Light Kisses

– Posted in: Garden Photography, Garden Visits

I am a light stalker with my camera.  Finding the best time and the best light to photograph a garden factors into every shoot.  These days I am challenging myself to bring sunlight into my photographs.

Mt Cuba Center pond morning light woodland garden

Whenever I give presentations and workshops, I always talk about light – about soft light versus hard light.  The worst light is bright noontime sun that creates harsh shadows and contrasty, metallic colors.  High fog, the equivalent of a studio softbox, has always been my hope, but recently I have been looking for sunlight.

Dawn on a clear morning.  Sigh. Breathe out.   Fresh, fresh, fresh clean light.  Relax and receive what can not be touched.    Dawn when all is possible.  Dawn, the promises of the day hint at exquisite joy.  Frame up the camera.  Study the composition.  Squeeze off a frame.

Mt Cuba pond with dawn reflections on water in woodland garden

Now run Saxon.  Run for the light while it holds.  You have not long here, and may never have this chance, in this garden again.   Run! Across that stone bridge, the light kisses the chairs !  Get it, before the sun rises another inch.

Chairs by pond in woodland garden

Breathe now, breathe, slow.  Focus.  focus.  Where to ?  Careful, turn slowly … drink it in … think .. what am I really seeing … seeing…  Oh, I bet these same chairs look good in this light from across the pond with  a telephoto lens.  Go.  The light will not wait.

environmentally-responsible, native plant sustainable garden

All this high drama comes from a shoot last week at Mt Cuba Center, the fabulous Delaware garden dedicated to the study of native plants of the Appalachian Piedmont.  Thank goodness I was granted early morning access so that this lumbering photographer with tripod slung over his shoulder like a bazooka and camera vest full of ammo (lenses) didn’t scare any visitors as he ran across the garden.

I went to Mt Cuba as part of a project on sustainable gardens.  I had visited 20 years ago and was most pleasantly pleased to see how little it had changed.  The same chairs, the same little row boat in the pond, the trees seemed to have hardly grown.  The garden had been sustained.  The only way to show sustainable gardens is not by talking about what might be, but by showing what is and what has been sustained.

Much more on this later, but this day I was not thinking about sustainability, or native plants, or exquisite gardens, I was caught up in the dawn’s early light.  Those of you who follow my postings here know I have been playing with sunlight in my photographs recently.  It is really hard to get it just right.  The light changes so fast at the beginning and end of the day, yet it can work because the shadow areas are not black holes and the dynamic range between the soft early light and the shade can be held with a good camera.

Dappled sunlight at edge of pond garden

This may look like a simple scene but the streak of early light that kissed this bed of native groundcovers and reflected in the pond happened in an instant (well, maybe five minutes) and was gone.  The photographer has to be there, be ready, and know what is happening.  The shadows are not yet dense in the early morning and the sunlight is not yet bright.  The chairs in the shade convince us it is a garden, the rocks in the water give us some balance, and the lit groundcovers give us triangles and direction for the composition.

The woodland garden provided more time to work with the sunlight than an open garden would, as the overall lighting is still shady.  Note how in all these photos there is a definite sense of light but it is coming through trees – shade still dominates.  I think this is the trick I am learning.  Work in the soft light of shade but find light streaking in.  Overexpose and back light sometimes, underexpose sometimes to let the highlights be correct.  Such as this Trillium.

yellow wakerobin shady woodland wildflower

A couple hours after sunrise the light was getting hard and I thought I was done with my experiments with sunlight, but still walking the garden and retreating into the true shade.  I saw these Wakerobins and framed up a shot just as a most gentle streak of light moved across the woodland floor spotlighting leaves and flowers as it wandered.  I was just plain lucky to already have my camera and tripod set up and ready to photograph light kisses.

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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Jo - New Zealand May 24, 2010, 5:28 am

oh *sigh* just gorgeous, romantic soft and dreamy – beautiful garden, beautiful shots I love it!
Makes me miss England though!

