Light Decisions

– Posted in: Garden Photography

The steep hill behind me faces north, and in the dead of winter the sun never clears the hill to shine on my house.  But now, a month well past the equinox, it has crept north enough to slant through my oak trees.  With glorious spring rains the light glows through the grass.

Capturing light is one of the hardest photographic challenges and yields some of the most exciting photos when you can find something special.  I love shooting with backlight – shooting into the sun, to capture the glow. The biggest challenge is not lens flare, or the contrast, or the washed out color.  All these can create mood if done with intention.  The challenge is to know what mood to capture because the camera meter will not help you.

A camera meter is calibrated to produce “average” exposure.  It will read all the light values in the frame and combine the information to equal a neutral gray. Ever wondered why a snow scene comes back gray ?  The camera meter thinks it is seeing something that is neutral gray.  Unless the photographer over-rides this and uses manual controls to correct the exposure, the meter will faithfully make every frame a mix of tones that equals average gray.

When there are dramatic differences between the bright and dark areas, such as backlit landscape scenes, the photographer really has to know what to tell the meter.  Manual controls are a must (or a good knowledge of PhotoShop).  In this case I felt all kinds of moods.  I took many exposures as a cop-out.

My first mood I felt was being pulled out of the shadowy woods into the light of the setting sun. I underexposed the settings my meter suggested, knowing the “average” setting in the first frame (at the top of this post) would not accent the shadows enough to set the mood.

moody sunset through oak trees

But as I stood there for a moment, feeling the wonderful power of the sun, the light surrounded me.  I overexposed my camera and let the light dominate the mood.

sunset bright light through oak trees

Now that I have several very different photos, I am still not sure which one I like:  drama ?  light ? rich ? airy?  I should be more decisive, finish this photo, and move on.  Hmmmm.  I put off my decision while I look at other photos I took this afternoon.

In the grass, on the far right past a Madrone tree, are the native Grass Iris (I. macrosiphon) only a few inches tall.  I literally stopped dead in my tracks when I saw their glorious blue.  They are new to my hill this year.  I will play with my flower picture and let you guys decide which sunset photo has the strongest mood.

California native wildflower - Iris macrosiphon

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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Gayle Madwin May 10, 2010, 4:55 am

I prefer the middle one, with the most shadows. But if it were mine, I’d play with it in Photoshop a bit longer. I might darken the tree trunks a bit more, and lighten the grass.

I don’t think I’d be able to explain why, though. Aesthetics are strange that way.

I love hearing other perspectives. and oh yes – aesthetics are strange that way – Saxon

Debi May 10, 2010, 7:31 am

I love all three for different reasons – those you’ve already expressed, but even more for reasons that are deep within me. Today, I prefer the darker, moodier photo because it captured my imagination, but tomorrow I might prefer another for a different reason. What a lovely area – I could have stayed there for hours if I were you. Maybe you did.

Every time I look at many of my “final” photos I think ot other moods,perhaps just subtle changes but it is what makes the hand-made print so special,

I didn’t stay there for hours – the light was changing so fast; but I walk there on my hill every day and marvel at the changing seasons. – Saxon

Mr. McGregor's Daughter May 10, 2010, 10:13 am

I agree, the slightly underexposed shot appeals to me also. Its dramatic shadows create a stronger mood than the other two.

I used to automatically go for the darker more saturated image but find recently that light is infusing everything I do. The mood I want is to be overwhelmed with a glow. I am still working on it and it is hard to convey, but backlighting is key – Saxon

Window On The Prairie May 10, 2010, 12:32 pm

I vote for the middle one. Even exposure.

“Correct” exposure is a tricky concept when the display media is a computer monitor. The light comes from behind and bright areas wash out while dark areas can seem especially rich. Playing with this bright back lit medium is part of my experiment. – Saxon

Eliza May 10, 2010, 6:26 pm

I love the first and last ones best… but it was a hard decision (that I didn’t really make, since I chose 2). 😉

They all convey different moods. This is part of the fun – and the dilemma. – Saxon

Craig @ Ellis Hollow May 10, 2010, 8:55 pm

Consider publishing your climax photo more than 300 pixels wide. In fact, you should start talking to your co-bloggers about going to a new design where you could render your work at least 600 pixels wide. After all, that’s just 2 inches in print.

Good point and one of the problems of any blog site that features photos. Despite the great response we get from our pictures we are still a text / information blog not a photo blog. Our format is limited to 400 at the moment.

I am experimenting with links to larger photos through my PhotoShelter account, and even my own blog, but for the moment small is what we get. It is not as frustrating to me as you might think. I have been making gallery prints as large as 60 inches; so whether or not my blog size is 300 or 900 pixels it is still way too small to show the way I would like. – Saxon

Jean at Dig, Grow, Compost, Blog May 11, 2010, 8:21 am

Thank you for posting about this. I have the situation in my yard where many of the best shots would be shooting into the sun. So I tend to cop out by just not doing it. But what the heck, I need to experiment as you did. For what it’s worth, I like the second photo. But like you said, it depends on what mood you want.

In general it is usually very difficult to shoot gardens in any type of sun. Don’t let that prevent you from taking photos. Most of us don’t want to get up before dawn, but the light at dusk can be really nice.

– Saxon

healingmagichands May 14, 2010, 11:00 am

Ha ha ha, most of us don’t want to get up before dawn. Boy is that ever the truth! Personally, I like the first two shots equally well, with maybe just a slight edge for the middle shot.

But the problem of shooting things that are infused with light has been an issue for me for quite a while. It seems like what my eye sees and brain interprets just doesn’t translate onto the camera, and I am disappointed every time. It doesn’t help that our brains are able to filter out items in the foreground (or background) of a shot that don’t contribute to the overall feeling, and then when you are in front of the computer that hose or down pipe or the house next door are blatantly obvious and distracting.

That blue iris is stunning. Irises are probably one of my favorite flowers to photograph because of the translucence of their petals and the incredible lushness of the moisture they display. I know I’m tooting my own horn, but I think you might like the iris shot I posted Tuesday. All those went on the blog straight from the camera as I had no time to fool with them and they seemed pretty ok to me. Hope you have time to stop by.

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