Photos on the Road

– Posted in: Garden Photography, Garden Photography, Garden Travels

Should you even try to take pictures when the light is horribly wrong ?


This is the dilemma of any garden photographer when traveling or going into a garden that you may never get to see again.  How do you get some kind of picture worth sharing, something beyond the snapshot that serves as a memory jog?

It is easy to tell students to wait for the good light or to plan a visit in the early morning or late afternoon, but there are times you have no choice but to see a garden when the light is difficult.

Such was a time for my recent visit to the Norfolk Botanical Garden, in Norfolk Virginia.   It was sunny and bright: “gorgeous day for photos !” said the receptionist at the visitor center.  I grimaced a forced smile.  I only had a few hours in the middle of the day, but really wanted to see this great garden at the peak of azalea season.

Many times when I am visiting a garden or perhaps scouting it in the middle of the day for a photo shoot later, I only take my point and shoot camera to help me remember what I saw.  I have little expectation of getting professional photos and don’t want to take marginal photos that simply waste valuable computer time later trying to rescue a snapshot.

There are always ways to find a photo, and having nothing in my Archive of this garden, I was determined to find something.  The Kwanzan cherry in the opening photo was at its peak.  When the breeze kicked in it was snowing petals.  But oh, that contrasty light.  That first photo is not exactly one that will get much attention from a photo editor, so to make that something happen, I simply went underneath the tree.


Here under the tree, the light was soft and using the tripod I could have sharp focus and good depth of field while brightening up the exposure.  Note I have cropped it into a strong horizontal, which enabled me to remove some distracting branches with fewer flowers.  The camera always lies…

I was even able to get a detail of the blossoms because the light was so soft; though it took about a dozen exposures to get one where the wind was quiet enough to give me a sharp photo.


Looking for details when the light will not allow wide shots will often lead to interesting photos, such as within this group of Mayapples.

Mayapple flowering in Norfolk Botanical Garden

The flowers bloom underneath the leaves which tells me two things:  the shady light under the leaves will be a good place for soft light of the white flowers but also gives the opportunity of backlight through the leaves.  You just have to get on your belly to make it work:

Mayapple flowering in Norfolk Botanical Garden

Did I mention azaleas ?

The Norfolk Botanical Garden is famous for its Rhododendrons and there is an entire section of the garden, “The Enchanted Forest”, devoted to these flowering shrubs. On sunny days, such as this Chamber of Commerce blue sky day, it is really hard to find photos that are not choppy, speckled light.


The trick is to find an area of shade, and then come in tight where the shady light fills the frame.


A little bit of sunny light is great and allows for some lively color.  And here I can get even closer.


With the tree towering through the flowering shrub border I think I got a photo worth representing the Norfolk Botanical Garden.  Its peak will be during this next week.

Saxon Holt
Saxon Holt is the owner of, 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
Saxon Holt

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Karen Chapman April 26, 2013, 12:03 am

Invaluable tips, thank you!

… and thank you Karen for stopping by. I hope you actually can use the tips. – Saxon

Jan LeCocq April 26, 2013, 6:28 am

Great reminders. I also have found HDR usefull with careful post processing. I primarily use HDR Efex Pro 2

Hi Jan – I don’t know Efex Pro but I have not been happy with my own trials of HDR tools. Looks too artificial for me, but very likely because I have not spent enough time with the tools.

(To those wondering what we are talking about, HDR – High Dynamic Range can be achieved by melding multiple photos of varying exposures.) – Saxon

Patrick April 26, 2013, 8:01 am

The strategies involved in getting the hero shot of the cherry was so very insightful. Beautiful image, no doubt.

Thanks Patrick. It was really just a matter of immersing myself in the tree. – Saxon

Debra Lee Baldwin April 26, 2013, 9:55 am

Hi, Saxon — You address a dilemma that I run across often when traveling, actually, even here at home because I don’t like getting up early and the traffic is bad late in the afternoon. Also, I live in Southern CA, the land of eternal sunshine—so tiresome!

Often I end up at gardens and nurseries when the light is contrasty, shadows are deep and hot spots glare. I seldom get good landscape shots at mid-day, but if I’m determined, I can usually get acceptable tighter shots. Then using iPhoto’s edit option, I brighten shadows and bring out details in too-bright areas. It’s not ideal, but at least it’s an effective option.

A professional photographer once told me that composing a photo was half the work, and digitally cropping the image and correcting the color and lighting was the other half. Does that ring true to you?

Btw, a photo you took at Filoli looking through an archway is so lovely, I clicked on “use as wallpaper” but when large it’s pixillated. Even so, it’s lovely at a distance!

