Picture This – In the Frame

Courtyard arbor with Fallopia 'Lemon Lace' framing Eutrochium maculatum, Amsonia hubrichtii, Sedum rupestre 'Angelina', and Pennisetum orientale 'Karley Rose' at Hayefield.com

When you’re photographing plants and gardens, it’s natural to focus your attention on what’s in the center of the picture. Taking a few seconds to consider the “frame”—the edges of the image—before you shoot can help to enhance the entire photograph.

One thing to think about is the orientation of the image: whether you hold the camera in its normal position to take a photo that’s a horizontal rectangle or turn it 90 degrees to shoot a vertical one. Broad garden shots, large drifts, and low, spreading plants tend to lend themselves to horizontals…

Eutrochium maculatum with Dipsacus fullonum in horizontal format at Hayefield.com

…while verticals are a natural choice for tall, spiky plants and combinations. (Above is a horizontal shot from the meadow, of Joe-Pye weed [Eutrochium maculatum], teasel (Dipsacus fullonum), and not-yet-in-bloom goldenrod (Solidago); below is a vertical of the Joe-Pye and teasel.)

Eutrochium maculatum with Dipsacus fullonum in vertical format at Hayefield.com

Sometimes it’s obvious which orientation will work best; in other cases, it can be tough to decide. When you’re using a digital camera, though, there’s no need to spend time deliberating: take some of each so you’ll have plenty to choose from later.

Patrinia scabiosifolia with Sanguisorba tenuifolia 'Purpurea', Zinnia elegans 'Orange King', and Canna 'Australia' at Hayefield.com

I tend to like horizontals for capturing a feeling of overall abundance, making a generally pretty garden shot, and verticals for capturing the interaction of just two or three special plants. (Above is golden lace [Patrinia scabiosifolia], purple Japanese burnet [Sanguisorba tenuifolia ‘Purpurea’], ‘Orange King’ zinnia [Zinnia elegans], and ‘Australia’ canna, while the vertical format below draws attention to just the golden lace and burnet.)

Patrinia scabiosifolia with Sanguisorba tenuifolia 'Purpurea', Zinnia elegans 'Orange King', and Canna 'Australia' at Hayefield.com

For most of us, the difference between verticals and horizontals is simply a matter of personal preference: what we think looks nicest, or what works best for our blog format.  I find myself defaulting to verticals, so when I’m shooting combinations, I have to make a conscious decision to grab a horizontal version too, just in case it might be useful later.

Solenostemon scutellarioides 'Limon Blush' (coleus) with Imperata cylindrica 'Rubra' and Canna 'Australia' at Hayefield.com

When I’m selecting photos for posts, though, I almost always pick the verticals, because they show off a more balanced amount of each plant. In the above shot, for instance, the emphasis is on the ‘Limon Blush’ coleus [Solenostemon scutellarioides]; below, you see more of the Japanese blood grass [Imperata cylindrica ‘Rubra’ and ‘Australia’ canna as well.

Solenostemon scutellarioides 'Limon Blush' (coleus) with Imperata cylindrica 'Rubra' and Canna 'Australia' at Hayefield.com

Front path at Hayefield.com

The orientation is something to think about when photographing pathways, too. Horizontals show more of what’s happening on each side, while verticals tend to draw attention to the path itself. They also emphasize the sense of perspective, bringing you right into the picture.

Front garden path at Hayefield.com

Another way to focus attention on whatever you want to emphasize is to frame it with something within the photo.

Courtyard arbor at Hayefield.com

Structures such as arches and arbors serve as obvious frames for garden scenes, adding depth to the picture while attracting your attention to the center of the image.

Painted bamboo arches in veg garden at Hayefield.com

That’s assuming, of course, that there’s something of interest to see in the center; otherwise, it’s just a picture of an arch or arbor and a path.  That’s fine if that’s what you want…

Painted bamboo arches in veg garden at Hayefield.com

…but it’s a missed opportunity from a design standpoint. Photos like the ones above and below remind me that I could do a much better job in using my garden arbors as frames, rather than simply as plant supports.

Side-garden arbors at Hayefield.com

Back to photography, though…other structures that work well for framing garden scenes include gates…

Eutrochium maculatum with asters and grasses in courtyard at Hayefield.com

…posts…

Entry planting at Hayefield.com

…fences…

Side garden at Hayefield.com

…ornaments…

Daniel framed by spirals at Hayefield.com

…and windows (as in this old picture from my previous place).

Garden framed by window - Hayefield.com

One tip here: if you’re using some sort of geometric structure as a frame, it needs to be level, both horizontally and vertically. You probably won’t notice deviations much in the garden, but they can be really obvious in photos, where you can easily compare them to the straight sides of the image. (I know that many of my fence posts and arbors could use some serious attention in that department.)

