Bluebell Photography Tips & Techniques
Landscape &Travel Photography TechniquesPost Production & Digital Imaging Techniques
Apr 7th 2015
With my annual bluebell photography workshop fast approaching I thought it would be useful to look at this type of photograph before the time comes to be out there with our cameras.
A forest carpeted in bluebells is a beautiful thing. Photographing them is, often, an instinctive reaction to our sensory reaction to this beauty and understandably so.
In this blog post, I want to explore my top ten tips and techniques for photographing bluebells and how I use some post production techniques to create images that transcend what we see just with our eyes into something a little more sureal.
Soft, diffused light often provides good light to capture the bluebells without any 'hot spots' on the carpet of colour beneath the tree canopy.
- Pick a location you can imagine will look nice in a carpet of bluebells. Beech woods are the most common choice because if they are large, mature trees the bluebells will proliferate and there will be lots of space to produce uncluttered shots.
- Time your visit; too early and the trees wont have the first fresh green leaves that avoid the shot looking too stark and austere. If that’s the case, look for alternative compositions that don’t rely on trees so the trip isn’t wasted.
- Don’t worry about the weather; overcast days offer flat, diffused light that is soft, bright days, especially mornings and evenings, offer the chance of dramatic side and back lighting. A perfect situation would be after light rain and before sunset as the water drops and vapour in the air is a powerful visual combination.
- See the wood for the trees; composition is tricky in such an inherently unorganized place as a wild woodland so it is hard to distill the elements down into a coherent image. Less is so often more here, so find a few, simple elements and compose them rather than trying to get everything all in one frame.
- Take all your kit; a tripod will always help but so can polarisers and even ND grads so pack it all in case the conditions suit it. An ND grad over a bright tree line can be enough to bring the exposure into line for a single frame and avoid multiple exposure blending later on.
- Look for the defects in the scene as much as the plus points; it’s so easy to beauty and miss annoying branches or bushes that don’t look so great in a photograph. If you can move them without destroying the bluebells then great otherwise try and obscure them behind a tree perhaps or consider if you can remove them with the clone tool in post production.
- Try and deploy as many techniques as you can for each image you decide to take. F you shoot a scene at f22 for front o to back depth of field, do it again at f4 and double your production from any give scene. Add in the possibility of a polarizer, long exposure, and different lenses and you can generate quite a lot of images from each position you take up before moving on.
- Consider all lenses; there is no one perfect lens for any subject, just a variety of choices. If composition is hard, switch to a long, telephoto focal length of 100mm up to 300mm and try and isolate elements in the scene. Then pull back with wider lenses and look for broader shots.
- Embrace flare. Depending on the angle the sun strikes the lens, flare will be evident to a greater or lesser degree. If it’s happening have a good think about whether it’s actually doing you a favour or not, or at least shoot one with and one without, see point 7 above.
- Keep low to the ground, especially with wide angle shots. So often there is a sense of detachment created by the image having small foreground. For that ‘reach out and touch it’ look get low and close to your foreground and let the wide angle keep the broader, distant views still in frame. Consider focusing at various places through the frame to create a sequence you can stack together for even deeper depth of field than a mere f22 will allow.
So with those pointers in mind we should come home with a variety of images shot from a variety of view points with a variety of lenses and other creative techniques. Great, the more choices we have to review in post production the more chance we’ll have as many ‘keepers’ as possible.
Here a combination of a shallow depth of field and introducing the base of 4 distant trees has led to an image I'm pleased with. It breaks the 'rules' of composition and I probably would not enjoy it with a deep depth of field but the soft look to the background makes it work for me, coupled with the strong, directional and patchy sunlight.
I worried about the flare in this shot to the extent I almost didn't keep it in for fear it would ruin my composition with the shadows of the trees racing acors the carpet of bluebells. I'm so glad I did though; it's probably my favourite shot from the bluebells on this occassion and lends a dream like, fairy, enchnated woodland feel all through a simple in camera technique. More rule breaking for you, eh?
Here is the same scene only with my body stood to camera right blocking the flare. It's slightly less contrasty as a result and just lacks that 'sparkle' we so often can't articulate but which just tells us 'it's worked.' This shot just doesn't work for me like the previous one does; I think the tree canopy needs that warm twinkle of light to lift it and complimet the colours splashed across the forest floor.
The colours in a bluebell wood have always been, and still are, hard to get right in camera; so many colour casts are bouncing around we need to be careful to adjust these so the shots look natural.
I use two separate adjustment layers but the same tools exist in Lightroom-Color Balance and Selective Colour.
I use CB first to tweak the overall balance between the blues, Reds and Magentas in the scene. Note the difference in the tree bark even at this stage.
Next I’ll use Selective Colour to target specific tones, such as the greens in the leaves, the blues in the bluebells and tree bark, and leave the rest untouched. It’s a great tool as it doesn’t require any tricky or time consuming masking.
Here is a shot on a overcast day straight out of some basic processing in my RAW converter. It looks a bit flat and the tree trunks are an inplausible green (our eyes filter this out for us) and the bluebells aren't looking all that blue- too much yellow hue from the predominantly green scene is affecting them so we need to adres these issues in our final image.
Here is the same shot with some contrast added via Levels, the tree trunks cleaned up via Colour Balance and the bluebells relieved of the yellow colour cast via Selective Colour. A crop was then applied to remove what I felt was not the best foreground leaving me with the view I carefully composed to avoid the tree trunks overlapping each other thereby offering that visual 'space' that we can pause to explore with our eyes as we look at this photograph.
Strong backlighting is something that will only occur at the start and end of the day and even then, finding a suitable view that lets the light flood into the forest floor is easier said than done. One partocular lcoation in Hampshire has become a well trodden spot but finding one in your loca wood will be both rewarding and far more original. A wide angle lens and a low viewpoint combine to bring us up cose and personal with the bluebells whilst also allowing room to include the background. the natural play of the light falling around the trees offers distinctive lead in lines that draw our eyes up and through the scene.
Another technique I have come to play around with is to combine a soft, blurred backdrop with a sharper more realistic foreground to create a more dreamlike look and feel to the image. I don’t normally create images that are not reflective of what I can see with my eyes (my sight isn’t tat bad yet!) but for this type of shot I think it can work and, again, offers an alterative creative response to the scene in addition to the more standard approach.
Rather than a long exposure combined with a fast one (which may work btw...) I took the same frame and applied various blur effects in Photoshop before cobinig it with my 'sharp' foreground original for a dreamy forest look.
The original shot is perfectly good but I liked the idea of merging a blurred top to create a sense of wonder and movement in the trees and rely on the large, bottom half of the shot all dedicated to the bluebells to keep it from becoming one big expriment in multiple exposure/ Intentional Camera Movement (ICM) and remain a more traditional type of shot.
With Spring approaching it’s a good time to plan a day at your local forest and look for some opportunities. I think the end of April is the beast time to start as the tree’s have some leaves on them too. Good luck and if in doubt feel free to join me on my annual bluebell workshop.
Finally, there is always time for a classic hand pan shot to create that lovely, impressionistic look. It tkes very little practice and once you get the shutter speed and your hand movement smooth top to bottom you can create a lot of shots like this. I like to avoid any sky in the shot becaue this tends to blow out during the long exposure. I guess you could induce all this blur in post production but there is something satisfying seeing the effect mostly there on the back of your camera whilst you're still on location.