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Photographing Bluebells

How to photograph bluebells

In English folklore the bluebell was said to call fairies to their meetings. There is certainly something ethereal and luminescent about a sea of spring bluebells covering a woodland floor. The sight and scent is one of the most magical and intoxicating experiences nature has to offer. But before you rush out with camera in hand, there are a few things to bear in mind. As beautiful a subject as they are, photographing bluebells is not always so easy. The following pointers will help you capture them at their finest.

1. Planning

As always, planning your photographic shoot will pay dividends. Bluebells can flower anytime between mid April and mid May so keep your eye on any local areas of woodland and watch the newspapers and photographic forums closely. If you go too early they will be patchy and not at their best, too late, and the chances are they will be drooping and possibly trampled. If possible, go after rain, they will look perky and the greens will be vibrant. Water droplets on the leaves will also add interest.

2. Light and time of day

Bluebell woods can be photographed in most conditions, however, some are better than others. Not only the time of day but also, the type of light will have a bearing on the techniques you use. Sunny days can give lovely sun-dappled woodland floors, although this also presents problems of contrast which must be carefully controlled. A bright but overcast day can be ideal and makes for much easier exposure. You will also get a more natural ‘blue’ colour. Misty mornings can add mood and give a soft, muted effect which can work very well whereas shooting in the evening will provide a warmer light with long shadows but this can tend to give a more purple look to the flowers. Midday shooting provides more of a blueish light which suits the flowers well.

3. Use a tripod

Using a tripod will not only allow for longer exposures but it will also aid with your composition, slowing you down and allowing you to step back and re-evaluate your image before pressing the shutter. Use a cable or remote release to release the shutter and prevent camera shake.

4. Lens choice

A wide-angle lens will allow you to capture a large swathe of the bluebell carpet but it does also tend to have the effect of spreading the bluebells out and thereby reduces their impact. A telephoto or ‘long’ lens such as a 70-200mm has the effect of shortening perspective and compressing the view. This makes it look like there are more bluebells than there are so the carpet seems even denser. This technique can be used to good effect in more patchy bluebell woods to give the impression of a thicker carpet, whilst also seemingly bringing tree trunks closer together. Take several lenses and experiment. Try some macro shots and photograph individual flowers (but watch for movement caused by wind) or if you have one, try a fish-eye lens. Try to come up with an image that is different to everyone elses.

5. Composition

Don’t just point and shoot. The scene before you may be beautiful but to make a really good image you need to think about your composition. Beware of clutter – it is easy to be distracted by the stunning blue carpet before you and to ignore the clutter often associated with a woodland floor; fallen branches, brambles etc. Look carefully as you compose, seeking out the ‘tidier’ areas of woodland. Place trees carefully in the frame. Consider the rule of thirds and with wider shots, use lead in lines, such as a woodland path, to draw your eye into the scene. Foreground interest can also help add depth to your image.

Try photographing bluebells from a variety of angles – from head height will maximise the view of the bluebell carpet whereas getting low to the ground down to the bluebells level can help give them stature and create an interesting alternative viewpoint.

6. Depth of field

This is determined by aperture, whereabouts you focus, and also your choice of focal length. Don’t be afraid to experiment with aperture. Depending on your chosen lens, an aperture of between F8-F13 will usually enable you to get everything from the front of the image to the back in focus. A wide angle lens gives a seemingly greater depth of field, a long telephoto lens less so. Apart from working at smaller apertures try some images at f2.8, f4 and so on – focusing carefully on the part of the image you want to be sharp and letting the foreground or background fade out. When using a macro lens, depth of field is drastically reduced and careful focusing is required. Live View is often very useful in this instance.

7. Exposure

To help determine correct exposure you will need to use the histogram. It is your best indicator of exposure, showing you the brightness range of the captured image (i.e. the range from the darkest to the lightest tones). There is no such thing as the ‘perfect’ histogram – it completely depends on what you are photographing but the most important point is to ensure that none of the shadows or highlights are ‘clipped’. If you have a highlight indicator function on your camera, use it. Represented by a flashing white area on your preview screen it will allow you to see if you have overexposed any areas of the image. Bluebell woods can be very contrasty in bright light. In this situation it is worth bracketing your exposures.

If you are shooting in RAW try ‘exposing to the right’. The camera sensor can record much more detail in the brighter parts of your image than the darker parts. Therefore, depending on the lighting conditions, to get the best image quality you may find you need to slightly over-expose your images or ‘shoot to the right’ in order to fully take advantage of your sensors capabilities. This will allow you to retain detail in the shadows while also minimising digital noise. Using exposure compensation, slightly overexpose the image and push the histogram as far right as you can before the highlights start to clip. Be careful not to go too far or you will lose all detail in the highlights. The images will appear a bit over exposed on your LCD preview screen and on your computer but you can easily adjust the exposure in post processing to the level you observed at the time.

8. Use a polariser

Adding a circular polarising filter to your lens will remove any glare on the foliage and flowers from moisture or sunlight. In doing so it will saturate, and therefore add depth, to the blues and greens in the scene. A polariser works best if you are at an approximate 90 degree angle to the sun. Beware that it will also increase contrast, so check the histogram to ensure that sufficient detail is retained in the shadow areas.

9. White balance

By shooting in RAW you can take control over the white balance. This will allow you to correct for the light conditions and address any colour casts. Setting the white balance to ‘sunny’ (5500K) will avoid bluebells in direct sunlight appearing too purple whereas the ‘cloudy’ setting will warm the whole scene up. Shooting in RAW will also allow you to address any colour balance issues afterwards in post processing.

10. Be creative

Try shooting into the sun. This needs care but can work well. By shooting in to a low sun at the beginning or end of the day you can get some interesting effects with the suns rays penetrating the tree canopy. Make sure you place the sun behind a tree trunk and get some strong shadows radiating out across the image. The effect of back-lit flowers can also be stunning. Be careful of flare and ensure you have clean lenses – the slightest speck of dust will show up! Remember to never look directly at the sun with your eyes or through a camera.

Another technique to try is panning – either hand held or on a tripod, to create an impressionistic effect.

Using ICM when photographing bluebells
Using ICM when photographing bluebells

11. Take care!

When out in the woods treat bluebells with respect; keep to the footpaths and resist the urge to pick them. As well as being illegal in the UK it is inconsiderate and spoils the view for others. It’s easy in the pursuit of your image to get carried away, and although it is often hard to avoid standing on the bluebells to get the image you want, try to minimise this.

Britain contains more than half the worlds’ population of bluebells and they have inspired generations of poets, so get out there and capture their beauty. They only come once a year and don’t last long!

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