Thanks DL for your comment. It is certainly true that photo editing tools allow all sorts of corrective options, but it can take a long time per photo and will never equal good light on the front side of the shoot. I don’t think one should spend half the time in post production “finishing” a photo. If a composition is good to start with, final cropping is a 15 second fix. I usually budget a half day of post production time for every day of shooting (many photos). But that includes captioning, saving, and uploading files to my Archive, besides whatever corrections need to be done. Spending lot of time on one photo can be really fun for personal, artsy interpretations, but for professional deadlines and time management, planning a shoot for good light will make post production go quickly.

Southern California (and much of the arid West) is the worst for that strong contrasty light. In the East there is some humidity in the air, so even on sunny days there is some patina to the light.

If you want a wallpaper shot let me know off-line. – Saxon

Jan Johnsen April 26, 2013, 10:05 am

Great points! I wait for days with light overcast and then grab the camera and run out!

Your cherry tree shots are wonderful.

Thanks Jan. I too definitely will change my plans on those days when I get soft light, but when traveling there is no wiggle room. – Saxon

Pam/Digging April 26, 2013, 10:10 am

I agree — there’s always a way to get a few nice photos, even on a bright, sunny day. More posts like these would be welcome, as I suspect most of us non-professionals see most public and even private gardens on tour between the hours of 10 am and 3 pm.

Thanks for stopping by Pam – Those tours are the worst for photos because there are all those other folks trying to find photos too, and you are often on a really tight time schedule. I really do think it is too frustrating to try to get photos on those quick visits. Better to learn and observe than expect to get goos photos. At least at the Norfolk garden I had a few hours of my own time to think and maneuver. – Saxon

Lynn April 26, 2013, 1:23 pm

Thank you so much for these great insights, Saxon. The timing could not be any more perfect. All best, Lynn

You must be getting ready for a garden tour then ? Another trick to getting those detail shots is to pack a telephoto lens so you can get a tight composition without a wide, distracting background, often with people if it is a tour situation. – Saxon

Cathy April 26, 2013, 4:13 pm

Well, I have to tell you Saxon, even your not so favorites are among mine…. the photo of the tall trees with the rhodies in the background and the dappled shade in the foreground is my favorite of all of them, which says one of two things…. either my taste in photos is as abominable as my knowledge of photography techniques, or you just can’t take a lousy picture LOL.

While coming in tight with the rhodies around the tree is stunning, the dappled shade makes me want to lay out my blanket, unpack my picnic basket, and dig out a good book. It’s a truly restful, relaxing photograph.

Cathy W.

You always have something nice to say Cathy, and there is a certain charm in that wide view with dappled light. The composition is nice enough, and yes it would be a nice place for a blanket, but I bet if the light were really nice the resulting photo would be even more inviting. – Saxon

Dawn April 26, 2013, 6:24 pm

The photos are lovely, enough said.

… and I appreciate the comment, ‘nuf said … – Saxon

Susan April 26, 2013, 7:52 pm

Great info in this post. Thanks for sharing. Of course you just eliminated another excuse not to pick up the camera. Maybe the lesson here is that there is always a good photo waiting to be found. Sometimes you just have to look harder (or lower or underneath)!

Hi Suz – Yes, sometimes it IS simply a matter of looking harder, making something happen. And it never hurts to shake things up a bit by finding an unusual point of view. – Saxon

Candy Suter April 26, 2013, 9:46 pm

Another wonderful post Saxon! I always learn stuff from you. And I can’t tell you how many times I have laid on my belly to get a good shot. I really don’t think I’ve done a good job taking photos unless my knees or clothes are dirty. LOL My husband thinks I’m crazy but the results are so cool. It’s all about perspective to me. Thank you for the insight.

Thanks Candy. My biggest problem with the belly shots is not simply the struggle to get up afterward 😉 but getting the tripod low enough. Truth be told, the photo for this post was hand held. – Saxon

Cassidy April 27, 2013, 12:35 am

I have to say you definitely made the most of the situation! These images are beautiful!

Thanks Cassidy – It always helps when you have a beautiful subject … -Saxon

Steve Mullany April 27, 2013, 6:41 am

Thanks again Saxon for addressing one of the common situations encountered by so many of us “ordinary amateurs” who still want to get the best pictures during our one and only visit to a great garden. Not only can the tour crowds indeed be frustrating, but, on a lighter note, so can the fashion sense of some garden visitors. Many years ago I spent way too much effort keeping a guy in a dayglo lime green cycling jersey out of the frame during my solo visit to a crowded Sissinghurst. The bright overcast day was perfect for the camera but seemed to make his presence (in or out of the viewfinder) even more jarring! I always remember that visit with a little “what were they thinking?” smile.

Steve – I’m grinning as I read your story and now we know why gardeners love chartreuse foliage. – Saxon

Gareth April 27, 2013, 2:10 pm

The azaleas make the woodland seem like its on fire really great pictures.

