LATEST ARTICLES – Self-Publishing Experiment


At launch of my new e-pub site, PhotoBotanic.comone book is ready, 3 more scheduled.

Screenshot PhotoBotanic eBooks
eBook page in the Bookstore

I have spent 30+ years in garden publishing, and am still standing.  I sold my first photograph 42 years ago.  Along the way I have received some nice awards and have been the sole photographer for so many books I have lost count; 21, I think?

Composite of covers by Saxon Holt I now safely qualify as a veteran in this publishing biz and am delighted to see all the turmoil roiling through the industry.  As someone who is euphemistically called a “content creator”, I am no longer dependent on what others want to publish, I can do it myself. Sure, anyone else with a website or blog can be a self-publisher.  But how do you make any money ?  How can the upheaval of traditional revenue streams be a positive thing ? Why would I delight in their demise and try to publish through the internet, where almost everything is free ? First, I do not actually delight in the industry turmoil, and wish I did not have to deal with it.  I know too many of the real people who have spent their careers in publishing for me to be happy about changes to their livelihood.  Staff is down everywhere and few publications have photo editors anymore, delegating the work of a photo department to the graphic designer, or an editorial-assistant-copy-editor-intern, or even worse, to the writers. Writers ?! I love ‘em, but aren’t they too, already feeling the pinch ?  They are struggling to keep up with writing and should not be put in the position of depending on their own photography.  Some are genuinely interested in camera work and some are even genuinely good, but almost all will admit they do it because of the pressure to publish their writing. Economic pressures – to cut costs in all areas of publishing, have hurt photographers especially.  Photography is often seen as decoration to the other content, and while it was once on par with the writer’s budget in garden publishing, good quality stock photography is readily available from any decent amateur who knows how to use the internet.  Photography’s value has gone down, both as a line item in a publisher’s budget and in the importance it is given to editors. Photography carries its own production cost in traditional publishing, requiring high grade paper (compared to a novel, for instance), talented designers, color separations, proofing, etc.  When pricing pressures hit hard, the part of a photography budget that gets slashed is the actual photography licensing, not so much the production department. This pressure on photographers’ own income has been happening for a good 20 years.  When publishers realized they could save money in photo budgets by using stock photography instead of assigning a story, the value of an individual photographer’s own photojournalism talents and vision and began to wane.  Stock photography became more universal.  Big agencies such as Getty started to monopolize the channels to publishers for their own benefit instead of the photographers themselves.  Prices for photo licenses continued to plummet. I never joined any stock photograph agency, perhaps stupidly, perhaps stubbornly protecting my own licensing, but today the market for photo sales to publisher is so meager and over-saturated it is a waste of time to pursue it.  I don’t need the credit or recognition – I publish for the money. I am lucky in my years of work, perseverance, credibility, and contacts that I still do sell stock and am grateful to every editor still calling, but it ain’t payin’ the bills. Since I most certainly want to continue working and exploring plants and gardens, I need a new model.  I am staking it all on self-publishing at – my “brand” home page Jan2015 I have been excited about this for many years, talking among friends and colleagues in the publishing trenches, discussing the shifts in publishing, about the potential for each of us to publish what WE want.  I am grateful for all the encouragement, and three years ago decided the only way to see if it could work was to actually do it. Fundamental to the whole concept of self publishing is self promotion.  The work will not sell itself and needs a way to find customers, a platform for marketing.   Numerous consultants suggested “Saxon Holt” is already well recognized as a brand in my niche, but as someone pathologically adverse to promoting myself, I need some cover.  I have been using PhotoBotanic as my stock photography “brand” for many years, without really promoting it either.  So if my future income depends on self publishing and self promotion, PhotoBotanic it is. The concept for making money on the site must begin with believing my own photography style is something viewers will pay for.  Having done so many books with enough awards I am vain enough to think my photography has an audience.  I get good feedback from my workshops and praise from peers. I think people will pay for my work, if only I can offer it to them directly, not as a supplier to a publisher. The internet is designed to connect people.  