How to Get the Perfect Filoli Shot

21 0501 M10R0777 Mike James

Professional photographer Mike James has photographed Filoli in every season. We asked him to share some tips about the best locations and tricks for taking your shot to the next level.

Southern Walled Garden Boxwood Beds

The boxwood beds at the south end of the Walled Garden are among my favorite places to shoot because they appear very orderly as they recede. Yet, above them are a variety of old trees with an immense amount of gnarled character, creating what I think of as a “garden room” of comfortable chaos.

iPhone Tip

If you have an iPhone and want to focus on the planting closest to you in a bed, then choose Portrait Mode and focus tap on something prominent in the foreground. If you want a broad shot, you might consider using the telephoto (2x) setting to compress the scene.


A tight shot of a flower or group of flowers can be very dramatic if you open up the lens aperture to let the background focus fall off quickly. For a broad shot, consider using a telephoto lens; focusing on something a third or more into the scene; and, set your aperture at two to three full stops from wide open.

Cutting Garden and Dahlias

I am frequently drawn to the Cutting Garden because of the concentration of colors and textures. I’ve made some of my favorite garden shots in the flower cages! Equally captivating for me is the annual display of dahlias. There are so many different varieties with wildly different shapes, sizes, colors, and textures. I am excited that the dahlia bed has moved for this coming season, and there will be even more dahlias. I can spend hours with the dahlias and in the Cutting Garden cages.

iPhone Tip

Get low! Rather than shooting down on the subject from a standing position, put your phone at the level of your subject or even slightly below. This will result in a more dramatic shot. Portrait mode will let you focus – tap on the subject, and the background will fall out of focus, creating a shot that draws the viewer to the color, texture, and shape.


Find a flower to focus on that is somewhere in at least the middle two-thirds of the frame. Don’t be afraid to have your subject be off center. Use an open aperture and focus on the center (stamen) of the flower. Check your depth of field to make sure that enough of the flower is in focus to show the interplay of the colors and textures.

The Sunken Garden, Looking West

While the Sunken Garden is the most formal of Filoli’s “garden rooms,” it is one of my favorites because the landscape goes from controlled close in to progressively more natural as it recedes into the natural landscape. Filoli extends as far as the eye can see from this spot, and it was one of first owner William Bourn’s favorites. My eye is always pulled to the bright yellow of the sunburst honey locust in the distance right before the Formal Garden gives way to its natural surroundings.

iPhone Tip

Shooting the Sunken Garden and beyond is a long shot that will benefit from using the telephoto setting (2x or more). Lots of sky will throw off the light meter, so tap on an area of the screen that is a neutral color like the grass or medium green plant material.


This is where a telephoto lens will really make a difference. It will bring the important elements of what you see in the distance closer, show more detail, and likely be a more dramatic shot. The trick is to pick your sharpest aperture and then focus far enough away that what is near the camera is an acceptable level of focus. The aperture will likely be f/8 or more likely f/11. The focus point is likely to be the second jet or the far edge of the pond.

The Wedding Place

The Wedding Place was named when the Roth family lived at Filoli. One of their twin daughters was married there, and the guests sat on the different levels terracing down to the pond. I especially like this area for two reasons: 1) as the only diagonal line in the Garden, it offers a unique view down into the rest of the Walled Garden, and 2) the pots, bird bath, and gate make a wonderful, tight area to shoot in and capture intriguing light and textures. The plaque above the gate reads Festina Lente and translates to “make haste slowly.” This is always a good reminder to me as I move through the “garden rooms.”

iPhone Tip

Try using the wide-angle (0.5x) to fill the frame, but pick a strong element like the potted flowers to be in the foreground. 


The variety of plant material, the brick, and the light coming through the trees deserves a wide shot, so consider using a wide-angle lens. Pick an aperture that will give you some detail in the background (likely f/8 or f/11 again), and focus on a strong element in the foreground like the potted flowers.

The High Place

The High Place is the longest line in the Garden—one quarter mile from the opposite end. It is modeled on the Italian garden concept of a line in the Garden rising up and then revealing an unexpected view. And, what a view! William Bourn trimmed the trees and shrubs at the far northern end of the property so that he could see what is now the Crystal Springs Reservoir from this spot. What I love is how this narrow corridor of Irish yew trees leads your eye perfectly down and across the structures to the beauty of the surrounding natural landscape.

iPhone Tip

Bring your phone low (approximately waist height or lower) to accentuate the drama of the yew trees. A quarter mile and beyond is a long way, so this is a shot where you should use the telephoto setting (2x) and let the camera bring the scene to you. Tapping the screen to set your light on something that is medium green and not in direct sunlight; the grass is a good choice. A lot of sky in your frame takes away from the image unless the sky is dramatic. So, minimize the amount of sky.


A telephoto lens will bring the garden and beyond to you without adversely affecting the drama created by the yew trees. Your sharpest aperture should be used. Focus on an object at least a third of the way into the shot. If you can check your depth of field with a preview button, do so, and focus as far away as you can while still feeling good about the focus of what is close to you.

Check out more of Mike James’s Filoli photography at his website: