Back-lit Grasses

– Posted in: Garden Photography

Now that September has arrived I start looking at the grasses.  Or rather, they grab me.

Miscanthus sinensis 'Malepartus

Grasses grab the light and reveal the sun.   They dance in the wind; they rustle and whisper.  By  this time of the year their flowers have become seed heads beckoning the birds.  With such dynamic inspiration on so many levels, grasses should grab any photographer to grab the camera and go out to grab some fun.

It’s a great time to break some camera rules and play with light and contrast. The best photos will come from finding a dark, shady area in the garden to be the background for bright high-key, back-lit grasses.  I sometimes like shooting almost straight into the sun allowing for some lens flare to create mood.  This often washes out some of the dark areas and blurs the highlights as in the first photo, but the effect is exciting.

A lens shade will suppress the flare, as in the next photo: same grass from the same spot.  Both photos reveal the light and some of the character of Miscanthus sinensis ‘Malepartus’.

Backlit flower head of Miscanthus sinensis 'Malepartus'

Carefully composed in the garden and then with the camera, flowering grasses almost require back light to “see” their glory.  They work their magic any time of the year once they reach full flower, from summer to fall and into winter, where they can be the most dramatic element in a colorless garden.  When sunlight outlines their culms and glumes, gardens sparkle.

Ever since I worked with Nan Ondra on our Grasses book back in 2001 I have looked for opportunities to use grasses to bring sunlight into my garden pictures.  I can almost trace back that awakening to this exact picture in the wonderful garden of Linda Cochran.

garden of linda cochran, cortaderia richardii

The strategically placed specimen of Toe Toe grass (Cortaderia richardii) at the end of a garden bed allowed for this grass to light up the whole garden from various vantage points throughout the day.  The 10′ tall flowering spikes find the sun and harvest the light all day long.

Other times sunbeams themselves can be revealed as they stream into a garden, spotlighting next a groundcover lawn alternative of Pennisetum massiacum ‘Red Bunny Tails’ in a garden designed by John Greenlee.

pennisetum red bunny tails

Depending on how the photographer composes the frame we can see the whole sunbeam or just the spotlight.

vertical photo pennisetum red bunny tails

The photographer also has to be aware of proper exposure so that there is good detail in the bright, highlight areas and for the dark areas go dark enough to set off the backlit grass.  This often means underexposing the meter setting, which takes an “average” light reading.  For simple cameras without manual controls, there is usually a plus + or minus –  control on the ISO setting.  I would try at least one full stop minus; often it will take two.

For some grasses, the foliage itself can make a dramatic study in back light.  Some of the most magical color in the garden comes from the sun shining through foliage – think of the glow of tree leaves back-lit in autumn as the sun streams through a cathedral wood.  Nature’s inspiration for stained glass is the joyous color of transparent sunlight.

One of the wonderful grasses for fall foliage:  Love grass, Eragrostis elotti.

Love grass Eragrostis elotti

Next we see Vetiver Grass (Vetiveria zizanoides) which has been tied in bundles so it won’t flop over, leaving these towers here and there in a meadow garden for the sun to paint.

Vetiver Grass (Vetiveria zizanoides) backlit photo

Now is the time to find these photo compositions with light and line, to let shapes create the contrast and glow.  Remember to always try and fill your frame with meaningful elements – and let the sun shine in.

Panicum virgatum 'Dallas'Blues'

Here is a gallery of more photos on my PhotoBotanic Archive.  Grasses – Backlit.  Now go have some fun with your own camera.

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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elaine rickett September 10, 2011, 5:10 am

Beautiful pics – sadly my small garden would be swamped if I grew grasses, but I can appreciate them in other peoples gardens.

Sorry Elaine, but having a small garden is no excuse for not having grasses. There are many small ones, even grass-like plants like Acorus and Carex offer wonderful shape,though admittedly not the same delicate flowers of the true grasses. I would suggest putting one choice grass, maybe a Deschampsia?, into a pot in a quiet place until it flowers, then put it near a window to catch the light and reveal the sun. – Saxon

Donna September 10, 2011, 7:06 am

Grasses are beautiful in the garden sunlight and your photographs. The first shot has so much rich mood and artistic presence. The second has the sparkling detail. I learned a tip too on the lens hood. I have always thought it a nuisance, but saw a pro taking photos at the Falls and his lens was equipped with a shade and mine only a polarizing filter. I asked to see his photo after watching him shoot for a while and it was so pretty in comparison to what I was imaging. He also explained the value of his shade and you both have convinced me to give it a try since I always do seem get distracting flare. It was coincidence too since we we shooting grasses and you posted on them. I may go back and reshoot my photos again and see if your tips here help my resulting photos. I was going to post mine, but now I will retry. Thanks again for a very helpful post.

