When I was first learning about gardening photography I quickly figured out I should never shoot in bright sunlight.

The camera cannot hold details in the bright and dark areas at the same time, so the photographer must decide where, in this range of light, to set the exposure in order to get the best detail, but inevitably in the compromise the photo becomes quite contrasty.

However, sunshine is an often welcome component of any California garden and I have learned to look for ways to incorporate bright light.  Working in the magic hours of the early morning or late afternoon is any landscape photographers special time but sometimes I find I am in gardens in midday, as I was for these photos in Leaning Pine Arboretum at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, California.

I took these next two photos hours apart, the first one in the soft light of early morning overcast, and remember thinking how lucky I was that I could shoot the scene when the camera could hold the entire dynamic range of the light.

When I circled back to this part of the garden in the middle of the sunny day, retreating into the shadows as I often feel I have to do, I got an entirely different feeling about space. I felt the shelter of the shadows that the trees created.  This place was no longer a pathway winding through the pine trees, the garden was now a welcome retreat from the blazing sun.

The initial picture was too dark, but because digital cameras offer a wider dynamic range than analog, film cameras, I knew that I could open up the shadows in the computer without making the bright areas any brighter.

Gravel path under Pine Trees, Pinus pinea Italian stone pine at Leaning Pine Arboretum, California

I don’t mind that some of the brightest highlights are blown out without detail – they are not important, and actually reinforce the bright light beyond the shaded path.

The tip here is not to give up on the garden on a bright sunny day.  If you can find some shade it might be possible to make the picture to be about the sun.

Once upon a time I would not have even tried to take the second picture fearing the contrast problem. Now I think I prefer it, as a picture that illustrates a garden on a sunny day.

Before and After Slider


The two photographs tell different stories and I am pleased with both. Do you have a favorite ?

Chapter 4 of Think Like a Gardener my e-book on the garden photography($9.95 in the Store) is about light in the garden: Using the Light