Colin Roberts shares the techniques you need to capture these short-lived and fragile flowers…
Few things enhance the landscape like drifts of wildflowers, and if they are growing en masse they become the dominant feature. Of course, they can be a challenging subject to photograph – short-lived, fragile, and sometimes hard to locate – but with a little in-depth knowledge and the right techniques they can make inspiring images.
As with many natural subjects, light is a commanding factor, so it pays to think through the type of image you want to capture and visit your location when conditions are right. Soft light is always a good option for shooting flowers and foliage because the lack of strong shadows allows plenty of detail to be revealed – so take advantage of overcast weather whenever you can.
Of course, the strong sidelight at sunrise or sunset will inject a lot more drama, so if you want to capture a more striking image of wildflowers you’ll need to shoot when the sun is low in the sky.
Most of my favourite wildflower images are shot at first light, but this type of image doesn’t come easily. Being on location for sunrise around midsummer can mean setting out at 4am or earlier if you need to travel by car, and then on foot to a remote spot, so forward planning is essential.
A bit of research can reveal vital details – for example, some flowers only open when the sun is quite high in the sky, so they’re not suitable for low-light shots. Another factor to consider is that many wildflowers continually turn to face the sun, tracking its movement across the sky. This can affect your choice of viewpoint, especially if you want avoid shooting a meadow of flowers which are facing away from the camera.
The grandeur of a wildflower landscape can get lost if the composition isn’t structured carefully. In fact, being confronted with a natural spectacle can be dazzling, so it pays to work your way around the location, shoot handheld from several angles and then weigh up your results.
Bear in mind that images are often more effective if they are dominated by just one or two colours, rather than a combination of many, so in a meadow of mixed flowers try to isolate areas where one or two species prevail.
Techniques for general landscape composition are all valid, so watch for focal points, try to convey depth, and incorporate any curving pathways that lead into the scene. Try tilting your camera angle downwards slightly in order to include more pull-in of the foreground – that way the flowers will be more prominent and there will be less sky in the image.
When shooting species with smaller flower heads, such as ox-eye daisies and clover, try moving in close with a wideangle lens to make them loom large in relation to their surroundings; otherwise they can look too small to have any real impact.
1. Water works
Moisture enhances the look of wildflowers, making their colours more intense, so try to capture them on clear mornings when the dew is heavy. Alternatively, shoot after rain while they’re still wet and their foliage has been washed clean and glossy.
2. Colour combinations
Look for interesting combinations of colour where two species grow side-by-side. The mix can be harmonious, like red poppies and pink campion; or contrasting, like yellow weld and purple thistles.
Don’t be put off by gusty winds. One way to exploit the wind-blown effect is to lengthen your shutter speed and create an impressionistic effect by showing the flowers in motion.
4. In the mist
Perfect conditions don’t come to order, but keep in mind the potential of a misty atmosphere during wildflower season. It seems there’s a natural fit between a morning mist and swathes of wildflowers, so make a beeline for the best locations when the time is right.
5. Closer views
Moving in close on one or more flower heads doesn’t mean you have to exclude the landscape. With careful framing it’s still possible to include the surrounding countryside, throwing it out of focus as a soft backdrop.
I use a polariser on all of my wildflower images to cut reflections and enrich colour. The effects are especially marked when the flowers and foliage are moist.
Meadows and hillsides typically have marshy or uneven ground, so a tripod with legs that can be independently positioned is essential. I have both Benbo and Manfrotto models and find them perfect for the job.
A handbook is useful for identifying wildflowers. It will also tell you how long each species will remain in bloom – handy if you want to return when conditions are better. Try Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland (ISBN 978-0-71365-944-3)
A specialist in landscapes and nature, Colin Roberts turned professional in 2005.He has received a number of awards for his nature images, including ‘International Garden Photographer of the Year’ and the Royal Horticultural Society’s ‘Photographer of the Year’. To see more of his images visit his website at www.colinrobertsphotography.com.
Mark Bauer provides a few tips and tricks for photographing his favourite type of wildflower…
Subject Suggestion: Sea Thrift
Mark Bauer explains why these vivid pink coastal wildflowers, that thrive on cliff-tops, make great subjects
Sea thrift, or sea pink, is a wildflower that grows on sandy, well-drained soil in full sun; it is particularly associated with coastal locations, where it thrives on cliff-tops. As its alternative name suggests, its round flowers are vivid pink in colour. It grows about a foot high, usually in clumps or mats and blooms in late spring; mid-to-late May is often the key time in the UK. For many people a carpet of bright pink thrift on the cliff-top heralds the arrival of summer.
