An Hour with Saxon Holt

It was a small group of afficionados who gathered for Saxon Holt’s book event this week in Palo Alto. Maybe because it was held on a week day at 6 pm, when many Silicon Valley types are till hard at work. But Town Mouse and I and the other attendees couldn’t have enjoyed the hour more, and the talk actually ran well over the expected time. Within minutes we were all friends together - one of whom happened to be a very expert and talented photographer specializing in garden photography.

Saxon was promoting a new book, Hardy Succulents: Tough Plants for Every Climate (Gwen Kelaidis and Saxon Holt) and had slides from his 2002 book, Grasses: Versatile Partners for Uncommon Garden Design (Nancy J. Ondra and Saxon Holt). He began to show slides and talk about the plants - amazing succulents for sure, but not so interesting to those whose focus is gardening with native California plants.

I asked a question about photograph composition, and then another person asked another photography question – and soon the entire session was about improving our photography skills and appreciating Saxon’s images.

Several years ago, Saxon Holt did me a great service, though I didn’t fully realize it at the time, and didn't think about the book's photographer. His gorgeous photographs gave me an aesthetic for gardening in the Bay Area, in the book whose unlikely publisher is the East Bay Municipal Utility District: Plants And Landscapes For Summer-dry Climates Of The San Francisco Bay Region (the link takes you to Town Mouse's excellent review). Saxon's photos captured the way beauty arises here from nature’s response to the warm dry summers and cool wet winters. (It isn't all about natives but features many natives - and when you have a need for a non-invasive non-native, that book is a great resource).

So here are my takeaways from the event. Some of these learning points I already knew – but now I understand them in my bones, from the discussion and from seeing the results in Saxon’s wonderful photographs:
  • For photography, the light is best just after dawn and in the later afternoon – when light fills the air, and fills the shadows. The shadows at noon are very dark, too contrasty for good photos.
  • Use a yellow filter or yellow white balance setting when you’re shooting on a cloudy day, or shooting in shadows. Clouds and shadows give a blue tint to everything. Bring the color back to neutral (i.e., greener greens) using yellow light.
  • And use of digital white balance settings gives the same effect, as far as he can tell, as a physical yellow filter.
  • Backlit or side-lit - grass is lovely. Gentle arching shapes.
  • “Grass harvests the light” – “Harvests the light” is a phrase Saxon heard someone say in the process of explaining photosynthesis. He thought of it in relationship to the way grass seed heads seem to hold and radiate back the light. I love this turn of phrase and it suits his pictures.
  • Cut things off so it’s not all “in” the picture -- the “60 minutes” photograph, no forehead to the face shots -- No top-of-cactus to the tall cactus shots (depending on purpose etc.). Crop tightly. Pull the viewer into the frame.
  • Have a focus to the picture, clearly something that it’s “about.”
  • Use a tripod. Take longer exposures. Watch out for wind.
  • Money isn’t everything. Garden photographers don’t make as much as studio photographers (Saxon's job in a former life) but they are very happy.
Those who visit Gardening Gone Wild know how generous Saxon is with his time and expertise. In the blog entry I linked-to, from May 7th, Saxon responded personally to every comment with pleasant and informative ideas.
It was a pleasure to meet you in person, Saxon!

There are no photos in this post. Instead I encourage you to check out Saxon's web site.


Pam/Digging said…
Thanks for sharing what you learned. Lucky you to have been able to meet Saxon and hear his tips in person.
WiseAcre said…
Sounds like it was fun. I too appreciated all Saxon's comments on the photos from the contest. Especially since he didn't tell me to work overtime at my day job :)
Thank you for such a nice write up. I read it avidly - only disappointed I couldn't be there too.
Country Mouse said…
Lucky me indeed - glad if I could spread some of Saxon's photography skills - photographing our gardens and plants is a big part of enjoying them for me.