Donna – I am so pleased you are working with these ideas. I must tell you I NEVER use an actual lens shade, as they are so bulky to carry and each one must be matched to its own lens. I almost ALWAYS use my hand to shade my lens, even when I don’t think there is any flare. – Saxon

Cynthia Newby September 10, 2011, 9:04 am

Beautiful and also great advice!

Thanks Cynthia – Now go use that advice yourself and have some fun. – Saxon

Patrick's Garden September 10, 2011, 10:15 am

Simply stunning images especially the first two. Like nothing I’ve seen before. This is the same realm as one my favorite books, The Garden at Night with photography by Christopher Dewdney, a bargain book at Amazon. Keep up the great work on your blog.

Thanks Patrick. Hollywood learned long ago that simply underexposing a scene will make it look like night. (Worked OK with film noire at least…) – Saxon

Nicole Gjeldum September 10, 2011, 2:09 pm

Just beautiful..I too am taken by grasses this time of year. Your photos actually capture the warmth that the grasses exude…amazing! I have much to learn when it comes to photography. Great Post!

Thanks Nicole. As to learning more photography, the most fun advice is learn by doing.
– Saxon

Hoover Boo September 11, 2011, 8:13 pm

Corn tassels are also quite dramatic when backlit–and of course corn is grass, and doesn’t take up much space since it is so vertical.

Wheat is another “grass” that can make a great back-lit subject Thanks for sharing Hoover – Saxon

Cathy September 12, 2011, 8:31 pm

Saxon, your photographs are simply stunning (as are the ones in the book, which I have as well… I’m a “Nan Fan” LOL.)

We don’t have a lot of grasses in our yard but the ones we do have add texture, movement, and especially this time of year, another dimension to our beds.

I have to admit, a lot of the grasses growing in our beds right now are — um — weeds. (Yes, I really said that. EEK — Sorry!!)

The truth of the matter is that as the different perennials wind up their growing seasons and go dormant, we let the grasses take over a bit. The seeds blow in from the field and we let them grow and flower and fill some space with green. There are different ones in different places every year, and we also enjoy the variety.

But my favorite time to study and photograph these grasses are when winter comes and they are coated in ice crystals, glistening in the sun, and frozen in a semi-permanent bow (until the next warm day melts the ice). To me, that is when they are the most stunning in the gardens.

Cathy – I know what you men about admitting to letting a few “weed” grasses into the garden. Some look so wonderful, but they will dominate if you aren’t careful. I don’t get any ice so I can’t relate to your winter grasses. (No, I’m not rubbing it in …) – Saxon

Cathy September 12, 2011, 8:37 pm

PS… your first photo looks amazingly similar to one I took a couple of years ago in the winter at sunset! The orange sun was reflected in the ice crystals and on the snow. I had to take a second look when I saw the first picture in your post! Which just shows how versatile grass and light truly is. 😉

A universal subject — S

Cathy September 13, 2011, 9:53 am

Saxon, I absolutely hear you about some weeds’ tendency to dominate. With a half acre garden, there is plenty of opportunity for that to happen!

We try to be very meticulous about culling out anything that develops a tap root (like thistles and milkweed) or that can easily and quickly get out of control (like bindweed, which we restrict to the fence, and vetch, which we pull no matter where it grows).

Many of the grasses and other “wildflowers” have shallow roots and especially this late in the season, they won’t have an opportunity to grow an invasive root structure. We leave them for the winter and pull them when we do our spring cleaning.

Since our beds are heavily mulched with a thick layer of compost and the grasses and some of the more attractive “weeds” sprout in the top inch or two of the compost, they are easy to pull when weeding, either now or in the spring.

Probably the biggest lesson we learned this year is that one woman’s weed is another woman’s wildflower and not everything that has been labeled a “weed” is a pest or a nuisnace. I used to religiously pull up every bit of spurge that found its way into my beds; however, taking a page out of one of Nan Ondra’s books, this year I allowed a bit to flourish near my hyssop and Russian sage and was rewarded with the lovely contrast of chartreuse and yellow against the lavender and purple.

In addition to the spurge, the “weeds” that have benefited the most by our newfound “tolerance” are switch grass and foxtail, which we have allowed some latitude, especially in the herb garden. They do looke nice along the fence, and late last fall and early last winter, they looked especially lovely with a dusting of snow. My biggest concession, though, was allowing Joe Pye weed and mullein to grow alongside one of our sheds…

,,, which just goes to show that you CAN teach an old dog new tricks!

Home Herb Garden September 14, 2011, 1:16 am

That is a really pretty photo! Never thought of or looked at grass this way. Thanks for a whole new perspective!

Glad you liked the photos. I think whenever you “see” grasses all lit up in the garden you will start to visualize photos this way too. – Saxon

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