Young Viburnum plicatum framed by Panicum virgatum 'Northwind' and Pennisetum alopecuroides 'Cassian' at Hayefield.com

Plants, too, can work as frames within photos. (Granted, the photo above would have been nicer if the viburnum in the center was more mature, but you get the idea.) Distinctly vertical plants, such as tall ornamental grasses and perennials, work well for framing the sides. In the above image, the vertical framing plants are ‘Northwind’ switch grass (Panicum virgatum), with ‘Cassian’ fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides) framing the bottom edge. Below, golden lace (Patrinia scabiosifolia), goldenrod (Solidago), and ‘Dallas Blues’ switch grass frame a bench.

Bench framed by Patrinia scabiosifolia, Solidago, and Panicum virgatum 'Dallas Blues' at Hayefield.com

Duncan framed by Solidago and Juniperus viginiana at Hayefield.com

Upright shrubs and trees in pairs or paired rows—such as these Eastern red cedars (Juniperus virginiana)—also serve well for framing scenes, objects (including alpacas), and paths.

Juniperus virginiana allee at Hayefield.com

Woods path at the farm - Hayefield.com

Tree trunks offer lots of opportunities for framing scenes in wooded landscapes and shady gardens.

Path at the farm - Hayefield.com

Fall color at the farm - Hayefield.com

Most of their framing effect is vertical, but if taller trees have horizontal branches, you may be able to use them as a frame along the upper part of your image.

Fall color at the farm - Hayefield.com

In close-up images, leaves and/or stems may be able to serve as frames. (Below is ‘Oakhurst’ pineapple lily [Eucomis comosa] framed by the leaves of ‘Australia’ canna.)

Eucomis comosa 'Oakhurst' in bloom at Hayefield.com

Front Garden Middle Border with Lobelia cardinalis and Cotinus 'Grace' framed by Rudbeckia fulgida var. fulgida and Phlomis tuberosa seedheads at Hayefield.com

Shooting over the top of plants or borders, with the foreground plants out of focus, adds a framing element along the bottom of an image, giving much more depth to the scene…

Panicum virgatum 'Dallas Blues', Rudbeckia fulgida var. fulgida, Pennisetum alopecuroides 'Cassian', Panicum amarum 'Dewey Blue', Patrinia scabiosfolia, and Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster' at Hayefield.com

…as well as an extra dash of color and/or texture.

Courtyard garden with Echinacea purpurea and Schizachyrium scoparium 'The Blues' at Hayefield.com

Side-garden path framed by Symphyotrichum novae-angliae 'Hella Lacy' and 'Harrington's Pink' at Hayefield.com

Corylus avellana 'Red Majestic' with Canna 'Phasion' [Tropicanna'], Imperata cylindrica 'Rubra', and Iris 'Gerald Darby' at Hayefield.com

Using out-of-focus plants along the lower edge of the frame serves yet another function: hiding a boring or unattractive foreground. In the images above and below, for instance, you’re spared the view of the unweeded part of a path.

Path edged with Panicum virgatum 'Rotstrahlbusch', Rudbeckia fulgida var fulgida, Vernonia, Eutrochium maculatum 'Carin', Celosia 'Punky Red', Physocarpus opulifolius 'Monlo' [Diabolo'], and Sedum 'Angelina' at Hayefield.com

Well, that’s all I have to say about framing for now. Next time, it’ll be May Bloom Day, and there’s a lot of gardening, sowing, and potting-up to get done before then. But before I sign off, I wanted to mention an excellent resource I was recently reminded of (thanks for asking, Eric). If you are considering adding a meadow area to your landscape, or if you have a friend or client looking for more information on meadows, you can find two supremely useful documents on the Natural Lands Trust website:

  • Meadows in Southeastern Pennsylvania: A free 7-page PDF document touching on the highlights of meadow ecology, wildlife benefits, and management, including a simple but eminently useful chart to help you decide when and why to mow your meadow. (While you’re mowing, I recommend entertaining yourself with the horticultural version of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall”: One Man Went to Mow.)
  • Stewardship Handbook for Natural Lands in Southeastern Pennsylvania: A 220-page document with much more in-depth information about land management, including an overview of various cover situations (including woodlands, meadows, wetlands, and more); a step-by-step guide for creating a stewardship plan; details on a wide range of stewardship techniques (including managing wildlife, caring for forests and meadows, dealing with invasive plants, and building and maintaining trails); and charts of native plants for different habitats. It’s available for free as a PDF download (it takes a while but is worth the wait) or $57.50 as a spiral-bound print version.

