Light Posted on July 23, 2008

Illustrating this column, and feeding the insatiable Flower of the Week and Tree of the Month pages, gives my camera an unaccustomed amount of exercise. It is also reminding me that the only thing you can photograph is light. Perhaps it is too obvious to mention, but I find it more than useful; I find it essential in deciding whether a shot is worth the exposure.

These summer days, under a sky of sailing clouds in brilliant blue, you can choose the sunlit moment or the cloudy one. One gives bright highlights and deep shadows, the other a more sober picture, not necessarily truer but easier to read for information: to see the precise shape of a plant and its parts. Which is more informative about a garden? There is no categorical answer. In a sunlit photograph the lighting and shadow certainly distort the volumes and voids. They can convey, on the other hand, the sort of vitality that makes you want to visit.

Looking through such a collection of near ideal photographs as, for example, Andrew Lawson’s in The English Garden (2007, with Ursula Buchan) I find that more appear to have been taken on overcast days than under direct sunshine. The appearance is probably deceptive: filters can modify over-dramatic contrasts as well as correcting colours. Nothing, on the other hand, can penetrate the blackness of  shadows created by strong direct light. The goal is lighting as even as possible without dulling the brilliance of colour and detail that brings a picture to life. Light from behind a plant often shows its character best of all.

Trees are my biggest problem. It is almost impossible to show the whole of a big tree without including far more sky than helps the picture. The light of the sky kills the detail outlined against it. A storm sky can offer the perfect solution: a tree sunlit against dark clouds is inevitably beautiful.

The other answer, of course, is to be a painter. The Edwardian gardens immortalized by such watercolourists as George Elgood and Margaret Waterfield never existed in such perfection. A painter can illuminate, edit, distort, correct and embellish as no camera can – not even a digital one.

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