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.

Tupelo Impressions, After the Fall

Leaves Left Unraked

I have missed two entire months.  For the record, I fell off a ladder onto my studio floor on Aug. 30.  Six broken ribs, separated shoulder, fractured skull, and concussion.  Life can change in an instant.

Much recovered by now except a residual paralyzed facial nerve that keeps my left eye from blinking.  It is taped shut and my vision is compromised.  This is the same eye that had the detached retina surgeries 2 years ago.  Then, I was excited by new ways of seeing.  I started this Mental Seeds blog as an outlet to communicate with new ideas and try new techniques.  Now I need to push even further.

I need to rebel against the blur.  I stumble around trying to see the nuances and there are none.  Go flat, no depth or dimension. Impressions are all I can do.  Push Photoshop beyond what I thought I would ever do.  Go bold.

There is a new filter in PhotoShop CS6 called Oil Paint.  Lots of controls and permutations.

What I have not figured out is how to scale the effect I like.  Depending on the file size of the photo, the filter (all art filters) have different effects.  The strongest effect is when the file is small, no doubt because there are fewer pixels to push around.

In the first photo, of my rake resting in a pile of Tupelo leaves, the  working file was 1000 pixels wide.  The surreal leaves seem liquified.

This next is 2000 pixels.  All the settings on the filter remain the same; but the effect is diminished.

And this one is 5600 pixels, the native raw file size, a size to make a nice print.

All three are interesting treatments, but the oil paint filter is not strong enough to radically alter the large file to match the first image.  More work.  More to learn.  If I want to make a large print I need to figure this out, but blog size it looks great…..


To show the filter affect on the 5600 pixel image, I have sliced out a 600 pixel segment, from the top of the tree trunk.  (I use 600 pixels wide because that is 100% of the viewing size on this blog.)

The filter effect is much more obvious when viewed here at full size, but still not nearly the same affect when the same filter is applied onto the smaller file-size image.

Just for grins here is a 600 pixel crop out of that smaller file-size photo:

Sunflower ‘Vincent’


Part of the commercial flower shoot for Sakata Seeds at the California Spring Trials were sunflowers, the variety ‘Vincent’.  To get them for the spring shoot in California they were flown in from Holland, where they waited for two weeks until the show, when I was on site to take pictures.

No, they did not look surreal and deformed, but I was excited all day as they called to me from the edge of the staging  room set up as a studio.  They were exquisite, and finally toward the end of the day the Sakata folks stacked them in a bucket just perfectly for their moment under the lights.  Only then did they became surreal; impossibly beautiful, impossible to simply click the shutter and move on to the zinnias.  Though that is what I did.  The day’s work was much greater than the one sunflower photo.

This is the makeshift studio at the Sakata offices.

When I got back home I opened the sunflower photo as soon as I could.  It leapt into PhotoShop, and commanded the Topaz Simplify 3 filter tool.  Then PhotoShop’s own liquify brush tool, painting the petals into gaps.

I can’t explain much more than that.  It just happened.

Sunflowers - 'Vincent' x Vincent