By Mark Turner
If I had my preference, and a direct line to the Sun God, I’d order “cloudy bright” or “early morning” or “approaching twilight” for every garden photography job. Soft light is flattering to most subjects, but particularly to plants and gardens. Unfortunately, I can’t control the weather. That means I’m often forced into having to work in less than ideal light.
One of the most common situations I’m faced with is mid-day sunshine. It feels wonderful on my face (at least here in the Pacific Northwest where we think 75° is hot) but I don’t like the way gardens look under a clear blue sky. Why wouldn’t I wait for the light to be more flattering? Sometimes there’s no choice, like when I’ve traveled to another city or am on a garden tour. It’s a professional photographer’s job to come back with publishable photos, regardless of the conditions.
Two techniques I use to get better garden photographs on sunny days are to use a polarizing filter to cut glare or to use a diffuser to soften the light. Both of these help to reduce the contrast between the brightest and darkest parts of a photo. That’s important, because cameras don’t have the ability to capture as wide a brightness range as our eyes can see.
The traditional use of a polarizing filter is to darken a blue sky in landscape photos. It does a great job at that, working best when you’re pointing your camera roughly 90° to the sun. There’s much less effect when you’re aiming either toward or away from the sun.
But more important to the garden photographer is that a polarizer also cuts glare on foliage or other reflective things. Have you noticed that when you wear polarized sunglasses you can see past the reflections on the surface of a lake? The same thing happens with foliage.
To use a polarizing filter, mount it on the front of your lens (or just hold it there if your camera doesn’t have a filter ring). Then rotate the filter until you see the effect you like. A quarter turn goes from no effect to full polarization. I’ve found through experience that I prefer to keep a little bit of the reflections on foliage rather than eliminate them completely, which looks unnatural to my eye. The photos here show my garden without a polarizer, with reflections eliminated completely, and partially reduced.
You need to be aware that a polarizer will cut your exposure by about two stops. Auto exposure cameras will compensate for you, but you might need to increase your ISO setting so the shutter speed doesn’t drop too low. If you want more info, Wikipedia has a pretty decent article on polarizing filters. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polarizing_filter_(photography)>
I use a polarizer in the garden most often when photographing wide or mid-range views. I almost never use it for plant portraits or blossom details. For those I prefer a collapsible diffuser.
I like to think of my collapsible diffuser as a “portable cloud.” Mine opens up to 36” x 48” and collapses to fit in my camera pack. I like the larger size because I can cast a bigger shadow and photograph larger subjects under its shade. I use a diffuser that cuts the light by one stop, which I think gives a more natural looking appearance than a two-stop diffuser.
In practice, a diffuser is really easy to use. Open it up, hold it between the sun and the subject, and make an exposure. To my eye, the best result is when the diffuser is as close as possible to the subject. Having my camera on a tripod and using a cable release leaves both hands free to hold the diffuser in the right place.
A diffuser works to cut contrast, but in a different way than a polarizing filter. Two things are happening under the diffuser. First, there’s less light hitting the brightest parts of the subject. Second, the spreading effect of the diffuser means there’s also more light hitting the shadow areas.
I use a diffuser a lot when photographing plant portraits or blossom details. These are the kinds of shots you can make mid-day without a lot of background and the diffuser is perfect for lowering contrast and helping get pleasing results.
If you don’t have a commercial diffuser, you can use a white fabric shower curtain. But you’ll need an assistant and it’s awkward to hold. If the fabric isn’t truly white, then you can have color balance problems, too.
Any decent camera shop should have a selection of diffusers, or you can order from your favorite online retailer if there’s no camera shop nearby.
It’s still summer, which in our part of the country means lots of sunny skies. So I’ll keep both my polarizing filter and my diffuser handy whenever I’m out photographing in bright sunlight.
This video clip shows the effect of rotating a polarizing filter on foliage. The first is without a polarizer, the second with about half strength polarization, and the third with full strength polarizaion.
Meet the Author
Mark Turner has been photographing gardens professionally for more than 20 years. His work has been published in numerous magazines and books. He’s the photographer and co-author of two popular field guides published by Timber Press, Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest and Trees and Shrubs of the Pacific Northwest. He lives, gardens, and currently makes more of his family’s income photographing families in Bellingham, Washington.
This article is based in part on Mark’s presentation at the 2017 GWA Conference in Buffalo.