Photographing fairyland

Bluebell woods

Bluebell woods - Credit: Archant

Capture bluebell woods at their magical best with inspirational ideas from photographer Sarah Howard

Bluebell woods

Bluebell woods - Credit: Archant

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. It’s hard to resist the temptation to rush out to capture them on camera, but before you do, there are a few things to bear in mind. As beautiful a subject as they are they are not always easy to photograph. The following pointers will hopefully help you to capture them at their finest.

Bluebell woods

Bluebell woods - Credit: Archant

Bluebell woods

Bluebell woods - Credit: Archant

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 soon they will be patchy and not at their best, too late and 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 add interest.

Light and time of day

Bluebell woods can be photographed in most conditions. However, some are better than others and not only the time of day but the type of light will have a bearing on the techniques you use. Sunny days can give lovely sun-dappled woodland floors, although this 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. The time of day is also an important consideration. 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 gives a more blue light which suits the flowers well.

Composition

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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. Use the rule of thirds and with wider shots, use lead in lines to draw your eye into the scene. Try shooting from head height to maximise the view of the bluebell carpet. Adopting a low angle by getting low to the ground down to the bluebells level can help give them stature and create an interesting alternative viewpoint.

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 one or two bluebells to get the image you want, try to minimise this.

Use a tripod

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

Lens choice

A wide-angle lens will allow you to capture a large swathe of the carpet but it does also tend to have the effect of spreading the bluebells out and reduce their impact. A telephoto or ‘long’ lens such as a 70-200mm has the effect of shortening perspective and compressing the view making it look like there are more than there are so the carpet seems even denser. This can be used to good effect in more patchy bluebell woods to give the impression of a thicker carpet, whilst also seemingly bringing 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 fisheye lens. Try to come up with an image that is different to everyone elses.

‘Intimate landscapes’

As well as wider scenes, force yourself to focus on the smaller details too. Moss covered tree stumps or fallen branches surrounded by bluebells can be lovely.

Depth of field

This is determined by aperture and also your choice of lens. 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 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 useful in this instance.

Use a polariser

Adding a circular polarising filter to your lens will remove any glare on the foliage and flowers from moisture or sunlight reflections. 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.

White balance

By shooting in RAW you can also 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.

Be creative

Try shooting into the sun. This needs care and can only be done when the sun is low. By shooting in to a very low sun at the beginning and 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 backlit flowers can be stunning. Be careful of flare and ensure you have clean lenses. 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.

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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Sarah Howard runs landscape photography workshops all over the UK. Please visit www.imageseen.co.uk for more information.