Light – What is it ? Where is it?

– Posted in: Garden Photography, Garden Photography

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Photographers talk about “The Light” in reverential terms.  It is the life blood of outdoor photography no less than it is the lifeblood of plants for photosynthesis.

Learning how to read the quality of light is the single most important skill in good garden photography.

I have talked about it for years here at Gardening Gone Wild.  Some of my favorite posts have been about the light.  “Light Kisses”.

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When the light is good I get lots of pictures.  When it is spectacular I get calendar pictures.  When it is bad . . .  I usually go home.  Bad light is a waste of time, typically bright sunny days where the contrast between sun and shade is so strong that the camera will have little success seeing what the eye does.

Sometimes the exception to the rule of avoiding strong sun, as we see in the recent Summer Shadows post from Deborah Lee Baldwin, is to work with sun and shadows to create abstracted patterns and get playful details.  But in general, garden photographers stay away from strong contrasty light.

Valentine wall - Succulents in bright light against white stucco wall

Strong light creates interesting shadow shapes on stucco wall

Camera sensors do not process light as well as the human eye.  We might look at a bright, colorful sunny scene and feel excitement in the range of light we see.  We see details in the bright colors, we see details in the dark shadow.

The sensor in the camera does not have that same dynamic range.  It must favor one range, the highlights or shadows, over the other.  There are tricks to improve your camera’s range, using HDR (High Dynamic Range) multiple exposures capabilities, but it is always preferable to get good light than to fix bad light.

Roth-Epstein Enchanting Planting scout photos in sunlight

A scouting shot of garden in harsh mid-day light

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Garden in soft late afternoon light

How do you find good light for garden photography?   Let’s get to the basics – look for soft light.  Get up early in the day.

I like dawn because the air and the color of light is clean, the plants fresher, there is usually less wind, and the quiet of the morning can open up the creative sensors. The first hour or two of daylight is best.  End of lesson.

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I wish it were so easy.  Yes, dawn light is the best but it is often hard to get into a garden before dawn in order to be ready for the light, and even then, the light is changing fast, bright areas appear quickly, and get worse by the minute.

There is also wonderful soft light in the evenings.

Late afternoon light catches grasses against dark background.

A great advantage to working in the evening is being more familiar with the garden, assuming you have arrived in time to scout around.  The light gets better and better.

And, here is maybe the best tip of the day:  the light after the sun goes down is great for garden photography.  Not only is it soft but the quality of light is excellent.  Colors will render really well.  You will need a tripod to take advantage of twilight since low light means long shutter speeds, but the color of the light is quite good.

dusk at heritage house garden

Seaside garden in evening glow after sun has set.

Remember our discussion in Chapter One about the color of light ? At twilight, after the blue color disappears the sky turns almost white and the light, while there may not be much of it, is a good color for garden photography.  It is soft and rich.  With a tripod and quiet winds you can great results, though you may need a shutter speed of several seconds.

The key is soft light and the lesson is to go look for it.  You can’t always work in the first or last hours, especially in long summer days of garden glory so find other opportunities: in an evenly cloudy day, in fog, or work in the shade.

Living in coastal California I count on foggy days and try to keep my schedule open and flexible to adjust for good foggy weather.  Low dense soupy fog is troublesome but high overcast is fantastic, a softbox in the sky.  (A softbox is a term for a studio photographer’s light source, a light box).

liset crabapple trees

Soft foggy light envelopes ‘Liset’ crabapples, even under the trees.

Colors will come true on cloudy days, light tends to surround the garden, and many perspectives back and forth through the garden are possible.  When fog breaks and the clouds are dissolving there are often a few moments of spectacular light where the garden almost looks sunny but there is enough diffusion in the sky to cut the contrast.

Succulent display garden at Succulent Gardens, Cssroville, California

Overcast light keeps these succulents from looking too harsh and contrasty.

Evenly cloudy, overcast skies can be just as effective as foggy days but beware of partially cloudy days.  On days when the sun hides behind a small cloud in a blue sky, the resulting light will not suffuse the garden and will be very flat, bluish, and dull.

When you can’t wait for a fine, high, thin overcast, plan morning shoots and expect to be retreating into shady areas to get soft light without the strong contrast of the sun.

