Spring is sprung in the UK and nothing signifies that more obviously than a rich carpet of bluebells under a vibrant canopy of lime green beech leaves. Walk into a forest early in the morning and the wonderful fragrant smell hits you, the scene simply begs to be photographed. So, how do you capture this beauty? Well here are a few tips to help you achieve some stunning bluebell shots.
Time of year : Bluebells appear anytime between mid April to mid May, however the peak time is usually around the first week in May. The timing is critical and local knowledge is key. If you visit too soon the display will be patchy and if you leave it too late the flowers will be past their best and may have been flattened by rain or size 9s!
When to shoot : Bluebells can be photographed in most conditions and bright sunshine can give pleasing dappled effects however, technically this is quite challenging, especially in managing the contrast and colour. Bright overcast conditions will result in more natural colours and certainly present fewer problems in controlling the exposure. My favourite time is early morning when conditions are still and the mist, which is often around at this time of year, adds wonderful atmosphere to your image. Getting up early means that you can capture the sun as it rises through the trees, producing long raking shadows. Sunset is also a good time to shoot as it makes the most of the dramatic lighting.
You can use any lens to capture the bluebells though my preferred lenses are at either end of the focal range. I use a wide angle (XF10-24mm) to capture the forest and carpet of bluebells then use the longer lens (XF50-140mm) to compress perspective or isolate detail and in this case I usually shoot from a lower position. Of course, if you have a macro lens this opens up more opportunities for some delightful close up shots of single heads and other detail.
Shooting in the forest with typically low light levels means that a tripod is a necessity, unless you are looking to produce more creative effects. You’ll also need a remote release, or use the self timer, to reduce camera shake and you may find a reflector useful, too.
A polarising filter will help to reduce glare from leaves and will saturate the colours, but remember, they are most effective at an angle of 90 degrees to the sun. Neutral Density graduated filters can also help to reduce the highlights in a bright canopy to achieve a more natural effect.
I favour shooting in Aperture Priority where I can control the depth of field by using either f8/f11 to maximize the area of sharpness or a wider aperture, say f2.8/f4, to minimize the depth of field and throw the background out of focus. Remember, your wide angle lens inherently has a greater depth of field at a given aperture than your telephoto zoom.
Focusing is critical to achieve maximum depth of field and there are a number of ways to help achieve this. When using a wide angle lens at f8/f11 simply focusing a third into the scene can often work. If your foreground isn’t sharp, either move back slightly, or select a smaller aperture.
I often switch to manual focus and use Focus Peaking to help confirm sharpness by setting my highlights to red. Using the blue depth of field bar at the base of your viewfinder, to show the near and far points of focus, is another option. Although I find this useful as a guide it’s not as critical as Focus Peaking. One of my favourite lenses is the XF14mm which features a depth of field scale enabling you to focus hyperfocally. There are also many smartphone Apps to help you achieve the appropriate depth of field. Using your tripod you can also focus at points throughout the image and use focus stacking in post production to achieve that perfect front to back sharpness.
Providing you are using a tripod, the shutter speed doesn’t matter unless there is a breeze. Here you have a choice to increase the shutter speed, by increasing ISO, to reduce motion blur or to work with the conditions, capturing the bluebells and grasses swaying in the breeze, for a more dreamy, soft image. Remember to switch off your Image Stabilisation if shooting on a tripod and to use a remote release or the 2 second timer to eliminate camera movement.
Bright light can result in high contrast making getting the right exposure difficult. You should use the histogram to ensure you’re not clipping the highlights. In some cases you may wish to bracket to capture the full range of tones.
Use your lenshood to eliminate flare, although sometimes you may need to further shield the lens by standing at the side of your camera or by holding your coat up.
Bluebells can appear too purple in bright sunlight and colour casts can be a problem from a vivid green canopy so selecting the correct White Balance is critical. If you shoot JPEGS I suggest using Daylight or 5500k. For maximum control, I recommend shooting in RAW which allows you to correct any colour balance issues in production.
Can’t see the wood for the trees? It’s not easy trying to sort order from what, at first, may seem like a chaotic woodland scene. I usually start by taking the wider views and then move in closer.
Look for lines like paths, especially winding ones, which lead the viewer into the picture. Move around to achieve separation between tree trunks and watch out for fallen branches which are easy to miss and often difficult to remove in post production. A sunstar peeping from behind a tree as the sun rises or sets can look great. Simply select an aperture of f16 to achieve this effect, but be aware of flare that you may wish to emphasise or try and eliminate.
Use your longer lens to isolate detail like a group of tree trunks against a floor of bluebells, a moss covered tree stump or a single flower head. It’s very much a case of less is more. A long lens will also give the impression of a thicker carpet, but watch out for distracting backgrounds such as highlights or other objects and move your viewpoint up and down for a variety of shots.
Of course there are many other creative options to consider, too, such as moving the camera whilst exposing (Intentional Camera Movement), multiple exposure or using the Fujifilm Advanced Filters. Panoramic images of the forest can look stunning. There are so many options, just let your creative juices flow!
Your first objective in post processing will be to correct any colour casts using the white balance and tint sliders. Of course these are global changes and specific colours such as the bluebells, tree trunks and leaves can be adjusted locally in Lightroom or Photoshop. Check your exposure for lost highlight and shadow detail and adjust the contrast with Levels or a tone curve. Finally, cropping your image can add impact to the shot by excluding distracting elements and concentrating on the important ones.
Our bluebell woods are so beautiful and many people want to enjoy them so please don’t spoil this for others just to get your shots. Keep to paths and take care not to trample over the bluebells.
We really are so fortunate to have this annual display each year, they don’t last long so make sure you get out there and make the most of one of nature’s wonders!