Why I Love Light (and a Selfie Suggestion)

– Posted in: Garden Musings, Garden Photography, Succulents
Don't care for cactus? Maybe you've never seen it backlit!

Don’t care for cactus? Maybe you’ve never seen it backlit!

Garden writer and photographer Bren Haas, when interviewing me about my career and books, asked if I’d had a mentor for my photography or painting. I told her, “Light is a great teacher. I become transfixed when I see sunlight glittering on leaves, shadow patterns, or some lovely translucence. I’m uncomfortable in the presence of ‘wrong’ light—i.e. a windowless room with fluorescent lighting.”

In “light” of this, I challenge you, dear GGWers, to pause for a moment to notice the illumination around you. Does it come from a window, lamp or electronic device? What would your environment be like, right now, with no artificial light source? I find it fascinating that light doesn’t weigh anything. You can’t touch it, hoard it, or give it away. Yet our lives depend on it. Without sunlight we—indeed, planet Earth—would cease.

Nasturtiums, admiring their own shadows

Nasturtiums, admiring their own shadows.

Imagine living as our ancestors did, in nighttimes without light. They paid attention to phases of the moon, and if it was waning (or hidden by clouds), they hurried home before dusk. For centuries people relied on candles and—since a puff of wind could plunge them into darkness—lanterns. Nowadays we romanticize candlelight, but imagine using it to guide a horse down a rutted country road. Or preparing dinner by its dim glimmer.

Light, culturally and iconically, is identified with purity and goodness; darkness with danger and malevolence. People who have near-death experiences invariably recall seeing a shining light. It’s no wonder the ancients worshipped the sun. Even now, to imply the existence of a perfect, omniscient, omnipresent deity, one needs only to capitalize the word Light.

Sunlight reveals the veining of a trumpet flower.

Sunlight reveals the veining of trumpet flowers.

When you photograph someone, you’re capturing the way light reveals their features. The best photographers know how to manipulate light, and prefer to shoot people or objects in a studio’s controlled setting. Outdoor photographers are at the mercy of the sun: there’s not much you can do if it’s too bright, or shadows are murky and unrevealing.

Professional garden photographer Saxon Holt talks a lot about light in his posts here on GGW, which are as entertaining as they are enLIGHTening. I defer to Saxon when it comes to photo tips, tutorials, and hard-won observations. However, I believe he’s yet to explain how to take a selfie that makes you look 20 years younger.


There’s sun behind me, streaming through a window, and a hanging lamp that brightens what otherwise would be a too-dark area. Putting yourself in shade and letting light into the lens will make your features less detailed—after all, light can be cruelly revealing. The lack of it on my face blurs lines and other imperfections. The viewer’s eye fills in the rest, correcting what’s unseen and subconsciously improving it. (I’m not kidding. And thank you.)

So, did I plan it that way? No. This was a happy accident. The main reason I chose it to show you is the tank top, which I simply had to have (can you guess why?) It’s also the portrait shot on my @DebraLBaldwin Instagram page, where I post photos of my specialty, succulent plants.  Saxon also is on Instagram, (@SaxonHolt) often showing rapturous photos of the countryside near his home in Northern CA, taken on walks with photogenic Border Collie, Kona—whom I suspect he has trained to sit and stay.

Three of Saxon's Instagram posts

Three of Saxon’s Instagram posts.

But canine photo props are another story. (Hey Saxon, how about telling us how and why you use Kona to enhance your photos?)

Here’s the rest of Bren Haas’ interview with Yours Truly.  Be sure to enjoy the luscious photos on Bren’s Creative Living website, too!

Debra Lee Baldwin
Award-winning garden photojournalist Debra Lee Baldwin authored Designing with Succulents, Succulent Container Gardens, and Succulents Simplified, all Timber Press bestsellers. Her goal is to enhance others' enjoyment and awareness of waterwise plants and gardens by showcasing the beauty and design potential of succulents via books, articles, newsletters, photos, videos, social media and more. Debra and husband Jeff live in the foothills north of San Diego. She grew up in Southern California on an avocado ranch, speaks conversational Spanish, and at age 18 graduated magna cum laude from USIU with a degree in English Literature. Her hobbies include thrifting, birding and watercolor painting. Debra's YouTube channel has had over 3,000,000 views.
Debra Lee Baldwin
Debra Lee Baldwin
3 comments… add one

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saxon November 21, 2016, 2:44 pm

Thanks DL – nice job connecting light to everything we do. Yes, Kona dog is very well trained and you can often see her impatience in her poses

Laura Balaoro November 21, 2016, 5:42 pm

Wow! Really interesting. Thanks for the lesson . You look great.

Bren Haas November 21, 2016, 6:49 pm

Thank you so much for sharing the interview I had with you. Your book and calendars are still at the top of my list of favorites. IT is always a delight to see your post on social media and to be mentioned in your blog is an honor.

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