Photography is the act of recording light on film or digital sensors. It’s not why we take photographs, but rather the principle behind how we take them. As photographers, we must attune our senses to the subtleness of light and shadow around us.
Soft light is generally preferred in botanical photography. We find it in the early morning just before sunrise, on lightly overcast days or in light shade. It accentuates the softness we see in the garden. As the sun rises in the sky, the light becomes brighter and the contrast between illuminated areas and shadows increases. This makes even the most beautiful garden or woodland area appear harsh. And because a camera cannot capture the same range of light and dark that the eye can see, this contrast is accentuated in a photograph. It’s why many photographers rise early, pack their cameras away midday, and then pull them out again as the sun is dropping in the sky. It is not impossible to take botanical photographs in midday on a sunny day, but it is definitely more challenging.
When we look at light, it is also important to pay attention to how that light interacts with surfaces. For instance, light can be either absorbed or reflected by that surface. Or in the case of thin, translucent surfaces, it may shine through them. Such is the case with leaves. Soft, fuzzy leaves or those with matte surfaces tend to absorb more light than they reflect. Thick, glossy leaves will reflect light. If you position thin leaves between your camera and the sun so that they are backlit, you can see the veins of the leaves. All of this varies, of course, with the brightness of the sun. In soft light, both absorption and reflection are reduced and the subject is more subtly illuminated.
Reflected light on leaves is tricky. Because the reflection increases contrast, it can make the foliage look harsh. In bright light, it can create distracting specular highlights. Fortunately, a diffuser (translucent material placed between the sun and leaves to soften and diffuse the light over a broader area) or a polarizing filter (which alters the rays of light coming into the lens, much like the sunglasses we wear to protect our eyes) can help. The goal is not necessarily to eliminate the highlights, but rather to reduce the glare and contrast. Polarizing filters are adjustable, and what you see is what you get, so how much of the highlights are eliminated is a personal choice.
While botanical photographers generally avoid harsh light, it can be used effectively to create drama—particularly in black-and-white photography. So while it can be pleasant to take a break from shooting on a hot afternoon, it doesn’t mean you can’t make interesting photographs then. Likewise, you don’t need a sunny day to photograph plants. Flowers and foliage can be lovely in both overcast light and bright, open shade. The key is looking for even light. As the sun moves across the sky, botanical photographers will move about a garden following the light or shade.
The next time you drive through your neighborhood or walk down the street, try looking at the leaves of shrubs and trees. Which ones absorb light and which ones reflect light? How does this change throughout the day?