Gauzy morning light through palm trees, Worth Garden, California
Gauzy morning light through palm trees, Worth Garden, California

In this lesson, I want you to bring light into your photo. Celebrate light by using it to your advantage.

Begin by re-reading Lesson 1.3 in the first section on Good Light. Remember that, “learning how to read the quality of light is the single most important skill in good garden photography.” In a nutshell, garden photographers must learn to avoid hot, contrasty light and understand that soft light gives a better dynamic range and rich, realistic color. Start with soft light; learn how to recognize it.

That’s where we left off in Section 1. That was about understanding concepts; now we are into assignments. I want you to use the light, let it shine, make it an integral part of the photo.

Morning light streaming through trees illuminating statues in Claire Gargalli Garden
Morning light streaming through trees illuminating statues.

Begin by looking for the soft light you find in early morning or late afternoon—the hour or two of light after the sun comes up or before it goes down. Then add some highlights.

I love the morning light for photographing gardens. The gardens are fresh, the air clean, and the light is sweet. But for a purely practical reason, I usually recommend students work in the late afternoon. It’s simple: you don’t have to get up before dawn and get into the garden before the sun comes up.

Avoid the hot sunny light of midday, when the brightest colors take on a contrasty, metallic look, and the shady areas become black holes. This is particularly true in arid climates with low humidity where the light has a particularly hard edge to it.

There are exceptions to every rule; in some cases, you may want to show the sharp light and strong shadows. This photo was made at noon when the shadows fell just right on the stucco wall behind the cactus.

Valentine wall - Succulents in bright light against white stucco wall
Valentine wall – Succulents in bright light against white stucco wall

In California, where I live, bright light is usually a problem. There is little humidity in the air, and the soft morning light disappears within two hours of sunrise, leaving only a narrow window of opportunity for good garden photography. More humid climates allow us to push that window a bit, since the natural haze cuts the glare and helps the light surround and soften a scene.

Morning light in California native plant habitat garden next to swimming pool, with grasses and shrubs
Morning light in California native plant habitat garden.

Start with the soft light of morning or evening and then find some sunlight streaming into the scene. It might simply be behind the neighboring trees, slanting through an entry, or backlighting a clump of grass. Turn your camera toward it.

The easiest way to bring light in is to find an entry or path leading to a sunlit patch outside the area of soft light where you are working. In this side yard, a path leads to the rear, where the sun is too bright to photograph. I have incorporated a bit of that bright light to draw the viewer into the garden.

Permeable path with stepping stones on gravel through side yard privacy hedge; with California native plants, Heath-Delaney garden
Permeable path with stepping stones through side yard.

Light in a doorway also draws the eye to the brighter garden beyond.

Wooden door in brick wall; open from woodland garden to garden beyond at Filoli
Wooden door in brick wall; open from woodland garden to garden beyond at Filoli

Remember from Lesson 2.2 on Focal Points that brightly lit areas draw the eye to them; you can use this to your advantage with light coming though entryways when you want to pull the eye toward the scene beyond.

For more drama, try pointing the camera directly at the sun and let the light flare into the composition.

Sunburst light on backyard pathway in tropical foliage California garden; Michelle Derviss

Flare can be a problem, as we will see, but if you put the sun very precisely behind a branch or a mass of foliage, the light will sometimes break apart into a burst.

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Often though, looking into the sun creates an objectionable flare. Too much strong directional light will cause the glass in the lens to disperse the light—creating a flare—and affect the quality of the image.

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The flare will wash out the colors and reduce the contrast in your image. The best defense against lens flare is a hood that is fitted specifically for your lens.

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In the case of the next photo, simply cupping your free hand over the top of the lens will perform a bit of magic, as seen below.

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It is a good idea to use a lens hood or your hands over the lens at all times, because the affect of flare is usually subtle. Flare is a problem in almost any landscape photo that has a sky in it; even an overcast sky can have enough bright light to create a flare in your image, as demonstrated in the next photo.

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Sometimes a purposeful flare can create an effective mood, as in backlit photos. Backlight is another excellent way to bring light into your photos, though it may also create a problem with flare. I suggest that you play with flare before you automatically eliminate it from every image.

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Backlight can produce a magical effect and make a garden glow. It’s a way to find photos, even when you think the light is too brilliant for a good garden image.

There was a time when I would never shoot in harsh, hard light. When the full blast of sunlight entered the garden, I usually retreated to the shadows where the light was softer. (See Photos on the Road – Norfolk).

Sometimes, however, a client asks me to photograph in bright light. In the last lesson, I used the hot summer sun to create a mood:

holt_998_058lt_1920.jpg(from 3.3 Mood and Season)

The sun is an important element of many a garden’s story; people expect to see a sunny garden. When a photo can manage to capture some bright sunlight, the scene will glow.

Backlight can make that happen. The old Kodak advice of shooting with the sun over your shoulder may be safe for tourist photos, but, for something dramatic, try putting the sun in front of you, in back of your intended subject.

This really works well with foliage and succulents, in particular, where the sunlight will shine through the plants making them translucent.

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At other times, backlight will create a rim light, where the rim of your subject will have a bright edge.

harsh sunlight on red aloe at Desert Garden at Huntington Library Botanical Garden
Harsh sunlight on red aloe at Desert Garden at Huntington Library Botanical Garden

Front view of a garden with the light coming from over the shoulder.

Red flowering Aloe succulent backlit in the drought tolerant Desert Garden at Huntington Library Botanical Garden, California
Red flowering Aloe succulent backlit in the Huntington Library Botanical Garden.

Looking toward the light creates bright edges, outlining the plants.

To make backlit scenes really work, you may need to overexpose the image so that the highlights are bright and the shadows are not dead black. And be sure to watch out for flare.

Afternoon light streaming into California garden overlooking San Francisco Bay behind tall cypress trees
Afternoon light streaming into California garden overlooking San Francisco Bay behind tall cypress trees

Taking a bright photo, particularly when there is backlight, may require telling the meter to overexpose the shot, to add light. The meter assumes the subject is an “average scene” but if you want to add light, it might be as simple as opening the lens. (Camera exposure and light metering will be discussed in detail in lesson in Section 4, The Camera and Computer.)

Pond and water garden at Lotusland in early morning light
Pond and water garden at Lotusland in early morning light

The meter averaged the bright light and shadow for the photo, above, but I wanted more light—in fact, a lot more, as seen below, where I was able to override the camera’s meter.

Pond and water garden at Lotusland in early morning light
Pond and water garden at Lotusland in early morning light

Brightening the scene, opening up the shadows, brings sparkle and reveals the light.  Technically there is too much light in this photo, the bright areas have no detail.  But who looks at bright light to see detail ?

There will be other times when you will want less light, such as situations where you want the shadows to be dark. It is up to you to visualize the light, noting how it flows in and around your picture.

A sunbeam illuminated one branch of this magnolia tree; to make the light work, I needed to reduce the light coming into the camera, in order to darken the shadows and get more detail into the highlights.

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Have fun with this assignment. Let yourself play, and try to break some rules. How does the light make you feel?

Supplemental Posts

Hard Light and Back Light

 

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