I need to figure this out. For a long while I read every internet guru’s blog and prowled the expert sites full of sincere and earnest advice about the future of publishing.  Then I realized all these folks are actually consultants and each one says something like “xyz idea is a super cool idea that is going to change the internet”; maybe.  Then 2-3 months later I would hear about something else. What these experts are publishing themselves is hope, commentary, and speculation to each other for the benefit of folks standing on the sidelines.  And nothing seemed to pertain to me and heavily illustrated books of photography.  So I just put my head down, hired some consultants, and plowed forward. What has become is completely new, I don’t know of anyone else creating a similar platform.  But when I stopped reading about the trend setting ideas, I may very well have missed the bulletin saying this is not going to work.  Well, onward …. I have tried to incorporate every possible revenue stream a photographer can hope for.  I have a membership section, an eBook and iBook section, I have a store with self licensed merchandise, I sell prints and notecards, and I still keep an entire library with galleries of my stock photography for high res download. Indeed, in my rush to expand my business, I nearly forgot to tell my web meister to incorporate my core business of stock photography into the new PhotoBotanic site map.  I sure don’t want my photo editors to arrive at the site and not know how to search for photos. To license my stock I have been using Photoshelter as my online Archive for years as my high res library and gallery of story ideas.  Photoshelter is used by thousands of photographers to market their work directly to customers, and unlike some other digital download services it makes no grandiose claims to sell the photographers work for them.  It is really just a tool, and I put it to work as if it were application programming interface (API) – a software tool within the larger software that is the whole site. Similarly, I use Fine Art America to fulfill framed print sales and Café Press for gifts and merchandise as API tools.  Both these sites entice artists to use their services and to set up storefronts, touting the new customers and wide exposure they bring to the artist.  Yeah, right.  I hide these services behind my own store.  I intend to bring business to them (he says with hubris…) To sell my ebooks as direct digital downloads on site, we set up a Content Delivery Network (CDN) that facilitates the process across a wide geographic region.  I am also testing out small iBooks available from iTunes™ and Google Play™ that are the individual lessons from my garden photography workshop lessons, otherwise available to subscribers in the Learning Center section of PhotoBotanic. Screenshot PhotoBotanic book page is a membership site, with most core content only available to members.  But most of those in depth articles are in the free membership section.  Paid subscribers are students of the PhotoBotanic Garden Photography Workshop where lessons are released to them on a drip schedule – “dripped” to them on bi-monthly depending on the day they sign up. I think I have covered every possible way this photographer can capture income from his images.  As I add more product, track page visits, and sales I will get an idea as to what sort of images sell on what sort of products, so the work is only beginning.  However the hope is that the eBooks become the core income to PhotoBotanic, just as traditional publishing has always been the core income for SaxonHolt. By the way, I also redesigned to be my portfolio and assignment site.  I intend to keep getting commissions and assignments, but will use PhotoBotanic as a brand and platform to license images (as allowed by various assignment contracts). I certainly do hope to keep contributing to books and magazine stories with traditional, dead tree publishers, but that market has shrunk. I find myself itching to do my own stories and follow new ideas and trends, unwilling to wait for a publisher.  I will publish myself. Putting that new content behind a membership wall forces me to write well enough to make it worthwhile.  I really don’t expect to get enough subscribers to count on as its own income stream, but if I produce enough quality content, one article a week, focused around my core story lines, I can produce 4 eBooks a year.Screenshot Plants Celebrated page This is thrilling: four books a year on subjects I am passionate about, with photos I choose rather than publishing one book every two years and doing stories for others, on gardens I would not choose.  Seems like a perfect set-up for an inquiring veteran photojournalist. Let’s see if it makes money.  A leap of faith. As my favorite cowboy poet Guy Clark wrote in “the Cape”: He’s one of those who knows that life  Is just a leap of faith  Spread your arms and hold you breath  Always trust your cape  …. He did not know he could not fly  So he did 

