For the last three years, June/July has seen me out searching for that ephemeral wonder, the wild poppy field. This year, together with my photo-buddy Jenifer Bunnett, I went out looking for poppies on four separate occasions. Out first safari was disappointing; we found poppies galore but couldn’t get close to them thanks to some determined fencing. The second was much more successful, thanks to a generous tip from another photographer, Malcolm Oakley, on Twitter.Much hiking and a pair of binoculars were needed but we found them, in three patches, against the flank of Black Patch Hill near Storrington in the South Downs National Park. We were able to return a few days later for some gentler evening light.Poppy season is now mostly over down here in the South. Poppies do not reliably flower in the same place year after year. Their seeds need rough handling to germinate but then the ground must be left fallow to allow them to bloom, although they do well at the edges of rape fields where the rape seed has not taken hold (or it has been eaten by birds). But not knowing where they’ll be next year is all part of the adventure, and their ephemerality only adds to their allure.If you fancy joining the poppy hunt next year, there is now a group on Facebook dedicated to sharing locations for poppies and other seasonal wildflower displays: Poppy and Flower Site Finder 2015.
I have spent much of the last two weeks out and about in our local landscape capturing images of bluebells. Nearly 50% of the world’s bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) grow in the UK. Every Spring, for about two weeks, ancient woodlands are carpeted in nodding azure bells. If the Japanese go out in droves to appreciate cherry blossom, we Brits do the same for bluebells.
Of course, they are irresistible to the landscape photographer. But capturing pleasing photos of bluebells is harder than you might think. The temptation is to go wide, to capture all the majesty of the forest, but this tends to exaggerate the distance between the flowers, minimising the profusion that attracted your eye in the first place. So a longer focal length, that compresses distance, is often the better solution.
Finding a strong composition can be challenging. Paths, the more winding the better, create shapes that led the eye into and through the frame.
Colour balance is also tricky. I often see comments on-line that either praise or criticise bluebell pictures for the way they reproduce the colour of the flowers: ‘nice to see proper blues” is typical. But bluebells actually look different depending on the light.
In sunlight or at certain times of day (golden hour, for example) they take on a mauve/magenta tint. Pre-dawn or in shade, they appear more blue. Equally, the fresh spring leaves of the trees under which the bluebells grow, especially beech, have a strong, almost acid-green colour, that can look over-done to people who have never properly looked at the real thing.
It’s always a good idea to try different apertures. Landscapers tend to favour narrow apertures to achieve ‘front-to-back’ sharpness. But, sometimes, using a wide aperture to narrow your depth of field can provide a more pleasing image, just picking out a detail and allowing the rest of the scene to become a blur.
Speaking of blur, on breezy days it’s worth experimenting with shutter speed to capture some movement in the flowers or the leaves of the trees.
In a wide view, it creates a subtle. dreamy feel. Closer up, more abstract images can be made.
There are other ways to record movement. Intentional camera movement, or “ICM”, is very on-trend at the moment. Put simply, the camera is moved while the shutter is open. The result, when it works, is a painterly, semi-abstract rendering of the subject. The technique suits woodland because it tends to simplify, which can be helpful in cluttered forest scenes.
One must be prepared for a lot of out-takes when using ICM, but it’s all fun and in the spirit of experimentation. I find that it helps to choose scenes where there are bold shapes, like tree trunks, to give your image structure. Without them, ICM images can become a formless jumble. I also like images where there are still some recognisable details within the blur, as in these extracts from the above image, where an oak leaf can be recognised…
… and, below, where the frill from a single bloom emerges (bottom right) from the blue haze.
Equally in vogue, making multiple-exposures in-camera can have unexpected and pleasing results. Many modern digital cameras make this simple. I used my Fuji X-E1 for the shot below. The image on which you are going to superimpose a second shot is shown in live view under the picture you are now taking, enabling you to visualise exactly what you are going to achieve. This image features stitchwort, tiny white flowers I found growing among the bluebells at a local copse on Tuesday.
Bluebell season is mostly over now, but it will surely return to delight us all again next Spring. I think it’s lovely that the Japanese have a word for their national cherry-blossom gazing, ‘hanami’. Perhaps we need to invent one for bluebells. Any suggestions?
Some may remember that last June I found a wild poppy field nearby and went a bit mad photographing it. As is the nature of natural poppy fields, it is not there this year, the land having been rotated back to crops. However, thanks to the photographers’ network, I have found another, rather further afield but, as last night’s visit confirmed, completely worth the trip. More to follow!
Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear, – both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my mortal being …
William Wordsworth, ‘Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey’ (1798)