As you can tell by the titles, these references are meant specifically for the southeastern PA area, but they would certainly be of use to the Mid-Atlantic region, at least, and I imagine that much of the information on land management would apply to other areas as well. If you’re at all interested in land stewardship issues, I definitely recommend taking a look.

You can find lots of other interesting sections on the NLT site, as well, including Preserving Your Land: resources for landowners who are thinking about protecting their land from development. My parents worked with NLT to preserve our family farm, and so have several other landowners in our neighborhood. NLT itself owns and manages quite a few protected properties  in southeastern PA and NJ, and some of them are open to the public. To learn more, check out Preserves to Visit.

Fall color at the farm - Hayefield.com

10 responses to this post.

  1. Nan, what a wonderful post, as usual!

    I love-love-love the colored bamboo plant supports – the photo is great, but I was envisioning those colorful stakes completely covered with peas and other climbing and vining vegetables. Divine. And such fun! Still, my favorite photo is one of your old ones with one of the boys peeking over a fence and looking at the camera (or perhaps trying to ignore it!) while you snap his photo through the tall grass. It’s such a great photo!

    This is our last spring in Massachusetts…. I’ve been posting pix and posts that I didn’t have the energy nor the enthusiasm to publish on our garden blog last year. Once our home is sold, we’ll be continuing our garden journey in Napa, CA. The climate is much warmer so we have many more options for growing things. I’ve already been looking here on your blog and in your magical books for inspiration. The hard thing about starting over is….. starting over…. from scratch. It took us many years to get our garden exactly the way we wanted it and for all of the plants to mature. There is so much work involved in building the beds, choosing the plant combinations, buying and planting the different plants and shrubs and trees, and then waiting for them to grow to their potential, On the flip side, we know so much more than we did 12 years ago, and I am looking forward to trying new plants, new combinations, and new strategies.

    We are especially going to focus more on foliage and texture in the new garden – you taught us that and your Foliage and Perennial Care Manual remain our bibles! Instead of dedicated rose beds, we want to combine texture and natural insect repellants in companion plants (growing more catmint with the roses, for example). But what I am especially interested in is using some of your the color-coordinated combinations of quite different textures that you highlighted in “Foliage” as an inspiration for our perennial selections and especially in incorporating ground covers in all of our beds, something we did little of in our current garden, especially in the rose beds.

    Once again, we anticipate turning another “basic yard” with a lawn into a garden oasis, replacing the grass with interesting ground covers, and filling every corner with gorgeous roses and interesting combinations of greenery. Most fun of all, we plan to build a “rain garden”… we’ll be scouring your books for ideas!

    Thanks for always being such an inspiration to us!

    Cathy and Steve

    Hey there, Cathy. After getting 5 inches of rain here in 2 days, a rain garden sounds like a really good idea. I almost envy you the opportunity to start over from scratch. It would make an interesting book, possibly, to compare people’s first gardens with their second or third. You can avoid a lot of your first-time mistakes, and you have a lot more decision-making experience to work with, but a new site–and in your case, a very different climate as well–presents an entirely new set of challenges. I hope all goes quickly with the sale of your current home, and I look forward to following your progress on the new garden. Good luck, you two!
    -Nan

  2. What an interesting post to read with my first cup of coffee in the early morn! You’re very generous and thoughtful to share these creative photography tips, Nan. Thank you!
    I love that Aussie canna – so photogenic, and paired so creatively with its companion plants.
    And that shot of one of the “boys” peering through the foliage and squiggly ornaments….perfect! :)
    As usual, the photos of your beautiful garden are a real treat, especially during this dreary, wet spell we’re plodding through. I so enjoyed Monday’s sunshine and warmer temps and getting out to dig in the dirt. The daffodils and other spring bloomers are so cheering. We’re sure going to appreciate a longer spell of sunny weather when it finally comes…and I know it will…..one of these days….
    Happy gardening, Nan!

    Good morning, Kerri. Yes, it was kind of amusing to realize how much of that ‘Australia’ canna I had in those photos. I think I lost some over the winter (I wasn’t as careful about moistening them occasionally, as I usually do), but I planted out quite a few again this spring. I imagine you’re still getting the rain today; it has finally cleared out here and is much warmer. The boys are already out grazing, trying to make up for yesterday, when they didn’t want to leave the barn. May sunny skies return to you soon, so you too can get back outside!
    -Nan

  3. Me, too–a wonderful post! It’s a great lesson in photography and a feast for the eye as well as the brain.
    I liked the photo with the arbor as a frame, especially the one at the beginning with the watering can. And the one with the alpaca as an “ornament.”! Oh, I liked all of them!!

