Back-Light and Grasses

– Posted in: Garden Photography, Garden Visits

I have been in love with grasses for a long time.  I can pinpoint the day, more than 25 years ago, with a botanist at Ring Mountain Nature Conservancy Preserve, where I wondered why these grasses she was so keen on having me document where not garden plants.  I have learned a lot, a whole lot since then.

Pennisetum backlit in Ring Mt. garden

Pennisetum backlit in Ring Mountain garden

A huge opportunity presented itself to me when Storey Publishing asked me and Gardening Gone Wild’s very own Nancy Ondra to do a book about grasses.  Now in it’s 10th printing Grasses – Versatile Partners for Uncommon Garden Design allowed me to travel the country learning about ornamental grasses.  The rare serpentine grasses I found on Ring Mountain are nowhere in the book, for very sound horticultural reasons, but the photo above was taken in a grass garden abutting the same Nature Conservancy preserve.

What astounding synchronicity I remember thinking.  This particular backlit photo of grasses, taken in the front yard of that Ring Mountain garden with a shadowed hummock of the mountain beyond, was my first successful color photograph using back light to define my subject.  I even made a fine art print of it.

The synchronicity now continues into my new book The American Meadow Garden with John Greenlee.  Not only is the same photo in the new book but it was in that same preserve that I first saw a true grass ecology, a native meadow.

Grasses with Nan only opened the door to meadow gardening for me, that book concentrated on individual grasses incorporated into gardens.  But meadows, as I said on the Credits page of that book, “may not be the most showy or colorful use of grasses, but satisfying and comfortable to behold.  Wouldn’t you want to sit on a bench and watch the birds flitting about the meadow and larger flowering grasses dancing in the breeze?”

André Bluemel Meadow at River Farm

André Bluemel Meadow at River Farm

With the new book I was able to spend days and days in meadows, not often sitting but certainly watching the light as it danced off the grasses moving in the breeze.  I learned even more about using light to reveal translucency and softness.  Watching the dawn light reveal the sublime beauty of the meadow at The Amercan Hortucultural Society’s River Farm in Virginia gave me one of my favorite photos from the book.

I traveled to many regions to find local interpretations of grass ecologies for the American Meadows book, be they called meadows, glades, prairies, savannahs, or steppes.  In Colorado I found some of the best meadow gardens, perhaps because there are such diverse native meadows in the Rocky Mountains and the plains below them.  Surely the native plants have inspired the wonderful gardens at The Denver Botanic Garden (DBG), easily one of America’s very best public gardens.

DBG meadow viewed through backlit weeping birch

DBG meadow viewed through backlit weeping birch

I do not need Panayoti Kelaidis, their long term Senior Curator and ebullient promoter, to convince me (and anyone who will listen to him) that DBG is doing good work.  There are many excellent gardens at DBG but all I need to see is the work of Dan Johnson, the Assistant Curator whose magic with grasses has created a lasting impression on me, ever since the days working on Grasses with Nan.

Recently I was in Denver working on a new book, Homegrown Herbs with Tammi Hartung.  I made sure I had time to see how Dan’s grasses looked, knowing that autumn is flowering time for warm season grasses.  To my absolute delight I realized the low angle of the sun on autumn days presented a great opportunity to explore back lighting.  (Truth be told, I was not so delighted first entering the garden, because I had hoped for soft overcast light which is more conducive to typical garden photography.)

Panicum virgatum 'Dallas Blues' seedhead backlit

Panicum virgatum 'Dallas Blues' seedhead backlit

But as I began “seeing” back-light opportunities I began formulating this post.  And now finally, I have rambled into the photo lesson.

First, back-lighting only works when the sun is low enough in the sky to be truly in “back” of your subject.  Overhead midday sun is brutally contrasty, whereas low angle light can shine over top of fences, hills, houses, or shrubbery to create dark shadowy areas that can go black in the camera – if you know how to use the camera to compensate for the built-in light meter’s tendency to balance everything out to a mushy gray.

Sporobolus airoides backlit

Sporobolus airoides backlit

Technically, these photos with black backgrounds might be considered underexposed, and they are – if you trusted the camera light meter.  But the dynamic range of a camera (the range of detail that can be shown in dark areas versus light areas) is much more limited than the human eye.  The human eye does not readily see this dramatic light, made possible by a brightly lit subject in front of a shadow area.

The photographer must shift the exposure range, aiming for a good exposure in the bright highlight area rather than some neutral point half way between shade and sun.

