Early Light in the Bancroft Garden

– Posted in: Garden Photography, Garden Visits

Recently I photographed at the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek, about an hour from my home, and needed to arrive before dawn.

Early morning light in the Ruth Bancroft Garden

The Bancroft Garden is one of the most iconic gardens in America, full of mature cactus and succulents in a summer-dry climate, a testimonial to Ruth’s plant choices 50 years ago and successful gardening  in a climate where water is always scarce in the summer.

The sun gets hot and bright quickly in Walnut Creek, and the strong, graphic shapes of the succulents soon become contrasty and too stark for most photography.  I needed to arrive before the sun.

Light is critical in all photography.  For garden photography the magic hours tend to be the two first hours and the two last hours of the day. If you know how to use it, the quality of light is very similar at both times; some photographers prefer the late afternoon when there is often a warmer cast to the light.

Bancroft Garden

Clean, early light in the Bancroft Garden

However I love the dawn. Plants seem fresher, the light cleaner, the air sweet, and I am certainly more alert.

I will admit is often hard to get up out of bed hours before dawn, but I like getting an early start, hitting the road with other early risers off to work.  Once I get going, I relish the anticipation of entering a garden before the sun arrives. I love getting into a garden when it is all my own.

Bancroft Garden

Quiet light before dawn in the Bancroft Garden

Before the sun comes the light is bluish, flat, and dull, but as soon as the sun rises, a warm yellow glow begins. Things perk up quickly.

Bancroft Garden

The glow is best photographed looking toward it, taking advantage of backlight and exposing for the shadows.  I  often find myself scrambling for positions where the camera is in the shade of one large plant while others are glowing.

I love finding those sudden moments when only one fleeting ray of sun brightens a patch of the garden.

Bancroft Garden

A shaft of light streams through the Bancroft Garden

Sometimes the light in the garden beyond can be framed between shapes, and will beckon.

Bancroft Garden

And sometimes the light is perfectly positioned to highlight the edges – rim light.

 Back light on Cleistocactus in Bancroft Garden

Back light on Cleistocactus in Bancroft Garden

As the sun gets higher it becomes harder to find shots where the shadows and highlights don’t compete. There is so much sun in the garden you either have to photograph the back side of one strong shape against the light beyond….

Bancroft Garden

… or, embrace the full sun and let the shapes become textures.

Bancroft Garden

By this time, the sun has been up for two hours but still has enough of a side angle so that the shadows are not yet black, and when you expose for those shadows the photograph can glow.

If you are in a climate with more humidity the light will remain softer for another hour or maybe two, but don’t try to photograph gardens in the middle of the day. Give yourself an excuse to enjoy a garden early.

Saxon Holt
Saxon Holt is the owner of PhotoBotanic.com, a garden picture resource for photographs, on-line workshops, and garden photography stories. An award winning photojournalist with more than 20 garden books, he lives and gardens in Northern California. PhotoBotanic - Garden Photography online at www.photobotanic.com
Saxon Holt

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5 Comments… add one

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Mr Bill July 12, 2016, 10:18 am

Photographing in the morning gives the garden a wonderful look. Thanks for the post and the great pictures.

Saxon Holt July 12, 2016, 10:43 am

Thanks Bill – the wonderful look is, indeed because the plants feel wonderful in the morning too

Fran Sorin July 14, 2016, 1:23 am

Dear saxon,
you have outdone yourself with these photos. Each one is more awe-inspiring than the next. Thank you, thank you for bringing such beauty to GGW…..
with gratitude- Fran

Gardener from London July 21, 2016, 7:57 am

Compliments to the photographer! Indeed the morning light is such a beauty. Keep going with more photos like those in the post. Thanks for sharing!

Saxon Holt July 26, 2016, 10:16 am

Well this is especially high praise, Gardener. It seems you didn’t realize I am a photographer first, writer only with struggles, but gardener myself – to the core.