Photography is literally drawing with light, coming from the Greek word ‘photos’ meaning light and ‘graphis’ to draw.

Looking up at Australian tree fern (Cyathea cooperi aka Sphaeropteris cooperi) through leaves backlit with sunlight

Tree fern – leaves etched by light.

The word was first coined in the 19th century because photographs were literally etched into the paper by light interacting with photosensitive chemicals. As the science and craft of photography developed, working in a darkroom became high art.

Learning to read the light as a photographer allows for subtle, and not-so-subtle manipulation of tones, and the Old Masters of photography worked with the technical limitations of capturing light in film, and expressing it in the darkroom. Ansel Adam’s Zone System is the Bible for anyone working with black and white photography.

These days, photographers learn to understand how light etches the pixels of a camera sensor and must work with the dynamic range that various sensors maintain between highlights and shadows. Not so differently really, than light working with the chemicals of analog photography.

However, photography is a visual art, and rendering light is much more than a technical process. Good light is the magic of all visual arts. Who has looked at a Vermeer, or Rembrandt, or Maxfield Parrish and not marveled at how the artist uses the light.

Vermeer - detail of Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, light

Vermeer – detail of Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window

Recently, the manufacturers of the new Light cameras, in promoting how camera technology has changed, asked photographers how their own work has changed; and it got me to thinking how much my work has changed in response to learning to read the light.

Having been in this business as a garden photographer for more than 30 years now, it’s a bit of an odd feeling when someone compliments me and says how much they like my work. What work have they seen? Of course I say “Thank You” and mean it genuinely, but secretly hope it is not something from years ago in a style I have outgrown. I know most artists much prefer creating new work to looking back on the old, and I like to think my admirers know my new work. The work has changed quite a bit as I better understand gardens, develop my own style and voice, and most especially – learn to use the light.

In my very, very first days as a garden photographer I didn’t understand light at all, and approached the craft simply as a photojournalist looking for news.  In this picture of the daffodil meadow at the grand gardens of Filoli I recognized the beauty of the bare trees and the bulbs underneath, but the light was horrible – and I didn’t realize it.

Filoli daffodil meadow in spring bright light

Filoli daffodil meadow in spring bright light

I very quickly learned, after showing my first few assignments to editors, that I must look for soft light.  Same meadow, shot in soft light years later.   I consciously avoided showing any of the sky, which would be too bright to show in this photo.

Spring flowering fruit trees in the Daffodil Meadow at Filoli Garden

Spring flowering fruit trees in the Daffodil Meadow at Filoli Garden

Gardens almost always look better in soft light. I learned the difference between overcast light and shady light, that light has its own color, how the light at dawn is different from the light at dusk, and varies in relation to the plants. Gardens can be quite green under the shade of trees, or blue in the shade of a building with only the bright blue sky to provide illumination. I learned to almost always avoid the sun and its bright bleaching power.

However, in recent years I am actually looking for to include the sun. Some of my editors, somehow assuming California is a sunny state, wanted to see sunnier pictures. I would politely and professionally explain the difficulty of photographing in the sun, telling them they didn’t really want sunny, contrasty garden pictures.

However I knew that sometimes garden photos shot in soft light lacked a certain snap, and on those magical occasions when the garden light was bright, for instance just as a foggy day broke clear, or those early morning shoots before shadows got too black, a garden could look bright and sunny, even though it wasn’t a high noon, bright  California day.

Art, sculpture of children playing leapfrog in California meadow garden

Meadow garden, photographed just as fog breaks

I began to very consciously look to incorporate brighter light and sun into my garden photos. I have learned to appreciate backlight and light streaking through gardens. I was beginning to have some success, even before I switch to digital cameras, especially I think because of my love of grasses.

When I was on speaking tours for the Grasses book I began using the phrase “harvest the light” because grasses, when they flower, have a way of capturing the light and revealing it in garden. Some of my favorite photographs are still some of those I shot while doing that book.

Seed heads of Purple Fountain Grass Pennisetum setaceum 'Rubrum' (back-lit) in grass garden

Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’ back-lit  in garden harvests the light for us to see.

But since going to digital photography I’ve learned a lot more about how to use the light. I take pictures now I would never have previously never attempted, because camera sensors have a lot more range than transparency film ever did and I can control highlights and shadows in post production.

Rose, climbing 'Handel'

Rose, climbing ‘Handel’ in sunny rose garden.

This picture of Filoli in a shade garden can incorporate the sunny sky beyond.

Gravel path in woodland garden to open door into walled garden in morning light at Filoli

Gravel path in woodland garden in morning light at Filoli

The exposure was set for the shade garden, but unlike film, the digital camera holds enough detail in the sky area to give the photo a bright feeling.

Quite different from those early photos of Filoli:.

Spring flowering fruit trees in the Daffodil Meadow at Filoli Garden

I did quickly learn to avoid sunny light, but eventually learned I do not need to entirely avoid the sky and the sun.  There is magic in the light, now I want to see it.


I have an any month calendar with some of my favorite light photos in my Café Press Store.  It can start any month of any year.