Magnolia soulangeana – Portrait Session

– Posted in: Garden Photography, Trees and Shrubs

I was not planning a photo session when I went out to prune my Magnolia soulangeana.

Magnolia soulangeana flowering deciduous tree, flower buds on branch

It seems to have been raining all winter in here in California, and I never found the time to get my winter pruning done.  By the time I got around to pruning, the magnolia was just beginning to flower.

It is one of my favorite trees, and has a prominent spot at the entry to my garden.  A deciduous tree flowering in mid-winter, it never fails to make me think spring is upon us. It needs pruning every year so that I can keep it fairly small, as it lives under a towering oak tree.

Magnolia soulangeana flowering deciduous tree, after light pruning in winter

Putting off the pruning up until it was about the flower gave me the opportunity to bring some branches into the house. The next day flowers begin to open and I simply had to grab my camera. The magnificent sensuous flowers are full of life and grace.

Light coming through the glass doors leading to my deck created a wonderful glow, what studio artists sometimes call northern light.  It is soft and full and indirect. Perfect for portraits.

I brought in a large white card to reflect the light into the shadow side of the simple bouquet.

Magnolia soulangeana simple bouquet of flowering winter branches

Normally this sort of simple fill light opens up the shadows on the backside of a subject, the side away from the light.  But in this case it didn’t help, the white petals seems very flat, with no real zing.

Notice the difference between these next two photos.


Notice how the brighter light creates better texture and more definition for the highlights.  The flower looks more white even though there are some dark shadows.

I love these sorts exercises with photography.  I love the flowers require me to look carefully when I want to photograph them. I love playing with light to bring out the features.

With the same flower, but now taking advantage of the soft flat light, I can make the petals seem silky.

A different mood, a different portrait, but the exact same flower.

I had just cut  branches off the tree – tree to bouquet.

Work and play; sometimes it is hard to tell the difference for a garden photographer.


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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8 comments… add one

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Carole February 28, 2017, 8:41 pm

Stunning and good examples. Thank you.

Saxon Holt March 1, 2017, 2:38 am

Thanks Carole – I had great fun creating them

professorroush March 5, 2017, 12:03 pm

Love the exampleS of when “back fill” does or doesn’t actually improve the photo, Saxon!

Saxon Holt March 5, 2017, 7:33 pm

I was actually surprised how much better I liked its without the fill

chel April 17, 2017, 5:30 am

WOW,I’M AMAZED WITH THE USE OF large white card. I’ve always wanted to learn GARDEN PHOTOGRAPHY.Thanks for the tips!

Scott April 19, 2017, 9:18 am

What gorgeous photos Saxon! I really love them.

Saxon Holt April 21, 2017, 3:12 pm

Thanks Scott – It was fun to treat the flowers to a portrait session

John Anderson November 5, 2017, 6:30 am

Great Examples with Stunning Explanation and helping to know the difference between the photos with the same flowers.

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