The further advantage of exposing the camera for the highlight area is that you can actually hold some detail in the bright areas that would otherwise be blown out.

backlit seed heads blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis)

backlit seed heads blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis)

In an “average” exposure these seed heads would be bright blobs on a mushy gray background.  Whenever you attempt this technique remember to frame your brightly lit subject in front of a uniformly dark area and be careful as you look back toward the sun that the sun is not shining directly into the camera or you will get lens flare.  Though sometimes the flare can work to your advantage, like in the wide view of the André Bluemel meadow (at top) where I consciously wanted to show the sun flare as part of the composition.

The trick of exposing for the back lit highlight areas can work even when the background is not totally in shadow.  Back light can be translucent, shining through foliage.

Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans 'Bluebird') backlit seedhead

Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) backlit seedhead

One must be much more careful in composition lest the highlight areas behind conflict with the main subject, but in the case where there is a uniform foliage color that is out of focus, the added color of back lit leaves adds to the story.

Or perhaps the white areas of the highlights are so dramatic that it almost makes no difference what color the background may be – so long as it is out of focus, here using a telephoto lens to make sure I had a narrow depth of field.

Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)

Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)

Composition is critical with back light and one must use the negative space and dark areas to separate and silhouette the bright area.

Miscanthus sinensis 'Nippon' silver backlit grass

Miscanthus sinensis 'Nippon' silver backlit grass

If you have a good macro lens and can focus quite tight on a subject it is much easier to compose a photograph that has a background that is so out of focus that it does not matter if it does not go dark.

Seeds of Schyzachyrium scoparium Little bluestem

Seeds of Schyzachyrium scoparium Little bluestem

What really makes this extreme close-up photo work is a good exposure for the highlights, the white feathery seed heads.  (I will confess I used Photshop to darken all the outer edgers of this photograph to give it a bull’s eye effect – drawing the eye to the white.)

And sometimes back light just works because every thing in the scene is just brilliant with light and the dynamic range of the photograph simply works.  In this last one, it was just plain luck that I was able to hold the blue of the garden pond at Denver Botanic Garden with the silvery white seed bracts of the grass, still allowing some backlit color to come through the foliage.

Little Bluestem grass

Little Bluestem grass

All in all I had about two hours of light to make these photos before the sun got too high, photographs I did not even suspect were there when I walked through the garden gates first thing that morning.  It is true I have become attuned to looking for grass photo opportunities after all these years, but they never cease to thrill me.

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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15 Comments… add one

Leave a Comment

Sarah woollybutterfly December 9, 2009, 5:07 am

Beautiful and inspiring, thank you for this blog post!

Thank you Sarah. My meadow book is now released in the UK under the title “Meadows by Design”. Guess it would not sell as well called “The American Meadow Garden” . . . . Saxon

Lisa at Greenbow December 9, 2009, 5:50 am

Yes, the glories of the grasses are appreciated most when in the meadow.

I know, there is just something so satisfying about the natural ecology. Saxon

James Golden December 9, 2009, 7:18 am

Thanks for these posts on photography. I do some of this by instinct and limited knowledge. You give me technical understanding that broadens my knowledge and skill (or at least the opportunity to get better at it).

One needs to start with instinct I think; a sense that there is something to look for. The technical stuff comes with trial and error as much as “book learning” – Saxon

elizabeth ~ so wabi sabi December 9, 2009, 8:13 am

very inspiring.

Thanks. The inspiration begins in the garden, I just try to capture some of it. – Saxon

Dave December 9, 2009, 8:33 am

Meadows are such peaceful places it would be easy to get lost in though in one. Your pictures are awesome! And thanks for the photography tips!

Thanks Dave; just trying to share my own love of meadows. – Saxon

Christi C. December 9, 2009, 2:09 pm

I really enjoyed this blog post – thank you so much for all this good information, especially the tips behind the photo-making. My newest purchase is the ‘The American Meadow Garden’ and it is chock full of inspiration. I’ve just started work on a meadow garden area near our pond so this book couldn’t have come at a better time.

Hope it’s ok – went ahead and posted a link to this blog post over on my F’book page…you might get a little bit of traffic here :>]]

Thanks again!

Thanks for buying my book Christi. And yeah, spread it around, y’ never know who might see it… OMG Anni Jensen just checked in (next comment) …. Saxon

Anni Jensen December 9, 2009, 8:56 pm

Saw this on Christi’s Facebook page. Very enjoyable!
Just one note: a picture of an Asclepias seems to have replaced the one of Schyzachyrium scoparium
(“Seeds of Schyzachyrium scoparium Little bluestem”)
Anni Jensen

Anni – so cool you checked out the post. And if YOU think there is a misidentification I gotta defer to you (For those who don’t know, Anni Jensen is the seed expert and propagator at Annies Annuals Nursery – owned by Anni Hayes). No one at Denver Botanic Garden caught this. I do not recognize this seed other than the label in the ground in the botanic garden bed of grasses. If the seeds are actually an Asclepias then it had crept in during the season and no one worried about a misidentification when it was in bloom amongst the grasses. Thanks – Saxon

Town Mouse December 9, 2009, 10:51 pm

Amazing! Thanks so much. Maybe for my Christmas break, I’ll finally take some time experimenting with all the techniques you’ve written about!

