Sunday, 15 May 2016

Hell's Bells (or the art of taking pictures of blue bells)

Taken with a 150mm to 300mm lens, bringing the Bluebells together
As you get more into photography, you will find that you are more attuned to the seasons.

Instead of days and months, the year starts getting split into seasons of photographic opportunity, such as a season for sunrises, a season for sunsets, a season for Autumn colour, etc.

At present it is very much the season for Bluebells.

At this time the woodland suddenly becomes covered with a blue carpet of flowers that is irresistible to anyone with a penchant for photography.

Over the years I have tried to capture an image of these marvels of nature, with varying levels of success. However these are my thoughts on how best to photograph them.

First find your subject

The first issue is to locate your flowers in question. This is where local knowledge, and the help of other photographers comes in useful. Most photographers have there favorite spots and can be initially averse to giving out there location; with enough flattery, this information can normally be extracted. 

My personal favorite was Yoxall in Staffordshire. Unfortunately it has been closed to the public for the last couple of years meaning this year so I have had to locate new sources. On the plus side, it has meant I have been forced to explore new ares in my local neighborhood that I would of otherwise not of found. Also, unlike Yoxall, I can bring my tripod, which can be essential in woodland where light can be challenging.

I must also admit that I have also sneaked a few shots at the Bluebells growing in my neighbors garden. While not technically wild, I doubt that anyone except a expert horticulturist could tell the difference, and it has given me far more opportunity to experiment. 

Tips on Photography

So once you have found a potential area of Bluebells, the next question is how to do them justice in a photograph?

I must admit that photographing Bluebells can be frustrating because the resultant images can often fall a long way from your vision of the scene. 

The best methods of getting a good shot seems to be to get either very close or take the photo from some distance.

The reasons for this, as a friend once remarked, is that they are very scruffy little flowers. Single Bluebells are not as impressive a flower like  a Rose of a daffodil. Therefore you really need to take them in a mass or concentrate on a detail specific details.

The other thing to be aware of,  is that the reason that bluebells standout is because they contrast against the background. Blue and green are very complimentary colours and therefore the combination of blue flowers against a forest green can make very pleasing image. However Green has the capacity to overwhelm the visual scene so reducing the impact of the blue.

My initial temptation when taking  images of Bluebells is to use a wide angle lens.

It generally provides a wider depth of field than other lenses meaning I can get close ups to bluebells while maintaining a view of the forest , therefore providing a context without having to shut down the aperture too far. 

However in my experience wide angles do not work well with these scenes. Part of the reason is that although bluebells live in clumps, they are never as closely packed as they first appear. Wide angles tend to extenuate this spacing. So rather than getting a mass of blue, you end up with a bit of blue and a lot of green.

I have had more success by taking a few steps back and use a telephoto or a zoom. This compresses the scene and pushes the flowers together. This in turn creates a stronger swath of blue.

The second method is extreme close ups.  With bluebells I think it is better to get really close to the flower via a macro lens or via use of extension tubes. 

I have been using a 90mm macro for most of my closeups, but sometimes even that is not enough and have added a extension to get even closer. The main problem is that you get a very narrow depth of field. Also autofocus will tend to lock onto everything but the part of the flower you want. The only options in these cases is to select a small aperture and switch to manual focus. This will also mean that you will need to use a tripod due to the slow exposure. Because of the slow shutter speed, the wind can also come into play meaning you may need to shelter the flowers in some way. 

One trick worth trying with close ups is to take a spray bottle and give the target subject a good dosing before photography. Bluebells are very good at forming droplets which gives a great dew like effect, especially if the sun is behind them. Another thing I have been tried is to slip a black card behind the flower to make it stand out. However this is not always easy without another pair of hands to hold the card steady.
Artificial Rain added
Against a black card brings out a nice contrast
If you are lucky you might get some mini-beasts too!

A challenge with bluebells is finding a good specimen which is not cluttered with other flowers

While some limited 'gardening' is acceptable in the wild, please be sensitive to the fact that bluebells are for everyone. Scything huge swathes of foliage down to allow you to get that perfect shot should never be done. As responsible photographers, we should always be careful to leave the site as you found it and try and avoid treading or lying on bluebells. 

This is an advantage to doing my closeups with bluebells in my neighbors garden. Here I can position myself with minimum damage to the local environment.

Its all about the light 

There is a temptation to believe that Bluebells can be taken in any light, but the I believe the best illumination is in early morning or late evening sunlight, when the sun is low in the sky. Especially good for macro work is if you can get the sun behind the flower to get that blue glow.

Sunlight behind the flower gives a nice sunstar effect

In woodland, look for patches of light that add contrast to an otherwise bland view, since this adds depth. If you can find a path leading through the bluebells this adds nice leading lines and can add a focal point to your images. 

Best of all, if you go early in the morning, sometimes you get sunlight filtering through early mist creating fingers of sunlight as it comes through the trees.

A patch of dappled sun breaks up the shapes

The lucky combination of a early morning start, burning off mist and bluebells

The other thing to think about is the background. Bluebells contrasting against tree trunks can work especially well, because they standout much more than against green foliage. Taken against things such as walls or bodies of water are equally effective.

Beech trees add great contrast


So those are my thoughts. I don't think I will ever get a perfect Bluebell shot, but it is fun to keep trying. Also remember that there are no rules in photography that cannot be broken. So the important thing is just to keep experimenting during this great time of year.

The blur of out of focus bluebells is a nice contrast

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