Hard Light – Back Light

– Posted in: Garden Photography, Garden Visits

There was a time when I would never shoot in harsh, hard light.  Bright, strong, contrasty light tends to have deep, black shadows and no color subtlety.  As a garden photographer, when the sun came into the garden I would retreat to the shadows where the light was soft.

But I am also a California garden photographer and the sun is an important element of many a garden’s story.  People expect to see sunny California gardens, and when a photo can manage to show some bright sun somewhere in the picture, the scene will glow.

So on a recent shoot for an exhibit on prehistoric plants I found myself in the strong sun in the magnifiscent gardens at The Huntington  in Southern California.  I was looking specifically for Cycads and found the photo above, backlit as I stood in the shade of a grove of Ponytale Palms (Beaucarnea recurvata).

As is common in California, the sun came up strong and with-in an hour the light was too strong for my normal shooting style.  But foliage often looks great back-lit and since the sun is still low in the early February morning the potential for a full on back light presented it self.

As it happens, after shooting Cycads and Araucaria I found myself in the Desert Garden which is full of mature succulents.  I began looking for photos as the sun got higher.  I figured sun is a good feature of a desert photo and succulents often have nice strong graphic shapes that can make striking subjects.

Once I would have given up on finding good photos in this light.  A photo like this group of Aloe would never sell:

Ahh, but walk around the scene and shoot back into the sun and the scene altogether changes:

The Aloe foliage is fleshy and transluscent.  The sun reveals it, back-lit and shining through.

I began looking for other, even more complex plant combinations:

desert garden at huntington front lit

That is a downright terrible photo but it serves as a great counterpoint to the exact same group of plants seen from  the opposite direction:

It really is the same plant combination, photo taken five minutes apart from the green plant by the path in the first photo.  Note the the tree shape and the red flowers of the Dudleya.

Now look into the middle of the photo to see the wonderful spikey foliage of a bromeliad,Variegated Hearts of Flame – Bromelia balansae ‘Variegata’.  Besides being amazed that a bromeliad can be a garden plant in Southern California, look how back light really explodes through the foliage:

Shall we look at another reason why we should break the Kodak rule of shooting with the sun over our shoulder ?

sun over shoulder aloe in teh desert garden

I suppose some might like the heavy red of the Aloe flowers and the sun full on.  Until we look back toward the sun:

The sun now outlines the plants and makes the colors glow.

There a few technical trick to making this work and I will go into those tips in a future lesson – just to keep you coming back …



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 and Fellow of The Garden Writers Association with more than 25 garden books, he lives and gardens in Northern California. PhotoBotanic - Garden Photography online at www.photobotanic.com. https://photobotanic.com
Saxon Holt

Latest posts by Saxon Holt (see all)

17 comments… add one

Leave a Comment

Kelly/Floradora February 24, 2012, 2:35 am

Inspiring post! Can’t wait to hear about the technical tricks!

Thanks for stopping by Kelly. As one of my star pupils you are entitled to lessons updates anytime. – Saxon

Margaret (Peggy) Herrman February 24, 2012, 7:19 am

Dear Saxon, I will! I am strictly amateur. can’t afford to have a pro (one here who is a dear friend who sells art prints of our ladies) come in once a week or so. So, this is on the job learning. You suggestions about light are terrific. Hope my little work on Peggy Herrman/Orchid Ladies on FB is equally pleasing. Will be back. Best, Peggy

Maybe you will be able to afford a pro when he comes out with the e-book and mini-lessons…. 😉 -Saxon

Theresa Forte February 24, 2012, 9:16 am

What a thought-provoking lesson for all of us – thank you for sharing! I love the before and after looks, they teach us all how to really ‘look’ for the interesting light!

All photographers will tell you light is so important to making the exceptional picture. I always am looking for it. – Saxon

Debra Lee Baldwin February 24, 2012, 9:42 am

I love the way the sun outlines the plants and makes the leaves glow, showing off their translucence. The last photo is my favorite—it really “says” the Huntington. Pretty cool that you got to go there early in the day. They must make special provisions for professional photographers?

I was sure thinking of you when I was among those succulents, Debra Lee. I did have special permission but The Huntington has designated days for artists. – Saxon

Frederique Lavoipierre February 24, 2012, 10:28 am

Thanks Saxon,
I can’t wait for the tips. Too many of my photos look like your ‘bad’ examples! Debra, I believe Huntington has provisions for professional photographers/film makers on their website. So do other botanical wonderlands.