    Thank you so much, Mrs. Colliver. I enjoy going through my archives to find suitable photos for these posts. When I saw that one of Daniel peeking through the grasses, I knew it had to be included. I hope you’re getting to see some sunshine down your way today. The flowers look so fresh and happy after the rain!
    -Nan

  4. Thank you again, Nan, for your advice on photographing the garden. I always learn from your posts. Your generosity in sharing your expertise is extraordinary. And, of course, your photos are eye candy to all of us. Thank you, thank you!

    Good to hear from you, Shen. I’m so glad that you enjoyed the post. I hope all is going well with your garden this spring, and your new book!
    -Nan

  5. What treasure trove of ideas this post and all of your others offer. I take more close-ups of individual plants than full garden shots (I would take more wide-angle shots if I had a garden like yours!), but I see now I can use these framing tips for either kind of shot–and I will. I had not thought of using flowers or foliage along the bottom edge to help frame a picture. I guess I have always thought it might look like I had accidentally left them there, but when done with intention, it looks great and adds depth to the picture.

    I usually take horizontal orientation photos for my blog, because the pictures fit better on the page and the reader doesn’t have to scroll down to see the caption while looking at the picture (on a full-size computer screen anyway), and I take more vertical orientation photos for my general use, because that seems more appropriate for most plants, as they are more often vertical growers than spreaders. Your photo of the steps in both formats was quite illuminating!

    May I ask what camera you shoot with?

    You bring up an interesting point, Amy: the positioning of photos versus captions on blogs. I’ve ended up trying to keep captions before the photos, for the reason you stated, but sometimes it works better to have the information below, and then readers have to scroll back up. As writers, we also have to remember to make it clear which photo the caption is referring to. It’s just one of the quirks of the very linear, vertical reading format we deal with on blogs.

    All of these photos were taken with a Fuji FinePix S7000. It’s practically a dinosaur as far as digital cameras go (9 years old now), but it’s certainly earned its keep for me.
    -Nan

  6. Posted by Barbara Dashwood on May 1, 2014 at 11:32 am

    Happy May Day, Nan! Well, you have done it again…you have totally spoiled us with your generous, thoughtful and thought provoking post. Do I see another book in this?
    It certainly has me thinking not only of the shots I take but, like you, the realization that it’s possible to do better in framing one’s own garden in many different ways. Thanks so much. Barbara, Victoria, BC.

    Oh, hey: May Day! I always think of the 1st as blog day and shot day (the boys each have to get an anti-parasitic injection at the beginning of each month), but I forgot that today was special in yet another way. Anyway, thanks for letting me know that you liked the post. I wouldn’t presume to make a book out of this–I don’t know nearly enough about the subject to do a really thorough job–but it’s fun to look at the subject from a gardener’s perspective. I hope your gardening is going well this spring!
    -Nan

  7. Great photo framing tips, Nan, especially for those of us inclined to just point and shoot. The post also emphasizes a valuable point about the utility of creating structure in the design of the garden itself – in addition to its contribution to a prettier picture, it improves the experience of the garden to the naked eye. Thanks, as always, for a useful, as well as beautiful, post.

    Right, Kris–you could place an arbor to highlight an existing part of your garden, for instance, or you could design a planting to give an existing arbor a prettier view. Taking lots of pictures during the growing season, then clicking through them during the off season, offers lots of opportunities for spotting possible improvements.
    -Nan

  8. Beautiful photos, beautiful plants! Thanks for yet another great post that shows how to photograph the garden and also what plants look good together.

    Thank you for taking time away from your guests and your seedlings to visit with us, Clark. Daniel and Duncan say hi!
    -Nan

  9. Posted by Kimberly Thomas on May 14, 2014 at 10:03 pm

    Great framing tips and a spectacular way to explore your garden!

    I’m so glad you stopped by for a visit, Kimberly, and I appreciate your comment. I hope your spring season is going well!
    -Nan

  10. Posted by Marilyn Russell on May 24, 2014 at 4:59 pm

    You and your meadow flower garden are truly amazing! I read about your Five-plant gardens in our newspaper today and had to go online to read your blog. Needless to say I was completely blown away and in tears as I drank in the beauty of each flower, grasses, shrubs, trees and ground cover. You have a knack of pulling us into the scene like we are there in your garden learning how the plants all compliment each other and the best framing angles. All the photos are colorful and beautiful; my very favorite is the lavender path with purple flowers and the slightly out-of-focus foreground. What enjoyment to see one of your “boys.”
    Thank you for bringing such a high level of awareness to us.

    Welcome to Hayefield. Marilyn! I’m so happy that you took the time to visit and read, and that you found the post of interest. I look forward to having you as a reader, and I wish you a wonderful gardening season!
    -Nan

Comments are closed.