A Simple Trick for More Dramatic Garden Photos

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March and April bring fresh new foliage back into our lives.

I love to capture this special time of year in photos, so that I can better recall at any time of year the brilliance and translucency of those young spring leaves.  But sometimes, when going through the day’s photos, I have found that they don’t capture the spirit of what I saw through the lens.

Turns out the secret is to shoot into the sun.  Here is one example of what I mean, right outside my front door:

salvia officinalis head on

Here’s a clump of culinary sage (Salvia officinalis) with the sun at my back.  The new foliage is coming on, a soft gray-green (sage green, if you will), but the photo is not too memorable.

salvia officinalis backlit

Moving around to the other side, the leaves are now lit up.

salvia officinalis backlit close up

Don’t be shy.  Take a good, close look.  See how nubbly the leaves are now!

nandina domestica head on

Here’s heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica).  No slouch in the color department with its evergreen (everpink?  everyellow?) leaves, but…

nandina domestica backlit

Get down on the ground and shoot up at the sky.  Zowie!  Keep in mind that these before and after shots are all of the same plants, taken on the same day, with the same camera.

cornus sericea head on

Here a redtwig dogwood (Cornus sericea) is sending out tender new leaves, but the shot is ho-hum.

cornus sericea backlit

From the other side it is exquisite.  I did hardly any editing on any of these photos.


euphorbia griffithii with glare

Shooting into the sun does create a lot of glare in your photos if you’re not careful.  The image will have a whitish haze like this pic of Euphorbia griffithii emerging or it will show bright spots of pink, purple, or orange.

euphorbia griffithii no glare

Just hold up your hand or a piece of cardboard to block the glare.  Be sure to keep your hand out of the frame!


syringa vulgaris head on

Who doesn’t welcome the first leaves of common lilac (Syringa vulgaris) in spring?  As of yet, unmildewed and perfect.

syringa vulgaris backlit

But that’s even more perfect.  You can even see the fuzz on the stems and leaf margins.


lonicera head on

Honeysuckles (Lonicera spp.) get leafy early, showing pink, purple, green, and blue pigments when viewed head-on,

lonicera backlit

and warm copper, gold, and burnished orange tones when illuminated from behind.

raspberries head on

Humble plants like the early-leafing raspberries can look much more dramatic

raspberries backlit

when the sun shines through their leaves instead of on them.

hemerocallis head on

The same goes for early-sprouting daylily foliage… a morning shot here looking west,

hemerocallis backlit

and the same plant, looking east into the rising sun.


cercidophyllum japonicum head on

Katsura (Cercidophyllum japonicum) is an early-leafing tree.  On some, the foliage comes out a butterscotch color, or more of a bronze-red, like this one, before turning green.

cercidophyllum japonicum backlit

With the sun behind it, you see how thin and delicate the leaves really are.  I wonder, what would a treeful of leaves like this look like?

cercidophyllum japonicum backlit whole tree

Probably something like this.  New copper pennies, freshly minted.


ulmus accolade head on

This ‘Accolade’ elm gets plenty of accolades from me.  Love those shiny, shiny, pleated leaves.

ulmus accolade backlit

But when I contorted my body to get a better shot, I was richly rewarded.


lyonothamnus floribundus head on

I do apologize to my friends back in the Midwest… This is Lyonothamnus floribunda ssp. asplenifolia, a very cool tree, unfortunately only hardy to Zone 8b.  Its evergreen leaves look like this head on,

lyonothamnus floribunda backlit

and like this when lit up.  In colder zones you could get the same effect with ferns later in the year.


spiraea goldflame head on

‘Goldflame’ spirea is much more accessible, and while it looks brilliant with the light over my shoulder,

spiraea goldflame backlit

it’s more fun to see it combust in the sunshine.


rose head on

Roses have some of the earliest foliage of all, and it’s not always green.  Many times it’s rose, red, or bronze.  In this light it’s a dull pink,

rose backlit close up

but in the sun it’s much more vibrant.


rose backlit whole plant

And here’s what the whole plant looks like.  You might have mistaken it for the ‘Goldflame’ spirea!


So much drama to be found, and with only foliage…  Imagine what effects the sun can have on flowers!  Cross your fingers for a nice, sunny day to come again soon, and I’ll charge my battery.

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4 Responses

  1. ricki
    ricki at | | Reply

    Nice tutorial…I can hardly wait to get out there and try it. C’mon sun!

  2. Brooke Berry Kroeger
    Brooke Berry Kroeger at | | Reply

    Great tips and great shots too!

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