To find thrift, head to the coast and seek out sunny cliff-tops. When you find a suitable location, it’s worth spending some time to find the best viewpoint. Thrift looks its best if you can fill the frame with the colour, so look for a spot where the carpet is nice and thick, as well as an interesting background – it’s easy to get seduced by the impact of the colour and forget to produce a balanced composition. It will also help the composition if there are some small gaps here and there, to provide some contrast with the mass of pink.
To make the most of the colour, shoot in the golden light of early morning or evening. The best time will depend on your chosen location and the direction of the sunrise and sunset. Still conditions are preferable, so that the flowers don’t sway during the exposure, but that said, their stems are quite strong and wiry, and as the flowers don’t grow very high, they remain quite still even in a fairly stiff breeze.
For maximum impact, get in close with a wideangle lens. The flowers will then seem to stretch out in front of the camera, exaggerating the size of the carpet. Try to frame your shot so that there is a clear focal point in the background – such as a headland, lighthouse or rock stacks. Traditional, well-balanced compositions work best, so stick to convention and follow the rule of thirds when you compose your image.
1. Depth of field
Getting in close with a wideangle lens will create a dramatic perspective, but you’ll need to be careful to keep both foreground and background sharp. Set a small aperture of f/11-16 and use the hyperfocal distance to maximise depth of field.
2. Set up low
Choosing a low viewpoint has the effect of placing emphasis on the foreground and is a technique that works well in conjunction with wideangle lenses. Be careful not to get too low, however, as this can reduce visual separation between key elements in the frame.
3. Respect the environment
You might think that the best viewpoint is from the middle of a carpet of thrift, but however good you think it is, resist the temptation to trample over the flowers to get your shot.
4. Time of day
Warm light from a low sun will really enhance the colour of thrift, and reveal its form and texture. Use an app such as The Photographer’s Ephemeris to find out which end of the day suits your location best.
Mark Bauer has been a full-time landscape photographer for over a decade and takes inspiration from the landscapes in the south-west. www.markbauerphotography.com
A guide to shooting heather and gorse, courtesy of Justin Minns…
Subject Suggestion: Heather and Gorse
With rich pinks and purples on display, few can resist the charms of these late summer flowers, says Justin Minns
It’s hard to believe that heathland is one of our most threatened habitats, rarer even than rainforest. Heathland can be somewhat open and featureless, which makes finding a composition challenging. Try to keep it simple, aiming to capture the spirit of the colourful spectacle without showing it all and use elements such as a lone tree on the horizon or a pathway cutting through the heather to act as a lead-in line.
Best time to shoot
Heather flowers in late summer, a time of year when the light can be rather harsh during the day, so it’s worth getting out for the golden hours at the start and end of the day. Aside from the obvious prospect of a dramatic sunrise, the low angle of the light as the first rays of sunlight splash across the landscape adds shape and texture to the heather.
There’s no need for any special equipment. I took most of my shots between 24-40mm, a range covered by most kit lenses or compact camera zooms. A telephoto lens is useful for picking out details and when wildlife that lives among the heather makes an appearance. It’s worth slipping a couple of filters into your kit bag: a circular polariser to make the most of the riot of colour and a graduated ND filter to keep those early morning (or evening) skies under control.
With its bold colours and stark contrasts, heathland can be a great place to experiment with different techniques. Try forsaking the small apertures and resulting shallow depth of field usually favoured for landscape images and shoot wide open, preferably with a telephoto lens. Focusing on a point of interest in the distance, a lone tree for example, will render the foreground heather as a glorious pink blur.
You can take this a step further by using intentional camera movement (ICM), a technique that involves deliberately moving the camera during the exposure. There are endless possibilities and permutations with ICM and a lot of trial and error to get something you’re happy with, but it’s a lot of fun. In this example above, using a fairly slow shutter speed I moved the camera smoothly from the tops of the trees down to the heather, pressing the shutter button halfway down.
1. Use a tripod
As always with landscape photography, a tripod is essential. It not only ensures your shots will be sharp, but also slows the whole process down, giving you time to consider your composition and make sure you nail the exposure.
2. Weather forecast
Check for mornings where mist is forecast and get there early to catch the best of the conditions because
the sun can burn it off quickly. Clear mornings will ensure you get nice warm sidelight on the heather.
3. In the details
Although the sea of colour is the obvious attraction, don’t overlook the details. Dew-covered spiderwebs, butterflies or backlit individual flowers can be picked out with a telephoto or macro lens and the colours of out-of-focus heather make a great backdrop.
4. Autumn gold
July and August, when the flowers are in bloom, are the best months for capturing heather, but autumn brings a range of earthy tones that combine beautifully with the gold and russets of the ferns and trees.
Justin Minns is an award-winning photographer, specialising in East Anglian landscapes for clients including the BBC and the National Trust. www.justinminns.co.uk