Somewhere in northern New Mexico is a quarry named for Rob Cardillo, who was on track for a successful career in paleontology after college. But for a twist here and a turn there, he might happily have ended up harvesting dinosaur bones for a living.

Instead, he earns a comfortable keep stalking sleepy bees on lavender spikes at 6 in the morning and casing wildflowers at twilight to find just the right light and angle for a photograph.

Life could be worse. Actually, for Cardillo, life couldn't be better.

As one of the best-known horticultural photographers in the country, Cardillo, who lives in Ambler, has worked on five books. The three most recent won top honors this year from the American Horticultural Society and the Garden Writers Association.

A sixth book is due out in the spring, and two more are in the works. He also shoots for gardening publications, from Mother Earth News to the high-end magazine Garden Design.

"It's going pretty well," says the modest Cardillo, who describes the gardens he photographs as "pieces of paradise," his moments there as "magical."

His images capture swirling, bumpy carpets of green and yellow hosta in Foliage, written by Nancy J. Ondra of Milford, Bucks County; swallowtail butterflies on tufted Joe Pye weed in A Guide to the Great Gardens of the Philadelphia Region, written by Adam Levine of Media; and a ballerina chorus of coneflowers in Fallscaping, written by Ondra and Stephanie Cohen of Collegeville.

Bobby Cardillo is not surprised his middle son and namesake ultimately chose a career in photography.

"I knew it would be something artistic," says the 84-year-old jazz pianist from Pittsburgh, who has worked with Mel Torme, Diahann Carroll and Henry Mancini, and still performs occasionally.

Rob studied piano for a few years and absorbed his father's appreciation for jazz. From his late artist-sculptor-librarian mother, he developed a love for the arts - and libraries.

"He was a delight," his father says.

Cardillo, 56, describes himself as "a scientific kid, good at math and logic," who loved to hike, read and hunt for fossils. He also remembers being "amazed by all the strange vegetables" in his Italian neighbors' and relatives' gardens.

His own second-generation Italian parents weren't inclined, but later, during Cardillo's years as a Pennsylvania State University biology major, he spent a summer at home cultivating a huge vegetable garden that "fed the whole neighborhood.

"I got the bug," he says. "I was fascinated with organic gardening and the back-to-the-earth movement of the '70s, how right it seemed, how important."

From the basics, Cardillo's love of nature began to move in a more subtle direction, as did his interest in jazz. He began to see "the forms and patterns, the intricacies" all around him and started probing beyond the big-band music his father enjoyed, to John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Miles Davis.

At college, Cardillo was awakening in other ways, too. "I discovered the irony of studying biology," he says. "The life-sciences building smelled like formaldehyde. We weren't studying life. We were studying death."

Then came courses in plant form and structure and marine biology, and suddenly, life returned to the life sciences. "It was mind-blowing," Cardillo recalls.

After graduation in 1975, he joined some "very hands-on, passionate scientists" in the paleontology department at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Natural History. He went on that famous collecting trip to New Mexico to search for Permian fossils, which date to the end of the Paleozoic Era.

"I found a whole bunch, totally by accident. I was looking for a shady spot," Cardillo protests.

Cardillo Quarry is "a really neat bone bed," says Kate E. Zeigler of the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources. It contains the remains of amphibians and reptiles, including relatives of the sail-backed dimetrodon, which preceded the earliest dinosaurs by more than 40 million years.

More modern animals are an important part of Cardillo's life now. His wife, Sue Leary, is president of the American Anti-Vivisection Society, based in Jenkintown. The couple live with four rescued cats and dogs, and their garden is dotted with birdhouses.

Turns out that birds are part of Cardillo's story, too.

He had taken a job with the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, working with preserved plant specimens, when he was moved to the ornithology department to work on a new bird-image bank called Visual Resources for Ornithology, or Vireo.

Soon, Cardillo was photographing birds himself, which led to horticulture, which led in 1988 to Organic Gardening magazine, where he eventually became photography director.

Ten years later, he launched his freelance garden-photography business.

These days, Cardillo is a Tilt-A-Whirl from April through October, prime gardening season, but it's not his favorite season to shoot. That would be fall, a quieter, more complex time than tell-all spring.

"There's just something about the sunlight in fall, and the mixture of death at the end of the season and things still coming into flower and fruit. It's magical," he explains.

Cardillo works alone and in silence, arriving on the job site at 5:30 a.m., when the light is better - more muted - than the flash of midday.

There might be dew about. Insects are sluggish and slow to scatter. He finds this time of day - you guessed it - "magical."

He's free to walk around and around. He squats. He squints, searching to see "how the landscape presents itself from within."

Could be a leaf turned to lace by insects, a tightly layered rosebud, pollen dancing on a lily. Like a jazz pianist, Cardillo must be nimble, constantly improvising to capture the moment, the light or the mood, before it passes.

That, to coin a phrase, is truly magical.