Find the photo – Magnolia glow

– Posted in: Garden Photography

I was recently commissioned to photograph a very special magnolia in a very special, private garden.  The resulting photo was to be a surprise gift, but with a limited budget, I only had access to the garden during a single afternoon when the owner was away.

It is the job of the professional to make something happen, even in difficult circumstances; and in garden photography any time you go into a new garden for one visit, it will difficult.  When I travel to photograph gardens I will try to allow three days for a shoot –  to get acquainted with the garden, to allow for bad weather, and learn how to use the morning and afternoon light.

Here,  not only did I have to get in and out of a garden I had never seen with-in four hours, it was a bright day and I could not stay until the soft light of dusk.  And when I arrived I found the Magnolia was backed up and pruned to fit around a garage.

Here is the garden; note the tree at the top.

So many lovely jewels to photograph but the Magnolia was the assignment.  I had to find the photo.

There is simply no good angle to photograph the whole tree.  The bare stark walls of the garage preclude any hope of finding a decent photo of the whole tree looking up at it, and because of the garage itself,  there is no way to get behind the other side of the tree.

But getting behind the tree and squeezing up against the wall I was able to view the tree in context of San Francisco.  Now the problem became how to deal the the hard contrasty light.

The good thing about bright light is that whites will photograph as true white and not get muddied up.  Since the magnolia flowers are white, I realized the best photo would be one that played to the strength of the light rather than its problem.  A few post production techniques back on my computer  might make this work.  I took the shot.

Back at the computer I would first open up the exposure then crop the photo to fill the frame with only those elements needed to tell the story.

The using some fill light and glow technique, the photo becomes something worth showing my client.

But still it doesn’t seem like a great photo.  Very good, professional and workmanlike considering the circumstance and location, but not one to frame.

Though I did want to show the tree in context of the garden or at least its location in San Francisco, the most striking photo would have to be of the flowers themselves.  In the sunny light of that day the garden presented me white flowers against a blue sky.  In photography we must take what the garden gives, and not to force our preconceived notions onto the garden.

I browsed through other photos I took that afternoon, looking to find another to show my client.

Cropping this one carefully makes a single flower the hero.

Using the same technique of adding a glow we get a really nice shot.

I think I found the photo.

For those who may want more info on this glow and a few techical tips on how I interpreted the photos with this technique, I invite you over to my Mental Seeds blog.


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Saxon Holt

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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