Photographing the Light

– Posted in: Garden Photography

holt_287_6898.CR2 I love the morning light when photographing gardens.  Gardens are fresh, the air clean, and the light is sweet.

It is nearly impossible to work in the hot sunny light when the brightest colors take on a contrasted, metallic look and the shady areas become black holes.  In California where there is little humidity in the air, the window of opportunity for garden photography and the soft morning light is usually gone within two hour of sunrise.  More humid climates can push that window since the natural haze cuts the glare and helps the light surround and soften the scene.

Even so, for purely practical reason, I usually recommend that my students work in late afternoon.  It’s simple – you don’t have to get up before dawn and get into the garden before the sun comes up – this time of year before 6.  The late afternoon light is also soft and slants in from the side just like the morning.  Not quite as clean, but often warmer.

But whenever I have the choice, and the garden is one I already know (and don’t have to learn about pre-dawn), I love the morning light.


Inside the Woodland Garden at Filoli

Recently I was working in Filoli when about 8 a.m. one of the gardeners gave me a big smile and complimented the “great light”,  which was by then, too bright to work in most of the garden.  The sun was full on the trees in the Woodland Garden across from where we stood.  I explained the light might be good from behind the trees, but in front of them.

Wait a minute !  Umm, if that is my advice, then why was I still working against the light, struggling in the formal garden ?!  I took my own advice and learned a lesson I already knew.  Work with the light.

The Woodland Garden is separated from the other gardens so light comes in from the side.  It becomes a bright wall outside and leaks in through the trees and through the entries.


Using the concept that the eye is drawn to bright areas, a photographer can use light to draw the eye when creating a composition.  In these shade garden photos, I am photographing the light.  The light beyond the garden is the fundamental concept behind my thought process.  In each I am think how the light will affect the composition

These next two photos are taken from exactly the same spot;  one with one-third sky above the garden wall, the other with two thirds sky.  Each has a distinct story.   A photo with equal sky and garden would be confusing.

Gravel path in woodland garden morning light.

Gravel path in Filoli Woodland Garden with morning light.


Morning light in Filoli Woodland Garden with gravel path

In the e-book I will explain more about exposure and color balance using these two photos, but it all begins with the light.

After leaving the Woodland Garden I kept seeing light patterns.  Through and between the leaves of this weeping Camperdown Elm, I am still photographing the light.



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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Donna May 11, 2014, 7:25 pm

I did not realize that the humidity plays such a role. Now I realize why photographing in San Francisco was so much different. What worked here did not there during mid-day shooting, like was during the times we visited most gardens. Thank you for that pointer.
Thanks for dropping by Donna – It was unusually bright here for the blogger’s fling. Often we get fog and with it some humidity. The really tough light is inland California and the SouthWest – Saxon

Steve Mullany May 12, 2014, 1:20 pm

Saxon, thanks for the new tip about humidity and its relation to natural haze. That helps explain more about the “harsh” quality of our midday California light. It is certainly different than the midsummer light I have experienced in the humid midwest and south.

Yesterday our coastal winds in Nipomo were kicking up and that usually means dust particles from the nearby dunes. Very noticeable haze in the air compared to earlier in the day. Now I think the humidity in the sea breeze must also be a factor, even when the winds are tamer and the dust isn’t bad.

Hi Steve – Yeah, Coastal Ca often has some humidity in the marine layer, as we call it and those dust particles that kick up even in less windy areas is another reason I like the morning. – Saxon

Pete Veilleux May 12, 2014, 1:38 pm

Thank you for the reminder of the morning light! I’ve been frustrated lately w/ the deep contrast of my photos, and the solution was as simple as time of day. thanks again!

Hi Pete – Yeah “contrasty” is exactly the right word, but saying the time of day is a simple solution until you realize ti take advantage of the early light, ya gotta getup at 4:30 to get on location before 6. Not so simple (but worth it …) – Saxon

Carol May 14, 2014, 11:40 am

I am just trying to learn photography, and your comments about light were incredibly helpful. Having the photos to demonstrate really worked for me.

Thanks Carol – Learning to work with the light is important with any photography, but with garden photography it is almost a secret trick. – Saxon

Carol May 14, 2014, 11:41 am

I live in San Francisco, and the fog seems to create the best light.

Yes Carol, fog creates unbeatable soft light. When I first became a garden photographer, I was living in SF and got so dependent on fog I neglected the magic of sunlight. Of course, in the height of summer in the City, one does not have a choice of working with sunlight… there rarely is any … – Saxon

Aqua Nature May 25, 2014, 8:01 am

As a professional landscaper, I find that the best time to take pictures of my work is at sun up and sun down. The reflections and colors are much more brilliant, it seems that the worst time to take a picture is at noon time when the sun is directly above.

I always suggest early morning or late afternoon for garden photography, but for flower details and close-ups when you can use a scrim to soften the light as I did with the clematis, bright sun can be best simply because it is bright and you can get more depth of field -Saxon

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