Garden Photography Workshop


 Photo workshop Mon Oct 4 2010

I offer garden photograph workshops all around the country.  Built around my book “The PhotoBotanic Garden Photography Workshop” and the photo lessons at the Learning Center at, the workshops offer an opportunity to sharpen your skills and focus your concentration with an assignment theme for reach workshop. You can do this on your own, by giving yourself an assignment, something to work on – and just do it.  For instance “focal points”.  Here, at San Francisco Botanical Garden we are using the Japanese lanterns as an element, a focal point to draw the eye into the composition. japanese lantern focal point When considering a photo it can be really helpful to find some element that will help the viewer focus on the the image and consider what story you are trying to tell.  It does not necessarily need to be an object, it can be a bold plant for instance, but something in the photo needs to be the key to understanding it. Hand in hand with focal points comes “framing”, another Workshop theme.  I actually stumbled onto that lesson theme as I watched the students (in the first photo), and noted the tree was a key element in helping to define the focal point. Consider this next scene in the South African collection at San Francisco Botanical Garden. aloe wide view The bold, variegated aloe that is just beginning to put up its winter flower is an obvious attention grabber.  But too often we are struck by the exciting potential of a garden photo but compose too loosely.  Here, the focal point is not well framed; and there is a tree sticking out of the top of the photograph. Consider for a moment what the story is, and make all elements of the composition work for you. aloe framed by other plants By coming in tighter and using the background shapes to anchor the corners, the aloe is framed and the eye wants to stay in the photograph. Another classic compositional tool, and Workshop theme is “lines”.  Often pathways and walls offer the photographer some simple tools that draw the viewer into and through the photo, connecting the elements into one frame. lines of pathway through the succulent garden Here, the pathway that runs between these two sections of the succulent garden at SFBG help connect the left and right sides and pull the eye into the focal point which is the beautiful gray Agave.  Note the elements that frame the scene: the line of Agave at the bottom, the group on the left, and the little explosion of shapes in the upper right. All these tools hold the photo together while the line pulls you into the focal point. Used this way the lines not only draw the eye into the photo, they carry the eye across the composition. student studying lines in the succulent garden In this photo, of a student at work using the camera to frame the scene before she moves the tripod into place.  (You will use the tripod, right, Angela ?)  Note there are multiple lines.  The pathway steps lead the eye from top to bottom, while the row of bromeliads and aloe lead left to right – directly to the focal point of the photographer. And note – the wonderful hot pink spot of color in her scarf help this composition as well.  There is an lesson in The PhotoBotanic Garden Photography Workshop” on color as a composition tool. Whether or not you can get to a workshop, you can use the book and teach yourself.  Experience is by far the best teacher and you learn by doing.  Give yourself something to work on – and go do it. The book is available as an e-book at PhotoBotanic.

The Beauty of Natives

  holt_1053_227.CR2As a professional garden photographer for more than 25 years, I have seen all sorts of gardens and have learned a lot from many expert gardeners, designers, and plant geeks. California native plant gardens are absolutely the hardest to photograph, though they are my favorite.  The reason for both is the same – they are so hard to find. I am thrilled when I find a photogenic one because I know it to be an opportunity to change the aesthetic of what we expect to see in a garden photograph.  Too often the media image of a garden is a lush English style garden with manicured flowers around a carpet of lawn, which is an unsustainable style, on many levels, for California gardeners.
Ceanothus as native plant ground cover in front yard garden
Ceanothus as native plant ground cover in front yard garden
To change the way gardens are portrayed in the media we need more good photographs of good gardens.  All of you reading this are on the front lines of this effort.  You are interested in the horticultural use of native plants.  You know there is unparalleled beauty in natives, but perhaps your photographs don’t yet capture what you see. I am here to help.  I will be showing gardens I find and talk about how they were photographed, how to take better pictures and how to design gardens that photograph better.  The mo’ betta’ photos all of us have, the more we win friends to our cause and influence the shape of gardens to come.  What is out of my control and where I have no authority to instruct is the growing of healthy plants, but good photos start there.  It is damn hard to take a good picture of a bad garden or poorly grown plants.  So when you set out to get a good picture be sure you have a good subject.
Bed of California native iris in Menzies garden.
Bed of California native iris in Menzies garden.
    Know what your camera sees.  “Think Like a Camera” is the title of one of my workshops and doing so will force you out of what your heart sees to what the camera sees.  A single flower in a clump of iris is dull subject for a landscape view of a garden though it may make your heart sing and evoke thoughts of the glory of our native plant communities.     If you love the gnarly mahogany bark of manzanita, don’t take a picture that hides the shape under the foliage.  You may see it but the camera won’t.  Think about the story you want to tell and think how the camera can help you tell it.

