As we all know, light is everything in photography. In the garden, I prefer early morning light or a lightly overcast day. Evenings can also be nice, but morning light is a bit softer, plants will look refreshed after a night of rest, insects won't be buzzing quite so furiously and you may even catch a few dewdrops before they evaporate. Fog and light mist can also generate some wonderful conditions, but they're much more difficult to anticipate.
But what do you do if you can't be there at sunrise and you're not dealt lightly overcast skies? This was one of those mornings for me. Sunrise is around 7am, but Longwood Gardens doesn't open it's gates until 9am. I slept a bit later (though I still had to get up and leave before dawn in order to beat rush hour traffic; it just meant that I ate breakfast on the other side of town). But beyond that, here's my strategy for shooting in less than ideal light:
1. Seek out shade--not dappled shade, but even shade beneath a dense tree canopy or adjacent to a building. There, the plants will be evenly illuminated so you can avoid the harsh contrast of direct or reflected light and deep shadows.
2. Move in close. It's easier to find small pockets of evenly lit subjects than broad areas. Put on your macro lens and have some fun.
3. Diffuse the light. I carry a medium-sized diffuser that folds (actually, it's more like a twisting action) into a small carrying bag. I can pop it out, hold it over a plant and have instant shade. A tripod and/or an assistant are essential for this trick.
4. Seek out architectural subjects in open light. Many buildings and even some plantings actually benefit from shadows. A perfect example this morning was the topiary garden at Longwood, where large, dense, evergreen shrubs are clipped into geometric shapes.
5. Shoot in a greenhouse, which acts as a light diffuser. Today, it was a massive conservatory with rooms planted in a variety of themes--the fern room, tropical rooms, the silver room for plants that love arid conditions, and more.
When all else fails and the sun is high in the sky, dare to put your camera away. Sometimes it's best just to relax and enjoy the garden!