*Sigh * is exactly the response I love to hear. Thanks Jo. But “miss England” ? for what ? For the woodland gardens of Mt Cuba in Delaware ? The dreamy paradise of New Zealand sounds good to me… – Saxon

Gail May 24, 2010, 7:48 am

Saxon, I can’t think of a better way to spend the morning then chasing sun kisses. What a treat it would be to be an apprentice and shadow you on a photo shoot. gail

Thanks Gail. Stay tuned for the apprenticeship thing. I am developing a workshop program that I will be taking on the road. – Saxon

Rothschild Orchid May 24, 2010, 8:52 am

That sounds way to energetic! Your photos are dreamy though. I’m afraid I go with the flow when I go to a garden. Sometimes I am blessed and the light dances for me, and I am like something possessed with the camera, other times when the light is poor I just enjoy the plants and leave the camera in its bag.

Love the post title,

RO xx

I really do try to “go with the flow” myself and keep an open and almost blank mind to what I expect to see when I approach a garden shoot. Then, if things click, I go on auto-pilot, get excited, and turn on my camera, and like you become something possessed with teh camera.

Thanks for the comments – Saxon

allanbecker-gardenguru May 24, 2010, 9:43 am

This has got to be one of the best garden posts of the season. The subject is captivating, the writing is top notch and the photos are sublime.

Now I am blushing … “captivating… top notch … sublime”. I see this on the promo page of my next book. [g] Thanks, garden guru – Saxon

Cameron (Defining Your Home) May 24, 2010, 11:06 am

Another great lesson for us!

As a traveler, I run into the problem of not wanting to carry a large, heavy camera to Europe. I travel with only one carry on bag and no checked luggage. Yes, my bag (and I’m a woman…weighs only 22 lbs).

So… would you kindly suggest some pocket-sized point-and-shoot cameras for those who want to take “pretty good” photos without carrying around an extra 2-5 lbs of equipment? 🙂 I took my “big” camera to Monet’s garden last year, but this year, I took a pocket camera to the South of France since I wasn’t visiting gardens.


There are quite a few excellent small cameras. My advice is always choose your price range, then go to a store and handle them. Like any tool, it must feel right in your hands. That said, I recently bought my first real pocket camera, other than the one I use for the family. I narrowed my choices down to 2 the Panosonic Lumix DMC-ZS3 and Canon G11. Won’t tell you which I bought (no un-paid endorsement from me [g]) but there are great reason to choose either. – Saxon

Beyond My Garden May 24, 2010, 11:23 am

Sunny mornings waiting as the fog falls into perfect light are moments I live for. With camera in hand I walk my garden and surrounding woods taking the same shot over and over again as the light changes bringing a new view to the same spot. Thanks for the lovely pictures and words.

Nicely said. I know very well of wandering around “taking the same shot over and over as the light changes”. – Saxon

Sheila May 24, 2010, 11:26 am

Beautiful! I am blessed to live by the coast where the overcast days of May and June lend themselves to easy photos. the other day someone in the garden at dusk commented on the “luminescent quality of the garden” at that time. Now I have to learn to shot at dusk!

Interesting you mention dusk. It is a reliably good time to take color photos. For 30 minutes or so after the sun does down, the color of the light in the sky is very good even though the eye does not see it and it seems murky. Should use a tripod though. – Saxon

healingmagichands May 24, 2010, 12:49 pm

Saxon, your photographs are an inspiration and a thing of great beauty.

I find it interesting that as I was buried deep in my weeding chores yesterday I was actually musing about your last post and wondering exactly why it is that dawn light is better than dusk light. I came to the conclusion that it must be because during the dark and damp hours of the night the pollen and the dust of the day before settle and so the light is purer somehow. It is fascinating to me that I was musing and wondering about this, and then today I receive an answer in the form of another wonderful series of photographs.

Your dawn photographic journey is certainly a wonderful example of why early light is magical.

And it does change so fast, I have lost some great images because I had to run into the house for the camera and by the time I got back the light was gone. So frustrating.

