How Much Should We Show in Photographs?


This is a question that faces all photographers, experienced and novice I believe. Garden, landscape and wildlife photographers alike look at a scene and make a decision on how to make their photos paint a mental picture for the viewer. Do you?


Reinstein Woods Nature Preserve

A question of how much to include.

The two images above both have geese, but one shows where the geese live a bit more than the other. Both images share the same dilemma of “how much do you show”.


If showing nothing more than the subject, it gets the viewer wondering, “Where or why was this photo taken?” So how does a photographer paint a mental picture that says more? I have never really figured it out quite yet.


Authors paint a mental picture that tickles imagination with their words. Painters have a very direct and pictorial route to the imagination. Photography, it can be similar.


But creating journey for the viewer? It is really difficult to create a story when showing only one image.Β  Show just enough to stimulate imagination but too little and imagination stops in its tracks. Here is an example of “what can you show” in four images of the same goose… click any of the four to enlarge.


A portrait, you can’t tell the goose is sitting on a nest.


She is sitting on her nest and looking at me which is a plus.


The goose is feathering the nest, a bit of activity.


A fully feathered nest for a Canada Goose pair. Want to know more, Nesting Canada Geese.


Finally, she is swimming with her mate just beyond the nest.

The last few images would allow a viewer to understand a bit more about the goose by including activity and surroundings. I am just starting to realize this important fact the more I am out in nature.


Getting in Close

Although closeup images are often beautiful and usually harder to obtain with wildlife, the photos of the wildlife doing what they do (Photographing a Hawk in Nature with Prey) I find are more interesting. In my own macro images of insects for instance, the insects engaged in activities tell me much more about them. Macro images of a flower, not as readily.

The snake above is not a macro image, but a closeup taken with my 400mm lens. What does it show about the snake? Maybe that he is perturbed by my intrusion?

A consideration of macro images is they don’t often have much going on. Since the object is to show the subject very close with limited proximal detail, the photos may have to rely more on interesting form and color – taking the emphasis away from the subject itself. I did not have my macro lens along or I would show you an example of what I am saying.


I enjoy macro for art’s sake, but not for telling me much about my subject. It is the same for tight images like the snake above. Coming in too close and little is shown of where the subject is in relationship to the surroundings. You would have had no idea that this snake had a lot of friends, and that is the story.


Did I miss any?

The next step in improving photos might be having them say more, especially saying it with beautiful light. Just compare the image of the goose above with the one below of the snowy garden. What a difference a day makes!

Winter-in-SpringFor those of you that visit GWGT for gardens, I will do a post like this later in the season when plants finally start growing. Currently… the weather here to the left.

This series was inspired by experts critiquing photos. Funny thing about experts… you may not always agree with them.

This post predates a photography meeting I am in attendance on this very subject tonight. Telling the Story. I will give you my thoughts on this talk after my post, What the Photo Experts Say, from other recent talks. It should be interesting if this speaker says anything close to what I mentioned here. I leave you with pretty light in Reinstein Woods. More of that to come. Happy Easter.



About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at:
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36 Responses to How Much Should We Show in Photographs?

  1. Yikes, I don’t mind snakes, but that photo reminded me of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Ideally I would like to see a close up of the subject, e.g., the snake, accompanied by a view of the setting, the leaves full of snakes. However, that approach doubles the amount of photos and can get quite cumbersome so I often include one or the other based on which view I think the reader is more familiar with—I leave that view out and up to the imagination.

    • You know I like closeup photography very much. I also post a lot of photos too so doubling was not an issue for me. I always looked at it as context before, now I realized it really is much more. I think that is where the art comes into photography and is one of the more difficult things to quantify or identify. It also is difficult to do, since many photos are nothing more than supporting the text which is the story.

  2. swo8 says:

    You know that would make a lovely painting.

  3. Phil Lanoue says:

    I know what you mean about ‘how much should we show?’. My natural tendency is to not only try to capture the subject as tight as possible but to crop the final image to display a tight shot. But there certainly are times when a more overall environmental shot is appropriate.
    Good things to think about for sure.

    • I love your closeup photos of the birds in your marsh. I also love when you do the wide views of the sun setting over the marsh to see the habitat. Your whole blog is the story of the marsh with all the characters playing their individual part. The talk I went to (Ellen Anon, an author and well known photographer) said the story is in the emotion shown and that is how an image makes a story. All your photos have action, emotion and an exciting story. You inspire me. Now just to bring more action and emotion into my photos.

  4. The answer is simple … A photo should show exactly what we want it to say. Goose on a nest? Goose’s expression in a tight shot? Goose in relation to its environment? It depends on what you want to say.

    • I suppose that is true in some respect, but that is not what the presenter said. She said is should be more than just documenting an experience. She believed it encompass more and from her images, I could see why.

  5. Debra says:

    The snake is HANDSOME. I like that picture for the color and line and because his eye seems to be looking just out of the frame … there is some mystery there. What is he looking at?

    There is so much to think about here. When I am searching the internet and trying to learn more about plants I have often been frustrated by flower pictures where all I can see is a closeup of the blossom but I have no idea what the rest of the plant looks like or where it fits in a garden. I may be asking them to do something they were never intending. Of course sometimes it is just nice to see the splash of color or to appreciate a texture or line …

    One of the reasons I love your work so much is that your photos always do tell a story. When I look i see things but I also -feel- some kind of response.