Frederique – thanks for the compliments, but you should see, or not, my pics of insects. Yours will compare favorably… -Saxon

Karen Chapman February 24, 2012, 11:34 am

This is something I’ve been experimenting with but I really appreciate the way you have taken the time to show the differences here. Thank you. A rewarding article as always.

Experimenting and breaking the “rules” is aways the best way to learn. – Saxon

michelle d. February 24, 2012, 12:37 pm

Now that’s a great idea – an E-book of photo tips for the would -be garden photographer.
Enjoyable photo essay Saxon.
As always, an educational pleasure. ,

As is the pleasure of photographing your garden. I will try to get to those files real soon, Michelle. – Saxon

Town Mouse February 24, 2012, 1:36 pm

Wow, amazing! Yes, I actually had the same experience in the Arizona Garden on the Stanford campus. But the contrast between the different photos explains why these plants looked better with some light. Thanks so much!

Thank you so much for stopping by, Town. I must say I wish we did not have so much strong light right now, here in the rainy season. Doin’ a rain dance ? – Saxon

Dave February 24, 2012, 6:19 pm

Your pictures make your point very well. I’ll have to try the approach some time.

I suppose your article will be about the recent molecular clock evidence that modern cycads are actually a recent lineage only 12 my old?

I will be sure to cover the topic thoroughly. – Saxon

Cathy February 24, 2012, 7:34 pm

I’m thoroughly enjoying your lessons – both this one and the one on winter trees…. first, I was wishing we HAD some “winter” to be able to photograph LOL…. now I’m thanking my lucky stars that we don’t… and wishing spring would come even faster!

We have a tree grove that will afford me the ability to try out some of these techniques – I can hardly wait to get out there and get started!

I will definitely be trying out these techniques and will post links and what I’ve have learned on my blog.

Thanks again so much for sharing your incredible knowledge with all of us!

Indeed it is nice to think people will learn from it. Thanks. – Saxon

Ian Cooke February 24, 2012, 8:33 pm

Inspiring pictures! I struggle to capture the brilliance of colour here in the Coachella Valley – but I’m really just an amateur. Off to the Huntington next week so I look forward to trying your techniques.

Even though the light is bright, it is still not mid-day sun and has a strong directional quality. Try to get there early, or stay as late as they allow. – Saxon

Donna February 24, 2012, 10:22 pm

I love to photograph with back-light but never could get the hang of it, so I really will be waiting for your tips. It really makes a big difference to these architectural and textural plants. Lovely images and great comparison photos.

Donna – The tips will be part of the book. And these teasers will keep on comin’ 😉 – Saxon

Andrea February 26, 2012, 3:31 am

Brilliant in so many ways! I always shoot buildings into the sun, because I love the flair behind them but it has never occurred to me to shoot plants into the sun! Thanks so much for the great tips…

While I do love hearing this word ‘brilliant’ associated with my post, I am delighted it brings up the word as it is associated with light. Brilliant light is back light. – Saxon

Lois J. de Vries February 26, 2012, 7:51 am

Looking forward to your tips, Saxon. I’ve yet to master the art of tricking the camera in order to get a photo that matches what my eye is seeing. I agree. Backlit scenes are some of the best — adding an element of mystery.

Lois – Sometimes it is not so much as tricking the camera, it is “Thinking Like a Camera” (a chapter in my book). I love that you introduced the idea of mystery. Indeed, there is a mysterious quality to back light. – Saxon

Glass Fencing Sydney February 27, 2012, 5:45 am

Interesting photos! Very well clicked. Thank you for sharing the worthy information.

“Well clicked” is a new one for me – must be another of your Ausssie terms, eh mate ? -Saxon

Gillian February 27, 2012, 8:13 pm

I am looking forward to your tips – always enjoy your posts! thanks for sharing your knowledge. I will be attempting to try some backlit photos from now on.

Thanks Gillian. Backlighting only really works where the foliage or flowers are translucent enough to let light through them when the light is completely behind (not overhead). – Saxon

franniesorin March 4, 2012, 1:19 pm

You have given me a lot to think about and practice! The difference between the first and then the back lit aloes are stunning. You’re a natural teacher. Fran

Next Post:

[shareaholic app=”recommendations” id=”13070491″]