Its great that those azaleas are so big that they envelope the trees. – Saxon

Emily Schiller April 27, 2013, 8:20 pm

Thank you so much for your beautiful and insightful posts! I find that I’m far more comfortable doing macro photography, but wish a landscape sensibility would find its way into my brain. And while I can manage the occasional barn in the fields shot, gardens overwhelm me. It’s so difficult to isolate and frame shots that don’t just “bland-out” with too much going on in too many directions. So your posts and images are tremendously helpful. Also, living in the Northwest allows for many overcast days with lovely soft light. However, once late spring starts and the sun comes out, it tends to stay out until late fall! So your suggestions for dealing with mid-day, high contrast light are much appreciated.

Thanks Emily – I so appreciate comments from photographers who are reading and learning. It is easy to get overwhelmed in gardens of the Northwest … I know first hand. Always think critically of exactly what it is that is overwhelming you. It can usually be identified – tell one story at a time. – Saxon

Catherine April 28, 2013, 12:36 am

Thanks Saxon for some very helpful ideas, especially about concentrating on those less contrasty areas. I remember to look all around the viewfinder for things I don’t want in the shot (like guys in dayglo shirts!) which helps get pics that you won’t despair of later when you find that one little spoiler you can’t crop out, but I hadn’t thought about the opposite – looking for the best bits to concentrate on. Love the low-level mayapple pic.

Catherine – Always take what the garden and the light are giving you. Know what to look for. – Saxon

Christina Salwitz April 28, 2013, 10:38 pm

LOVED this post Saxon. It came up the day after I was on a garden tour where it takes a long time to get reservations and like you mentioned in another comment the whole tour was on a really tight time frame. My appointed time was of course, 1pm on an exceptionally sunny Seattle day, good with the bad right?!
I think my take away right now is to be ruthless about dumping photos that I have no prayer of light correcting even it means I only walked away with ten decent ones from 100 and making better judgement calls about what to focus on like you said. Great point!
It sure would be nice if some of these gardens made accommodations for bloggers, garden writers and photographers to get a better photo op time so we can give THEM better publicity. But, that’s just me. 🙂
I agree with Pam, I sure do appreciate these posts of yours, I learn SO much!!

Thanks Christina – You don’t want to necessarily dump ALL those marginal photos. Sometimes you want a photo that simply reminds you of what you saw, a bad photo of a cool plant combination may not be one you show to anybody, or spend any time on with the computer but it is a great memory jog and easier to file away than a notebook. Great to hear your feedback. Thanks again- Saxon

Barry April 29, 2013, 9:45 am

Lighting when taking photos is crucial you may even consider some good garden solar lighting for evening, and night shots!

Hmmm – Barry …. are you just plugging (linking) your outdoor-lighting biz ? We’re watching …. 😉 Saxon

Donna April 30, 2013, 9:03 pm

A very valuable post, Saxon. Mid day hours is the most common time I get out for gardens, one due to when public gardens are open, and two, just plain when I feel like it unfortunately. It is why I could never be a pro.

I rely on my histogram and watch for the “blinkies” for exposure. Your tip of coming in tight for the shady light kills off the blinkies. And when all else fails, I take multiple exposures and make a believable HDR. That is rare though, too much hassle. I just love the last image of the Rhodies.

Thanks for dropping by Donna. I agree that the HDR is just too much of a hassle. I shoot too many photos to be worrying about recovery later. You shoot lots of critters so mid day light is a bit more forgiving, but I find it hard to believe your fine garden photos are taken in midday. – Saxon

Les May 7, 2013, 6:53 pm

I work at the Norfolk Botanical Garden and glad you got to visit. The receptionist probably didn’t know any better, and was likely overwhelmed by the fact we even had a sunny day. They have been unusually scarce here of late. I just posted some photos on my own blog from the gardens, which must of been taken close to the same time of your visit, at least judging from the similar state of the blossoms. Fortunately, I was able to take my pictures early in the morning.

Layanee May 9, 2013, 6:47 am

Great tips. With an upcoming garden tour on the schedule there will surely be a few very bright days. These tips will come in quite handily.

Saxon Holt May 11, 2013, 6:55 pm

So glad you checked in from the Bot Garden. I will want to share more photos, in particular the gardener who works on the scree garden “challenged” me to get a good photo from underneath the weeping cherry. I got one. – Saxon

Mary Yee May 20, 2013, 6:05 am

Thank you for this post–really apropos topic and useful suggestions. I love the shot of the mayapple flower and the backlit leaves–encourages us to get low even if we get muddy.

Hi Mary – I know you see lots of photography, glad you see this as useful. I didn’t mention a problem of getting down low to photograph things like mayapples – one tends to want to stay down – Saxon

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