Getting Serious About Photography at the San Francisco Botanical Garden



Everybody's got a fancy camera.  But we still take shitty pictures of the garden.

I'm not talking about those beguiling close-ups of the dew on a rose that we can all grab with our macro lenses.  And I'm not talking about decent, straightforward, representational photos of beautiful places. I'm talking about photos that communicate the idea of a garden the way we really see them. How many times have your own photographs failed to do justice to what your eyes could see?

Photographer Saxon Holt has taken on a new role at the San Francisco Botanical Garden as their Photography Program Director.  He's put together a series of lectures and workshops that will grow and change over time in response to the needs and ideas of the people involved. "I want a program that is not about me," he says, "not about how I see beauty, but about how WE see beauty; and what we can do to share it with others."

The series starts with a lecture by Saxon and Lucy Tolmach, director of horticulture at Filoli Gardens. That's happening on September 23, and then there's a Master Photography Workshop on September 25 that's limited to just twelve students.

Then, on Monday mornings through October, there will be a series of morning photo shoots–attend one or attend them all, but either way, it sounds like a pretty nice way to spend a Monday morning in October.

What do you want to know about garden photography?  What would your dream photography workshop consist of?  Let Saxon know and maybe you'll see it on the schedule next year.

And congrats to Saxon and John Greenlee, and Timber Press on winning the GWA award for The American Meadow Garden!


  1. I know exactly what you mean about my beautiful yard and garden not photographing well. I look out my window and think, How pretty! But the photos just don’t do it justice. I’m not in SF, but we have lots of local photogs who could offer a seminar or something.

  2. Oh I wish I could go! I used to work for Lucy T. and I would love to hear her speak! It would be amazing to be able to get my garden to look as good in photos as it does in my eyes, but I think that would involve some Photoshop too.

  3. Perhaps in your necks of the woods people APPRECIATE and notice nature.

    Down here, there is not such a thing, great pictures or not, every installation has the beauty of a snake around an ostrich’s neck or similar as it was ranted here previously.

    From Puerto Rico, USA.

  4. So close, and yet so impossible …

    I live relatively close, but there’s no way I could make it there for even one Monday, never mind @ 8:00 a.m.


    Just the kind of thing I’ve dreamt of, too.

  5. So true. I almost did my guest rant on this topic. I think that many folks use the macro shots as a crutch because they can’t get “scenes” right. It’s very hard to photograph a 1/5 acre backyard garden well. Also, it’s a great way to hide areas of your garden you don’t want others to see. The garden blogosphere looks like it’s a seed catalog at times. Sure, it’s great to see an individual flower up close, but I don’t want 20 macros comprising post after post after post. How about some context?

  6. So true, wish I could go. My biggest problems are knowing where to focus, and shooting fast enough so that wind doesn’t spoil the shot….I’m sure there are techniques and tips to deal with both of those. Knowing how to set up the overall shot so you can put the garden area in proper context would be nice too.

  7. This is a wonderful opportunity for those of us in the S.F. Bay area.
    I hope that I can fit one of the morning workshops into my schedule.

    You ask the question: What would your dream photography workshop consist of? – It would consist of 3or 4 of my most highly regarded garden photographers in a round table discussion with one another in how they go about their process ( Saxon Holt, Marion Brenner , Lee Anne White and David Perry)
    Having watched each of them ( with the exception of Mr. Perry) shoot a project , it is amazing to see some similarities and many distinct differences between these professionals.
    I’ve learned something from each of these fine garden photographers and think it would be interesting to have them compare their processes in a round table discussion for the benefit of the audience.

    I’m also intrigued by the new digital software that some photographers are using on site rather than back at the studio.

  8. I’m kinda backwards…

    I’d like a garden that looks beautiful even when you don’t already know what’s there, even when you’re not its “mother,” so to speak. In some ways, a camera shows a garden more truly because it removes a certain romanticism that we are all prone to. But because it also removes the larger context, it can deceive badly, too.

    The Japanese gardens of Portland epitomize to me the benefits of gardening for a “snapshot.” Japanese gardens are usually designed to be seen from one point of view and work for the maximum effect from that viewpoint. A failure to consider the viewer in the same kinds of ways is a frequent failure of Western gardens. The “picture” isn’t everything, of course, but it can be a lot!

  9. Would you please stop using vulgarisms? I think it is the second or third time.
    It makes the reader or listener feel as if you do not value them highly. Also, they create unpleasant visceral responses. You may feel good, but the reader feels bad. I assume, since you are a professional writer, you have access to editors. They will agree with me. If they do not, change your publisher.
    Thank you in advance.

  10. How discouraging!(Especially for a plug directed at would-be photographers.)Sometimes it’s not the product that matters most, but the hunt for a pleasing shot, or the act of meditating on something beautiful for a moment.

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