Manzanita shrub pruned to reveal its striking structure

Always shoot in soft light.  Yes, there are some spectacular photos to be had when the sun is just right, maybe back lighting a grass or sweeping through trees, but generally sunlight is hard and contrasty, especially in California.  More than any other tip, you will vastly improve your photos if you only shoot in the soft light of early morning or late afternoon.  Cloudy or foggy days can be a godsend. This is about all we have room for in this first post, only a few real tips but I hope I can begin to excite you to try and take better pictures, to make you aware your own pictures can have a powerful influence on those you show them to. Be conscious of what you are seeing, think how the camera will see it, and take the picture in soft light.  We covered lots of ground actually. 

Peeling Bark

Detail Manzanita – Peeling Bark
I see what I see, even if I can’t show it very well on a blog.  Here, the peeling bark of a Manzanita (Arctostaphylos densiflora) has been transformed into elegant orange, rust, and mahogany brush strokes with the Topaz Simplify3 filter.  It looks great in the print but it is hard to convey the effect in a small blog post. Of course the filter itself is not the point.  The image stands on its own.  In fact the filter is only the last step after cropping the original photo, tweaking highlights, and enhancing colors.  But the filter is what gives the photo an illustrative look as it smooths out details and blends colors. This is the full frame of the print, where here in the blog, you can’t really see the effect of the filter. I am really pleased how the curling skin blisters away from the smooth surface of the branch while the filter preserves the sinewy, taut ripples of the underlying structure in a bubbling stew of warm color.  It doesn’t matter that you can’t see why it works. Except I showed you in that first detail shot …. This is the full frame of the original photo before I cropped it as a horizontal. I worked a good while at the shoot to find a branch and light it with reflectors to get a full frame of these curls and textures. Here is the Manzanita I was working with, a beautifully pruned California native shrub in The Melissa Garden in Sonoma County.

Seeing ‘Roger’s Red’

Roger's Red leaf oil Paint filter
Leaf of grapevine ‘Roger’s Red’, backlit on my fence, swirling
Some days, simply venturing out with the camera is truly a tonic.  With full intent to go capture some photo or another, I escape the office, get out of doors, needing, indeed craving for photos to wash over me, allow me to click a shutter, to respond and create.  And add some more products to the PhotoBotanic store. On this stormy autumn day I put on a rain suit so I could plunge into plants or plop on the ground.  I went looking for raindrops in the garden.  And I went out into California’s wet winter spring when the native plants emerge, when rebirth and vitality fill the air, when the first real rains make me giddy. After hours of exploring, looking, wondering what I was seeing, what I could capture, I walked into my back garden through the gate covered with ‘Roger’s Red’ grape vine.  This one big leaf slapped me up the side of my head.  Whoa.  An elemental opportunity. OK Mr. Leaf; I see you, you’re right – I should take your picture too.  Something is happening here. Coming into the garden this way, down from the woods on the hill, the leaves were back lit, the red intense.  The color shimmered and swirled in the moody gloom of the brooding storm, with a sudden red revelation dancing against my face and my one good eye.  The camera was not going to see what I was feeling. I can now begin to pre-visualize how I might use PhotoShop filters, so I found an angle that might show promise for later with the computer, for the inevitable return indoors.   Last month, in my Tupelo Impressions post, I went into detail of how to use the Oil Paint filter, and here with this swirling red beauty of a leaf,  I anticipated opening the digital toolbox again. The specifics are not important though I will say after cropping the scene square and cloning in three extra leaves in the bottom of the frame for balance, I then used Oil Paint with the various control sliders to get the painterly effect.  The specifics are not important because for one, I am flying by the seat of my pants as I learn the tools.  But more importantly this Mental Seeds blog is my excuse to explore my changing vision and post personal work, not pretend to know what I am doing … Don’t all artists harbor questions about their direction ?  Maybe this is why I wanted to see what else was in this image besides the shimmer, so next I isolated the red leaf against a white background as a silhouette – a photobotanic illustration. Progression of effects, from shimmer to illustration. The plain white silhouette is a nice enough illustration, but I thought it would be fun to see how the painterly style might look on the white background.  The swirly, airbrushed look that works so well against the moody garden looked too wispy and soft for a botanical look, so I dug deeper into the toolbox. This final version begins to take on the style of a wood block print and, I get the shimmer AND the illustration. The design is now available on merchandise in the PhotoBotanic store.