Extraction of Arctostaphylos ‘Monica’

However, the idea behind an extraction is rooted in the Details and Vignettes chapter of my eBook, Think Like a Camera, and is also availble a single lesson iBook download.  In our workshop planning, David and Allan helped me see how I might connect the extraction idea of a PhotoBotanic illustration to students who are learning to look for the details.  Thanks, guys.

This now becomes a special Workshop Tip lesson for all members of the Learning Center.

A plant portrait begins with looking, really looking, at a plant.  When we feel joy and exhilaration in a garden it is usually because of the plants.  Take a moment and listen to what they say.  Whether a flamboyant shrub shouts at us, or a unfurling leaf whispers, go where the garden calls you and take a picture of that plant.

This is the beginning of a vignette and how I began the workshop.  We were working in the South African section of the  University of California, Berkeley Botanical Garden on a glorious spring morning with high clouds and soft light.  It was one of those times when it is easy to get overwhelmed with possibilities as a garden photographer.  I felt it myself – it was the first time I had been in this section of the garden during the peak season.


The South African section is on a sunny south facing slope as soon as you enter the garden. Map.


Tip:  Fill the frame and look for lines to help compose the image.

All garden photographers love plants, and to be in the midst of new and unusual plants with the camera on a beautiful day is to be in heaven.  So slow down and enjoy it rather than clicking at every impulse.  Find a plant that calls to you and do it the honor of making its acquaintance and making a portrait.


Workshop student “working” to find a photo.

Look closely.   Just as if you were taking a portrait of a friend – what is the best side, its best features.  Enjoy your time looking.  The plants will not blush or turn way with your attention, indeed it will reveal more the more you look.

“Take a picture of a plant” begins the lesson.  Something will call to you.


Ursinia cakilefolia, parachute daisy, flowering in South African section Berkeley Botanical Garden

Think about where it is situated in the garden.  Who are the neighbors – and begin to think about the second part of the assignment.   “Take a picture of two plants”.


Euphorbia coerulescens – Sweet Noor

Begin with one plant that grabs you.

Garden designers take advantage of various plant features in planning a garden, placing specimens side-by-side to contrast and compare distinctive features.  Sometimes the combinations are subtle, sometimes obvious, sometimes accidental, and always subject to the photographer’s eye for cropping and composition.

I really like the repetitive forms of this Euphorbia coerulescens – Sweet Noor, and a vertical composition helped to emphasize the stacking nodes of the plant.

By itself it is a nice, simple plant portrait, filling the frame with texture.

As you become more comfortable in a garden and more comfortable in your own seeing, you will find plant combinations that fit your own style.  Whether you enjoy seeing complimentary colors, a contrast of foliage textures, or unexpected marriages, you will begin to find your own story as you study the plants.

Don’t worry about understanding the garden, concentrate on what you are learning.  Find a way to connect two plants. I do not need to understand the design criteria for these South African plants, but I am sure intrigued by the pairings.

The Sweet Noor (Euphorbia) next to the soft green foliage and blue color of Baboon Flowers (Babiana tabulosa) emphasizes the variety of plants from this summer-dry climate.

Onto  a picture of two plants:


As you look for combinations, and an angle that pairs them in a photograph, be thinking of the garden beyond each angle.  Watch out for conflicting lines, colors or shapes that are beyond your subject.  It is easy to get wrapped up in the two plants and not realize the rest of garden is the background for the the composition.  Come in as tight as you can.

Using a tripod will help enormously in composing exactly the right image.  Not only does the tripod force you to slow down and really look at the composition and the proportions, you will study the background and spaces within the frame.

holt_1054_0215.CR2You will begin to appreciate how the smallest change in the camera angle can make a huge difference in the balance of the photograph, and the ability to crop out those small blemishes that you “wish I had seen”.

We now culminate the lesson on vignettes with part three: “Photograph a plant showing its context in the garden.”

We all love the dramatic macro close-up of plants details – the flowers, buds, bark, foliage, or fruits, but these are not necessarily garden photos.  When you are telling the story of a garden plant it is really nice if you can show your viewer the garden context.


1. The single plant. 2. Two plants combined. 3. The plant in garden context

That Euphorbia is part of the larger garden – A South African tapestry.

The Babiana in the garden by itself is wonderful.  From another angle, the lone blue clump of Babiana tabulosa that I paired with the Euphorbia, is an exuberant display with another species, Babiana rubrocyanea – Wine Cups Baboon Flower.

holt_1054_0254.CR2I can imagine this photo as an extraction from the larger garden scene, a slice of a larger photo.


We are sure this is not in the wilds of the West Cape regions of South Africa, but in a garden. I have shown just enough of the path to give both context and size.  A gardener now has some idea of how to use this plant, which is part of the story I want to tell with the picture.

I try to be alert to the overall garden as I seek out the details to tell the story.  Indeed, the wide views that most publishers look for in a garden story are born of the details.  A landscape view can be somewhat unfocused if there is no particular feature as the focal point of the image.

In this way, the vignette photo can become more than a piece of the story, it can be that landscape photo.

One of my favorite plants, that I use in my own garden is Melianthus major, Honey Bush.  I did not realize it was a South African plant, so of course, when I saw it here in the Berkeley Botanical Garden, I wanted to photograph it.


A nice enough portrait, extracted from the rest of the garden, but as I stood on the hill in this section I saw a bench across the way on the path that leads to the Asian section.


A vignette becomes a landscape photo.  The plant has context – it is “of the garden”.