Should you even try to take pictures when the light is horribly wrong ?

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Hard, sunny light on flowering cherry at Norfolk Botanic Garden

This is the dilemma of any garden photographer when traveling or going into a garden that you may never get to see again.  How do you get some kind of picture worth sharing, something beyond the snapshot that serves as a memory jog?

It is easy to tell students to wait for the good light or to plan a visit in the early morning or late afternoon, but there are times you have no choice but to see a garden when the light is difficult.

Such was a time for my recent visit to the Norfolk Botanical Garden, in Norfolk Virginia.   It was sunny and bright: “gorgeous day for photos !” said the receptionist at the visitor center.  I grimaced a forced smile.  I only had a few hours in the middle of the day, but really wanted to see this great garden at the peak of azalea season.

Many times when I am visiting a garden or perhaps scouting it in the middle of the day for a photo shoot later, I only take my point and shoot camera to help me remember what I saw.  I have little expectation of getting professional photos and don’t want to take marginal photos that simply waste valuable computer time later trying to rescue a snapshot.

There are always ways to find a photo, and having nothing in my Archive of this garden, I was determined to find something.  The Kwanzan cherry in the opening photo was at its peak.  When the breeze kicked in it was snowing petals.  But oh, that contrasty light.  That first photo is not exactly one that will get much attention from a photo editor, so to make that something happen, I simply went underneath the tree.


Here under the tree, the light was soft and using the tripod I could have sharp focus and good depth of field while brightening up the exposure.  Note I have cropped it into a strong horizontal, which enabled me to remove some distracting branches with fewer flowers.  The camera always lies…

I was even able to get a detail of the blossoms because the light was so soft; though it took about a dozen exposures to get one where the wind was quiet enough to give me a sharp photo.


Looking for details when the light will not allow wide shots will often lead to interesting photos, such as within this group of Mayapples.


The flowers bloom underneath the leaves which tells me two things:  the shady light under the leaves will be a good place for soft light of the white flowers but also gives the opportunity of backlight through the leaves.  You just have to get on your belly to make it work:


Did I mention azaleas ?

The Norfolk Botanical Garden is famous for its Rhododendrons and there is an entire section of the garden, “The Enchanted Forest”, devoted to these flowering shrubs. On sunny days, such as this Chamber of Commerce blue sky day, it is really hard to find photos that are not choppy, speckled light.


The trick is to find an area of shade, and then come in tight where the shady light fills the frame.


A little bit of sunny light is great and allows for some lively color.  And here I can get even closer.


With the tree towering through the flowering shrub border I think I got a photo worth representing the Norfolk Botanical Garden.  Look for this in the Shady Woods (map) when you visit in late April.