Thanks for commenting mouse. Experimenting is the very best way to learn. – Saxon

Jean at Dig, Grow, Compost, Blog December 10, 2009, 9:33 am

I absolutely love photos of grasses and as usual, yours are superb. Fall seems to be the best time in my garden for backlit grasses but there are always too many leaves still on the trees to do it right. Eventually I’ll get grasses in just the right places for some photos! My sister drew my name for Christmas gift giving and I suggested the meadow book to her. 🙂

Thanks Jean. Fall is great for backlight and grasses not just because the flowering grasses are so dramatic, but the sun is low giving the photographer a better opportunity to “see” good situations. – Saxon

P:S order the autographed book from me on my website for free shipping .

Mark Sheehan December 10, 2009, 5:41 pm

Ditto the appreciation of the photos and I second the identification of the seeds in the next-to-last photo as a milkweed or kin (Asclepias).

Mark – Thanks for checking in. I gotta get better at recognizing when the labels in Botanic Gardens apply to plants other than the one I am photographing …. – Saxon

Christine B. December 11, 2009, 3:26 am

Your photos for the Grasses book (congrats on a 10th printing) were amazing. They were instrumental in getting me hooked on ornamental grasses in the first place. I took your book with me when I gave a presentation on the subject to the master gardeners here in Alaska and told them something like, no one who looks through this book can call grasses boring or unlovely. I frequently go back to the book in winter, daydreaming over the wonderful photos.


Christine B.

Thank YOU Christine – this is a true fan letter, knowing that my work is not only appreciated but influenced people to use the information that the writers attach to my photos. – Saxon

Scott Calhoun December 11, 2009, 10:58 am

Saxon, thanks for highlighting (or should I say backlighting?) some great native grasses like blue grama, little bluestem, and Sporobolus. Even here in blast furnace Tucson, they thrive and have become staples in my design biz.

thistleandthorn December 13, 2009, 9:27 am

Saxon, I am, as usual, a little late in commenting on a blog post, but thank you so much for all you do to educate us. I have tried and tried to capture the light in grasses, but…
I am enamored by the wild ‘ditch weeds’ that grow along this part of the gulf coast, and especially the grasses, rushes, and sedges. You really should visit Wakulla County in Florida sometime and check this out for yourself.
In some of the photos it looks like there might be a black backdrop to get such a vivid contrast. At least, that’s what I’ve been thinking of trying.
Thanks again.

When I considered where to spend the travel budget for The American Meadow Garden, my co-author John Greenlee and I really wanted to include Florida and the Gulf Coast to see different ecosystems. I hope to get downyour way someday.

Unlike the photo lessen where I did use a black back drop all of the dark areas in the back light series are created by the dramatic difference of the exposure range from bright subjects in front of shadowed areas. – Saxon

Debra Lee Baldwin December 13, 2009, 1:39 pm

I really think there’s nothing lovelier than backlit grasses. A nursery owner once mentioned to me that the upright tassles of a grass in bloom reminded him of champagne bubbles. Oh, yes!

Debra Lee – I’m gonna steal that champagne reference for myself. Thanks … – Saxon

healingmagichands December 15, 2009, 8:16 pm

I have been in love with grasses for decades, which probably explains my Petite Prairie planting. I have been trying so hard to capture the magical “thing” grass does in the evening sun, and I really appreciate all the pointers and tips you give in this post. Maybe someday I can actually achieve the picture of switchgrass that so far has only appeared in my mind’s eye!

Thanks so much for a lovely post, the photography is spectacular. And I am very envious of your opportunity to sit in the meadows and watch the light work them. All too often we just don’t have the time in this modern bustle to sit bathed in light and beauty. Surely there are bugs and pollen and damp, but you are a blessed person, Saxon, to have had so many such experiences. I’m sure you know it. Happy Solstice!

Your comments are humbling. Thank you kindly. I am indeed blessed and do appreciate the gifts I have received. I try to pass them along. – Saxon

from Mary Oliver The Swan “…. the path to heaven does not lie down in flat miles. It’s in the imagination with which you perceive this world, and the gestures with which you honor it.”

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