    • I too am tiring of closeup flower photos when I want information on a plant. The only time they tell me something is if an insect might be visiting the flower. But even then, that does not tell enough. I find the best images show how they work in a garden, but showing that in a pleasing way is difficult for most. I follow Saxon Holt and I have learned a lot from him on telling the story, but he says every photo tells a story. I am not sure I think this way, since some seem to say nothing. You should follow his work on Gardening Gone Wild. When he shows a plant in a garden, he does it beautifully.

  6. You do take some stunning photographs! Blessings, Natalie πŸ™‚

  7. alesiablogs says:

    I have thought in my head over and over about how my novice photos should look to the reader and the occasional blogger who passes by my site. I try to think about how the photo makes me feel for the most part and how I can relate the photo to what I may be conveying in the post. You do this naturally I believe.

  8. You have to decide what story you’re telling. You can’t tell the story of a garden with a bunch of close-ups of flowers. The overall view of the garden is important, too.

  9. rose says:

    I’m not much of a photographer, but I always learn something new and helpful from you, Donna. When I photograph my garden, the decision about how much to show is often easy–I crop out the weeds:). But such photos really don’t tell the story, as you say; someone might get the impression I have this huge garden, for instance , when it’s really quite small compared to others. Photographing wildlife takes so much more skill, and yours always seem to tell a story. I’m still a little creeped out by that nest of snakes, though!

    • You do wonderful images, Rose. You are funny too, cropping out the weeds. I have a whole post on context and it is exactly as you mention. My garden is tiny and the way I photograph it makes it look twice as big. Magazines do this too by viewing angle and time of day the photos are taken. Tricks to make the place more desirable by having nice images.

  10. lucindalines says:

    Donna; such thought provoking blogs. I love the reflections you have captured. Someday I hope to paint again and you have given me ideas of what to look for. We have a small creek behind our house, I will have to go there for some subject matter. What to include in your pictures, I am careful to leave out personal information of people that I haven’t permission to photograph, like their children or car plates and such.

  11. patricksgarden1 says:

    Some good points to ponder but, as always come for your enduring imagery. Keep up the stunning work, my friend.

  12. I love the photos. When I take photos I tend to take both close up and wide angle lens to work out what I like the best. My sister does true macros and her photos are lovely, showing the details very clearly. I know my photos aren’t true macro as I generally like to ground the photos with some detail around the subject. I may not always be successful but I do have fun trying. My absolute favourite is the last photo. Just love the colours in all of them though. πŸ˜€

    • When I went to the talk, macro images were discussed. Having them as sharp as possible (in the limited way of macro) leads your eye into the image. That can make the viewer imagine more and want to see deeper.

  13. I believe it’s a case of having a natural talent to choose how much to show. There is only so much that can be taught. The actual click takes a very conscious instant of a perceptive and talented hand to make a picture stand out from the rest. Both of which you have in abundance! πŸ™‚

    • Thank you. I do know that some can be taught, especially in composition, yet I find it too rigid if always following the rules. Things like emotion and capturing a feeling sometimes get left out when concentrating too much on the “rules”. As an artist and painter, you know what I mean.

  14. Very thought provoking, but does one have to be better than the other? Can’t there be a place for both? I love the close ups of the snake and the feathered nest.

    • One is not better than the other unless one is trying to specifically relay information. Garden plants for instance. Macro rarely ever says much on the plant itself. Don’t you get frustrated by catalogs that show only closeups? They don’t show plants’ growing habits at all in these close images. They don’t show how a plant performs either. Not to mention, most over-saturate the images and the plant you buy rarely comes close to looking like that. Plant tags many times do the same thing. If anywhere there needs to be a plant “story” it is in these examples.

  15. I think there’s a place for all of these types of photos, as you so expertly show in this post. I must say my favorite shot here is the one titled, “goose-on-pond-2” because it combines everything in one shot. And it’s also stunning–with the reflection of the goose and the trees on the water. Wow! That one belongs in a wildlife magazine!

    • There is a place for each. The talk I attended showed examples, except for macro, of how story is a part of each image she showed. Sometimes she showed images, explained the story and people in the audience saw something completely different. That supports my contention that the imagination of the viewer should and does play a part. I think that is truly the art in telling the story, having the viewer see what they want to see. Next post, I look into that more and ask what each reader sees. I would doubt they all see the same things even if the subject is so specific.

  16. My Heartsong says:

    I remember a hike that I was on last year and the snakes were constantly slithering away from under my feet. I was not too concerned because they wanted to avoid me as much as I wanted to avoid them.. love the photo of the goose on the nest, the close-up profile is beautiful as are the reflections from the water. Also like seeing the feather-lined nest-seems so cosy.The group of photos do create an overall story about nesting , habitat and ID.

    • Thank you. I find it hard telling a story without numerous images, but it can be done. I am just starting to figure out how. Most of it comes from the feeling the image projects. I have to work on getting better lighting or more emotion from by subjects.

      • My Heartsong says:

        I have attended talks on this subject and often there is a sequence of photos that express a time line or in one photo there is more than one animal or person where there is an interaction. I am glad that you got me thinking about this again because to tell a story in a photo makes it stand out from the rest.

  17. Les says:

    It has been a hard lesson for me to learn, but less is more.

    • I am not sure if you mean what I was discussing. “Less is more” is not about adding context and story. It would be removing some of the information adding to the story in my examples. I could show just the eyes of a subject and that could be a “Less is more” example I guess if the eyes were showing real emotion where the rest of the animal need not be necessary to create the story. Did you mean less images posted? In that respect I get it where one image says as much or more than 4.

  18. I agree it is hard to know what to show and when to show more or less. It does depend on the story you wish to convey…but I am still learning.

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