Bright Light

– Posted in: Garden Photography

For a recent photo shoot the client asked that I show the garden with bright colors and blue sky.  I almost always resist photographing gardens in bright light because the colors get contrasty and the shadows are often deep and impenetrable, but this particular garden was designed for big light, high on a sunny Marin County hill overlooking San Francisco.

Tiburon garden with golden gate bridgeIn the summer when this garden is most colorful, the garden literally closes up when the sun goes down – being full of Iceplants (Delosperma) and African Daisies (Dimorphotheca) which begin closing several hours before sundown – just about the time I normally expect to get my best photos.  And blue sky ?  Nearly absent in all my work because I work in soft light and sky color will always burn out or be avoided.

So what was I supposed to tell my client ?  That I couldn’t make a good picture of the garden the way he saw it ?  In fact, I thought about saying just that, thinking I could make the picture but it I wouldn’t consider it good.  As it turned out, I kept my mouth shut, knowing I would take lots of pictures throughout a long afternoon and would find photos that at least pleased me.

It would be a long post describing my thought process as it unfolded during the shoot.  Many fine photos were made, some with post production digital tricks, some by finding angles that were not dependent on the colorful flowers, some by letting the bright light be bright.  And that was the most fun part of the shoot.

The photo I feature here began as a nice enough composition.  I was on a ladder looking down on the garden with views of the Bay, Sausalito, and the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance.   There is good weight to the key elements, the water and sky, the path and shrub border, the main garden bed nicely fills up the lower left corner with a spot of red on the bench to make you wonder what else might be going on in this garden.  The eye is pulled through the garden and, along with the with the arms of the bench, we are pointed to the bridge.

Nice enough, but it doesn’t do its main job of showing a garden in bright light. So let’s open up the exposure.

garden with view of San Francisco

At first blush this seems washed out, like an old postcard.  Greetings From Sunny California !  But is is not really all washed out.  I kept the blue sky and red cushion.  On a bigger screen you would want to squint at this photo, wondering if sunglasses were needed because the light is so bright.  A garden in the sun.

When I showed this to my client I suggested it would make a nice print.  On a heavy, watercolor paper and a simple frame this could make a charming picture, one that the straight print can not do.  The first photo is just a photograph of a garden with a view.  The light one is about the garden, not literally the garden.

So I broke a few rules.  The camera always lies.  But I got bright light in a garden photograph.  I have a mood.

So why not take it one step further?  Digital photography offers so many possibilities.  Hmmm … watercolor paper would mean detail is not important…..   So, I begin to play with some PhotoShop painterly filters.  I boost the blue sky to accent the clouds.  I saturate the red, so you really want to know why it is there and what else is beyond.

Art photo, Tiburon garden overlooking San Francisco

Now we have a picture about a garden in the sun with blue sky.

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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Salix June 7, 2010, 7:36 am

If not a photgrapher, who would know that they are all the same photo shoot?
I wonder which one the client likes the best og his garden?

I have lots of coverage from that shoot that shows, what I think, are better shots in the softer late afternoon light. I know the client likes the brighter one from this time of day. They have not seen the watercolor version quite yet. I just did it for me. – Saxon

Monica the Garden Faerie June 7, 2010, 10:26 am

It warms my heart that I’m not the only one who has trouble with bright sun and flower colors–not that I’m even a photographer. Love the watercolor version. I’m wondering, did you ever speak at Matthaei Botanical Gardens in Ann Arbor? A very knowledgeable and funny photographer spoke there once and I’m thinking your name sounds familiar. 🙂

Have not been to Ann Arbor, though I will be making more speaking engagements in the next couple years … Saxon

Town Mouse June 7, 2010, 11:30 am

Oh, and here I hoped that finally the secret of making great photos in bright light would be revealed. But alas, it is not to be. I’m always especially frustrated that the sky is never as blue as it really is…
Back to getting up early.

You were thinking somehow I would provide a lazy photographic solution to bright light, eh ? – Saxon

keewee June 7, 2010, 12:24 pm

That is absolutely stunning.

Thanks. I sure is fun to play with the computer and be able to make an image you see in your head… Saxon

healingmagichands June 7, 2010, 1:45 pm

Maybe not a lazy solution, but some solution. . .?

We amateurs are always hoping.

I really like the watercolor rendition, it captures the mood nicely.

I can relate to your client. I love the way my garden looks in the bright sun, and wish that it would translate into the photo medium. As you have so succinctly told us, early morning or late afternoon gets a much better picture. Some morning I’m going to actually get my lazy body out of bed early enough to try the dawn’s early light. . . I suppose that means I will have to go to bed earlier than this night owl is accustomed to.

The days are so long now in June, I am wondering if I should just stay up all night and sleep during the day (g) – Saxon

ian magnus June 7, 2010, 10:46 pm

Well, I’m glad you kept your mouth shut because the shoot was just spectacular. Love the impressionistic treatment of the photo – as I believe that gardens are impressions punctuated by details. Thanks Saxon.

Thanks for dropping by Ian (who is the garden designer and challenged me to photograph in bright light) … Saxon

Mr. McGregor's Daughter June 7, 2010, 11:28 pm

Ah, yes, the challenge of flowers that are photo-sensitive. I like your solution. Much more fun than waiting for intermittent cloud cover & dashing off a quick shot before the sun returns full strength.

Over time, I have certainly tried the “wait for a cloud” method when trying to capture flowers that need sun to open. This can be quite challenging in California where there are no clouds during the day in summer time (g). Even so, the quality of light when the sun is behind a small cloud is terrible, very blue and dull. Complete overcast or fog can be great, but when there is still lots of blue sky and no actual sun, professional garden photos are almost a waste of effort. – Saxon

Debra Lee Baldwin June 9, 2010, 12:47 pm

Hi, Saxon — Good to know I’m in not alone when it comes to frustrations with trying to get a landscape shot in bright sun.

I absolutely LOVE the second version. It’s a work of art, a perfect interpretation of the scene, and has the mood of early plein-aire paintings of California.

As for the watercolor version, I’m not sure…the red in the lower left is a bit distracting. The composition needs more red somewhere—the suggestion of geraniums in the flower beds, perhaps. Or maybe the bench needs to face into the scene rather than out of it.

Debra Lee – Great to get some photography feedback. Point well taken about some more red. Perhaps just a bit of the exact red in the flower border. If I ever get the time to actually play with this I might go into one of those pink iceplants and change the color.
I like the bench facing out of the frame … to who knows what. A bit of tension and a bit of a question. – Saxon

meredith french June 13, 2010, 5:39 pm

I prefer light later in the day and if I am forced to shoot mid day – I use a polarizer to reduce glare and saturate color. If I am dealing with bright whites, yellows – I will underexpose. This seems to be just the opposite of your solution.

The polarizer and underexposure gives deep rich color and is certainly a look I have used too. I find the shadows go too deep for print reproduction (web reproduction is more forgiving…) and am playing with new ways to interpret the light – Saxon

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