Find the photo – Magnolia glow

– Posted in: Garden Photography

I was recently commissioned to photograph a very special magnolia in a very special, private garden.  The resulting photo was to be a surprise gift, but with a limited budget, I only had access to the garden during a single afternoon when the owner was away.

It is the job of the professional to make something happen, even in difficult circumstances; and in garden photography any time you go into a new garden for one visit, it will difficult.  When I travel to photograph gardens I will try to allow three days for a shoot –  to get acquainted with the garden, to allow for bad weather, and learn how to use the morning and afternoon light.

Here,  not only did I have to get in and out of a garden I had never seen with-in four hours, it was a bright day and I could not stay until the soft light of dusk.  And when I arrived I found the Magnolia was backed up and pruned to fit around a garage.

Here is the garden; note the tree at the top.

So many lovely jewels to photograph but the Magnolia was the assignment.  I had to find the photo.

There is simply no good angle to photograph the whole tree.  The bare stark walls of the garage preclude any hope of finding a decent photo of the whole tree looking up at it, and because of the garage itself,  there is no way to get behind the other side of the tree.

But getting behind the tree and squeezing up against the wall I was able to view the tree in context of San Francisco.  Now the problem became how to deal the the hard contrasty light.

The good thing about bright light is that whites will photograph as true white and not get muddied up.  Since the magnolia flowers are white, I realized the best photo would be one that played to the strength of the light rather than its problem.  A few post production techniques back on my computer  might make this work.  I took the shot.

Back at the computer I would first open up the exposure then crop the photo to fill the frame with only those elements needed to tell the story.

The using some fill light and glow technique, the photo becomes something worth showing my client.

But still it doesn’t seem like a great photo.  Very good, professional and workmanlike considering the circumstance and location, but not one to frame.

Though I did want to show the tree in context of the garden or at least its location in San Francisco, the most striking photo would have to be of the flowers themselves.  In the sunny light of that day the garden presented me white flowers against a blue sky.  In photography we must take what the garden gives, and not to force our preconceived notions onto the garden.

I browsed through other photos I took that afternoon, looking to find another to show my client.

Cropping this one carefully makes a single flower the hero.

Using the same technique of adding a glow we get a really nice shot.

I think I found the photo.

For those who may want more info on this glow and a few techical tips on how I interpreted the photos with this technique, I invite you over to my Mental Seeds blog.


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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Cathy March 28, 2012, 6:52 am

Because of my lack of training and inexperience, I would have cropped your original photograph much differently and been quite satisfied with having a decent shot for my scrapbook (where most of my garden photos end up). But I wouldn’t have found THE photo, which makes a completely different impact altogether.

I learn so much by watching the process you go through to reach the final product. Your detailed explanations that accompany each step help me to understand why you make the decisions you do and as a student of technique, I find that most valuable. I doubt I’ll ever be able to master the techniques of computer manipulation (I can barely crop a picture and adjust the brightness.) but I’ll drop by your blog and try not to get too befuddled!

The “glow” you added to the magnolia blossoms captures their essence in a way that is magical and makes them look almost surreal. I love the way the shadows are softened and the harsh petal or leaf in the middle of the frame blends in and disappears. Your eye is naturally directed to the “target” or central blossom.

It’s a classic example of “less is more”. I would not have thought to focus on one single, perfect, pearlescent bloom to capture the essence of this gorgeous tree.

Thanks for a great lesson on focusing in on what is really “important” and central to the photograph.

Cathy – This is the perfect comment. Thank you. I do hope these lessons will help others find photos in their gardens and begin to think how best to show them. – Saxon

Margaret (Peggy) Herrman March 28, 2012, 8:40 am

Dee, lots of fabulous information and love your thought process. 🙂 I have so much to learn about photography. 🙂 thanks, peggy

Well Peggy I do appreciate your kind words but not sure who “Dee” is (though I can guess…) – Saxon

DAY March 28, 2012, 9:59 am

I guess you made the best of a “bad” situation.
What was the client’s desire? What was “special” about both the tree and the garden?
I assume that dictated your approach, and directed your professional”eye”.

The magnolia tree is quite rare and the owner is moving so my client (the owner’s friend) wanted photos as a surprise. We are still not sure which photo(s) to show. There are about 10 more possibilities. – saxon

Phil (Smiling Gardener) March 29, 2012, 7:08 am

Beautiful shots! Our magnolia started blooming last week in Ontario. Must be a record for earliest bloom time.

Wow ! That does seem quite early for Ontario. Hope there is no hard late freeze to set back all the other things that must be popping out. – Saxon

Debra Lee Baldwin April 4, 2012, 6:46 pm

Hi, Saxon — I love it when you share a problem and how you solved it. Good to know about glow. Were you tempted to get a ladder and climb up onto the garage roof and shoot the view down through the tree? Actually, a shot of you up there would have been pretty entertaining, too. ;+)

You really understand the problem and am smiling at the thought of me being stranded on that roof. I did get a ladder in the neighbors driveway and almost stepped on the roof from the top rung but realized 1) I was blocking their driveway, 2) the ladder might fall over as I stepped off it 3) I am too old to do this and 4) the view from the roof, in the hot light of day, would not be flattering to the tree. I younger man might have tried anyway. Sigh. – Saxon

Ian Cooke April 5, 2012, 1:18 pm

Lovely pics as always – personally I prefer the penultimate pic with the vivid blue sky – such a contrast with the pure white blooms.

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