Thank you for being our envoy of Eos and capturing her beauty for us, and then being generous enough to share it with us.

The daylight IS cleaner in the morning for exactly the reasons you suggest though it is not just the pollen and dust that settle at night, it is the pollution that changes the color of the light. The resulting warmer light is also why photos after sundown can be good – the color of the light, while seeming murky is actually pretty nice. – Saxon

Christine May 24, 2010, 3:00 pm

Nice post. I agree, light is the key to a good snap in the garden. When we are in our own, we have the luxury of knowing the best time of day to shoot. When visiting, it certainly is more of a challenge.

I often don’t even take a camera into a garden I am visiting the first time, especially if it is middle of the day light. So disappointing. – Saxon

Mr. McGregor's Daughter May 24, 2010, 4:24 pm

This post is such a contrast to Susan’s impression of your photographing methods. You sound as frantic as the rest of us. (And here I was picturing you as photographic Zen master.) The images are inspiring. I need to learn how to capture the sunlight in the woodland garden. Your Trillium photo is quite a lesson in itself.

In Susan’s garden the light was quiet and I had never visited before. Much is gained by contemplating the garden before photographing it. At Mt. Cuba I had been in the garden the afternoon before my sunrise shoot. I had a god idea of what the garden might offer – if only I was quick enough to let The Force guide me (quickly). [g] – S

Salix May 24, 2010, 6:21 pm

Saxon, absolutely gorgeous and breathtaking! I am not yet at the point where I plan photo sessions and the frustration can be huge when you want to capture something in the garden (that you just noticed when working outside) and the sun is shining from a blue sky. The images that show up on your computer screen are nothing at all what your eyes saw earlier.
I do take in your advice, though and love to learn more.

Thanks for the kind words Lene. Why don’t you “plan” a photo shoot the same day as a gardening day. At the end of your gardening day, add an hour or so, wash up, put the tools away, get a refreshing drink, and wander back to the garden to do the photo shoot. Do this twice and you will be much less disappointed with what you see on you computer screen. – Saxon

Alan Detrick May 25, 2010, 7:56 am

Hi Saxon:

Run, Run, Run. Look At The Light. Out of the Way. Hurry, Hurry, Hurry. It will never be the same.!!! What a Blast.
It Doesn’t Get Much Better Than This.


How nice to have master photographer Alan Detrick himself comment, knowing full well the short window of opportunity we photographers have when working a garden. Those of you who may know his book of macro photography will learn a few tricks of how to actualy get some great photos in tough light. – Saxon

The Intercontinental Gardener May 25, 2010, 3:20 pm

I love your Trillium picture, it really captures the often mystic atmosphere of a woodland garden. Wonderful.

Thanks. It was truly a serendipitous photo. The tiny shaft of light moved through the woodland as quickly as the earth rotates and I watched both captivated and motivated as it moving in the direction of my composition; truly it seemed, at light speed because I had to shift my tripod around a wee bit to make it work and only got one frame in the camera. By the time I tried to recompose a new angle the light had wandered away. – Saxon

Debra Lee Baldwin May 25, 2010, 5:39 pm

Hi, Saxon — I recently was in Arizona, and my only chance to visit a the famed Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix was mid-day. I went ahead and shot whatever seemed worthy (and that I wanted to remember) and I was surprised at how my Canon EOS Rebel rose to the challenge…and how I did, too, when it came to working with harsh, difficult light. Three hours went by before I knew it…in 100 degree heat…and although the results turned out better than I expected, I can only wonder how much better the photos would have been if I’d been able to play with late afternoon’s slanted light.

Let us know when you’re doing a workshop, OK?

Debra Lee – Thanks for taking the time to comment. Knowing your own skills with the camera I am sure you got some good photos working in that sharp light, but often photos will look much better and show greater range on a computer monitor than can be captured for a book because of the translucent light – like slides and stained glass windows. These can look much better than print which is a reflective art media.

The promise of more and more electronic media may very well mean a broader range of photos will show well, but looking good on a monitor and in print are two different things. – Saxon

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