Retreating into the shadow to find a softly lit composition.

Open shade may be a bit dull (and blue too), but is at least it is soft.

Soft light in shade of home provides good dynamic range for photo.

So, to summarize, soft light is early or late in the day, when the sun is off the garden; or an overcast day; or in the shade.  Look for the shade on the north side of buildings and larger landscapes, be cautious in shade directly under trees and speckled light of woodland gardens.  Even the smallest amount of bright sun spots in an otherwise shady photo will distract the viewer and confuse the balance of a photo.

Learning to use the light means learning to find soft light.  Ignore the sun … for now.  Later in this lesson we will get into advanced techniques, sun streaks, golden glow, backlight, and scrim but now, looking for soft light is first.

garden light at lotusland

Morning light over the pond at Lotusland.

 

Saxon Holt

Saxon Holt is the owner of PhotoBotanic, a garden picture resource for photographs, workshops, and garden photography stories. A landscape photographer and award winning photojournalist with more than 20 garden books, he lives and gardens in Northern California.

Saxon Holt

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Laura Balaoro July 25, 2013, 9:56 am

Thank you for the lessons. Learning so much from all of you.

Thanks Linda – We are glad to have you participating. – Saxon

Donna July 25, 2013, 7:53 pm

It is garden walk season here in the Buffalo area and although I love visiting the colorful gardens, the big problem is photographing the gardens during the hours they are open 10-4 generally. The sun is not my friend. One almost wishes for an overcast day. Like you said, what we see and what the camera sees are drastically different in these bright sunny conditions. Sadly, no other choice on photographing gardens unless I get a nice owner inviting me back. The colorful HDR photos rarely look real since most people know what to expect under bright sun. I usually do what you mentioned last post. I try to make sure to shoot where the light is either all bright or all in shade. The camera sensor gets less ‘confused’. I love your late afternoon shots with the glow and vibrant color. Would love to shoot in those conditions, I know I would learn a lot more. Time for late afternoons in the fields I think….

When you come across those good gardens in hot sun and if you CAN invite yourself back – you should. The owners are usually flattered and the return will be SO satisfying. You will know the garden and the photos will flow into your camera. As a photographer this is what you live for. Make those times happen. – Saxon

robcardillo July 25, 2013, 8:44 pm

There are some real pearls of wisdom here, Saxon. Well done!

Thanks Rob. Nothing you do not already know – and practice so well – Saxon

ks July 25, 2013, 10:47 pm

Great lesson as usual Saxon. The photo of the ‘Seaside Garden’ (definitely a calendar shot..) did you shoot that in Elk ?

Yes, good eye – the seaside garden is Harbor House Inn, and the reason the grass Anemanthele lessoniana, is so orange is because it gets so much bright light by the ocean where it is not to hot. -Saxon

April Jacobs July 26, 2013, 1:18 am

Strong sunlight really ruins my day when I was taking cool pictures of my garden. I tried almost every good position but the light was so bad. Anyway, I’m glad you made an article about this. I just learned from the expert. Thanks a lot. :-)

Thanks April – There are other article here on shooting in bright light including this one: http://www.gardeninggonewild.com/?p=12460. – Saxon

Debra Lee Baldwin July 26, 2013, 8:35 pm

So interesting about light being lovely after the sun sets. Btw, that photo you took at Succulent Gardens of the overlapping agaves is one of my favorite photos EVER. Thanks, Saxon!

Thanks DL. I sure like YOU complimenting my succulent photos. – Saxon

Karen Chapman July 28, 2013, 12:23 am

Love this! I never knew about the twilight being so good. I’ve been packing up too early! I must practice more with my shutter speeds. I have a Canon G10 and tend to stick to aperture priority or P for my settings. Better read up on Tv!

Thanks Karen – With the G10, or any camera that has automatic exposure settings, you should get good results so long as you use a tripod to steady the camera. Some of these auto exposure cameras may not “understand” that you intend to have a long shutter speed and might not allow you to take a photo on auto in low light. You might want to play with the manual “M” setting. – Saxon

Sandra Blaine July 30, 2013, 8:32 am

Light can truly make photography like magic. I’ve seen incredible garden photos with the right background. I really admire these artists. They know how to use light effects and know when to take pictures. :-)