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

I love the morning light in gardens.  Gardens are fresh, the air clean, and the light is sweet.

It is nearly impossible to work in the hot, sunny light when the brightest colors take on a contrasted, metallic look and the shady areas become black holes.  In California where there is little humidity in the air, the window of opportunity for garden photography and the soft morning light is usually gone within two hour of sunrise, in mid summer by 7 a.m.  More humid climates can push that window since the natural haze cuts the glare and helps the light surround and soften the scene.

Even so, for purely practical reason, I usually recommend that my students work in late afternoon.  It’s simple – you don’t have to get up before dawn and get into the garden before the sun comes up – sometimes before 5 in the morning.  The late afternoon light is also soft and slants in from the side just like the morning.  Not quite as clean, but often warmer.

But whenever I have the choice, and the garden is one I already know (and don’t have to learn about in pre-dawn stumbles), I love the morning light.

Gravel path through woodland garden at Filoli toward garden gate to formal garden
Inside the Woodland Garden at Filoli, 2 hours after dawn

Recently I was working in Filoli when, about 8 a.m., one of the gardeners gave me a big smile and complimented the “great light”,  which was by then, too bright to work in most of the garden.  The sun was full on the trees in the Woodland Garden across from where we stood.  I explained the light might be good from behind the trees, but not toward them where we were looking, and the scene was too contrasted.

Wait a minute !  Ummm, if that is my advice, then why was I still working against the light, struggling in the formal garden ?!  I took my own advice and learned a lesson I already knew.  Work with the light.

The Woodland Garden is separated from the other gardens so light comes in from the side.  It becomes a bright wall outside and leaks in through the trees and through the entries.

Open iron gate entry into brick patio secret garden from the Woodland Garden to the "Wedding Place" at Filoli
Open iron gate from the Woodland Garden to the “Wedding Place” at Filoli

Using the concept that the eye is drawn to bright areas, a photographer can use light to draw the eye when creating a composition.  In these shade garden photos, I am photographing the light.  The light beyond the garden is the fundamental concept behind my thought process.  In each I am think how the light will affect the composition

These next two photos are taken from exactly the same spot;  one with one-third sky above the garden wall, the other with two-thirds sky.  A photo with equal sky and garden would be confusing.

Each has a distinct story and the camera exposure is for different light readings.

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

Gravel path in Filoli Woodland Garden with morning light.

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

Morning light in Filoli Woodland Garden with gravel path

In the e-book I explain more about exposure and color balance using these two photos, but it all begins with the light.

After leaving the Woodland Garden I kept seeing light patterns.  Through and between the leaves of this weeping Camperdown Elm, I am still photographing the light.  Light is everything.

Leaf tapesty on weeping branches of Camperdown Elm tree - Ulmus glabra "Camperdownii"
Leaf tapesty on weeping branches of Camperdown Elm tree – Ulmus glabra

Be aware that light is not simply the visible streaks of sun, or bright highlights in the trees, or glowing backlight through flowers and foliage, the difference in light levels in a garden, especially between shade areas and bright areas, allows for composing with negative space.

View of Filoli Wall Garden seen from shady Camellia shrub garden in winter
View of Filoli Wall Garden seen from shady Camellia shrub garden in winter

 

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