holt_1101_608.CR2Garden photographers don’t get much done when the light is strong.  We like soft light, very early or late in the day.  We delight in fog and overcast.  Bright sun chases our cameras into their cases.

This is especially true in California where there is hardly any moisture in the air to soften the sun and saturate garden colors.  The first thing I learned as a garden photographer in California was to avoid the sun, to hope for coastal fog, and work in the shade.  As the sun gets higher in morning shoots I still find myself retreating into shadows, beaten back into corners by harsh light.

A camera can not pick up the range of light that the human eye can see.  The dynamic range between bright light and deep shadows is too great for a camera’s sensor. Photos end up being too contrasty – so I look for soft light.

Strong sunlight, hitting the trees beyond, force me into the shade.

Strong sunlight, hitting the trees beyond, force me into the shade.

But as a California photographer, clients want sunny photos.  “You are in the land of sunshine, our readers want to see the sun” say editors who care little of the challenge.  So for years I have been trying to incorporate sunlight into my photos.  It is really hard to find just the right settings, but so many of my pictures have gotten so much better for the effort.

Many times, it is the magic of backlight that seems to make a photo sing.  Many of the photos you see in these “Light” postings use back light.  Sun streaming into a photo from ahead, bright highlights making outlines, and rim light are all effective because the light comes from behind the subject.  Now I consciously look for backlight whenever the sun tries to shoo me off.

On a recent shoot in a California native plant garden I began shooting at dawn, racing around the garden ahead of the sun before it could blast out the details. Back and forth between the front and back yard until the light was simply too hot.  But I was still excited by the garden, the native plants thriving, struttin’ their stuff, celebrating their communal beauty in this small urban space.


Coming through the garden to the front, where the Lepechinia perches by the sidewalk

Suddenly the Fragrant Pitcher Sage, Lepechinia fragrans, squeezed into the hellstrip between the street and sidewalk, was glowing.  Look at me !  My eyes narrowed as I looked for a photo and realized the backlight was so strong it was passing through the leaves, creating translucent color the way of a stained glass window.  Nature’s artwork.


I would need to come in tight and used a telephoto lens to isolate the branches that were catching the light just right.  I began to see an art print – and a lesson.  After making the photo, I went around the plant into the street and shot back at the plant, now with the sun behind me, hitting the leaves with dull, flat light.

Before/After Slider – move bar to right to see before


It was such an exquisite revelation.  Once back from the shoot and beginning the post production, the photo kept calling out.  Make a print of me !

The straight photo needed little computer enhancement, all the magic is in the light, but for the print I wanted to simplify some of the details.  It seems a bit odd to remove some of the fine detail from this high res image, but I find that many art buyers will get caught up in the photo details, sharpness and realism of a photograph and not see it as a piece of art.

Before/After Slider – move bar to right to see before


The image is about light, not detail, and I set about trying out many of the photo filters I like to use.  The tools are amazing and nearly overwhelming with variables, settings and refinements. The Topaz Labs Simplify 4 filter I ended up using has 19 adjustable sliders for its Simplify, Adjust, and Edges controls.

screenshot 1101_608art Lepichinia fragrans; photoshop filter options

I actually have saved various versions of the photo in PhotoShop layers but this became the final print.  Light is everything.

Photo art Lepechinia fragrans

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