How to Find & Photograph Bluebells
Its that wonderful time of year again where the forest floors are carpeted with fantastic blue and purple bluebells, This is how I choose to find & capture my bluebell photographs, we will cover....
Best time of year to photograph Bluebells
Best way to care for the Bluebell forests
Best conditions to photograph Bluebells
Best position to photograph Bluebells, High or low ?
Best lens & focal lengths for Bluebells
Filters for photographing Bluebells
Best camera settings for Bluebell pictures
Best lighting for Bluebell pictures
Post processing Bluebell pictures
Now the first thing I want to mention is the preservation of these wonderful flowers which bring so much pleasure to everyone.
Without fail every year I see people trampling through the bluebells in order to get a selfie or the perfect shot of someone sitting in the middle of them, please stop this and please actively encourage people to shoot them from the paths or very edges, A little known fact but it is actually illegal to pick or to trample bluebells so these people are breaking the law, stand up for the protection of the forest as these plants can't do it on their own and need our protection, please be responsible and say something to people who have no respect for the bluebells.
Bluebells take around 5-7 years from seed to flower and establish a colony and thrive and every time they are trampled they lose their ability to photosynthesise and therefore die, the leaves are far more important to the Bluebell than the actual flower itself.
The UK has nearly half the worlds population of Bluebells here so they really are something wonderful for the UK which makes finding them fairly easy if you live here.
Bluebells thrive best in ancient woodland and of course areas which see little of no disturbance, but they are not exclusive to woodland, you can find them on exposed hillsides basking in the sun and they will be clearly visible due to their bright blue colouring from a large distance.
Bluebells flower around mid April to mid May but it is obviously highly dependant on the conditions leading up to the spring as to when they actually come out so keep a close eye on the forests from early April.
Peak time to photograph them is usually very late April or early May when most of the carpet is in full bloom and they're at their best, but again the season conditions will dictate exactly when this happens so best advice is to keep an eye on them.
Bluebell woods are easier to find as they tend to flower every year at the same place unlike the wildly nomadic poppy fields, therefore the locations are not really a secret and are very well documented on the internet, the national trust website has a bluebell locator so you can find a forest near you, although these will be the best known ones and of course see far more visitors through them so if you're looking for a more isolated forest then you will need to put the miles in and get off the beaten track.
Its often worth sharing information with a group of friends on bluebell forests, they will probably know a few that you don't and vice versa so you can quickly double your knowledge of areas, but not all photographers want to share and some keep things very much to themselves, if that is their wish then graciously respect it and don't make people feel bad for wanting to protect an area they have worked hard to find.
2019 saw an absolute bluebell explosion and pretty much everywhere I went I found a new location which had these fantastic woodland flowers growing in abundance, and best of all they were all open to the public.
A point here about forest land, a lot of it is private and the owners understandably don't take too kindly to an army of photographers trampling through them so please respect boundaries and don't go into private areas unless you have express permission from the land owners, in truth there's no need too either as there are so many public forests that contain them.
Best Conditions to photograph Bluebells
Well this is a funny one as we're all used to waiting for the perfect light or perfect moment to nail a shot, with bluebells it turns it all on its head really.
Overcast and dull conditions can make photographing bluebells a far better option as it really keeps the contrast down and helps to evenly expose the whole scene.
Mist over bluebells is perhaps the very best way to shoot them but its fairly rare and obviously mornings are best if you are after this, but if you see a forecast showing the possibility of this then get to the forest and nail an epic shot, but be sure to stick to the edge of the forest so the mist can penetrate it.
Bright conditions can still make for striking shots as you will have dappled light coming through the canopy lighting up certain areas and this is especially good for close up shots or indeed long lens shots picking out these well lit areas but they will have a large degree of contrast which will need to be controlled, The histogram is your best friend here.
The preferred time to photograph bluebells is mornings and evenings due to the low sun and golden light, but for me morning is by far the best as the chance of mist is greater but the great thing with bluebells is you can shoot them all day from morning to evening as the forest canopy will control the light fairly well and each hour gives you something new to shoot, Mid day for example will have far more blue tones to the light which works really well for bluebells, whereas mornings and evenings will have a higher volume of red tones to the light which will give a warmer feel to the image
Stating the obvious but the less wind you have the better for bluebells in order to stop any motion or blurring, but you can get creative with the wind and do a slightly longer exposure to capture the movement of the bluebells if you so wish.
After rain can be a really nice way to shoot bluebells as they will be revitalised and standing proud and who can resist the delicate nature of a raindrop on a bluebell with a macro lens to reveal natures most intimate moments.
So in summary anytime is a good time to photograph bluebells but if you want something really special then morning is probably your best bet.
High or Low ?
The position of your tripod will have a huge difference on your overall shot so its something you really need to pay attention too, but you don't have to limit yourself with a tripod, handheld is something I will do more than ever when photographing bluebells.
If you have image stabilisation on your camera then this is the time to switch it on for handheld and make sure you have a fast enough shutter speed to avoid any camera shake but if you do switch back to a tripod then remember to turn off your image stabilisation or it could affect your shot.
Shooting low gives dramatic effect of the bluebells and is great when you have a really foreground heavy shot but it will limit your view of the bluebells and you will have to pay careful attention to your aperture to make sure you are still getting everything in focus (assuming that is your intention) something around F16 is perfect whereas if you want only the foreground ones sharp and the rest in a beautiful dreamy blur then go low as your lens will allow around F2.8 or F4 for example.
Low down is also a lovely way to shoot bluebells when the trees have the sun behind them and are casting long shadows over your subject, it can give a really ethereal feel to the shot.
Shooting from eye level can reveal much more of the landscape and really works to show the layers of the forest, but does lack the intimacy of a low and close photograph but it brings with it its own secrets and charm as the eye wanders more freely in the shot.
From eye level you will be able to include far more in the scene, for example bluebells as well as trees and even the canopy should you wish, it can work really will for dividing your scene into sections, much more so than low level shots.
Lead lines become far more important at eye level and forest pathways make excellent lines to follow plus it leads the eye nicely through the scene.
Fallen trees and old broken branches also make excellent leads and allow you to let the eye naturally follow into the scene as well as adding a bit more interest and tell a story.
Experiment with your shooting hight and find what works for you and try hand holding, its very liberating to not use a tripod and you become less constrained by rules and therefore become more creative with your compositions as well as the overall experience being better as you are simply more free, just watch your shutter speed and check each shot by zooming in to make sure its nice and sharp and showing no signs of camera shake.
Which lens is best for bluebells ?
This is a very subjective thing and one persons favourite will be another persons hatred.
For me the best "all round" lens is something like a 24-105 mm lens, it will enable you to cover a wide range of situations with Bluebells.
Wide angle lens are a favourite too as they give a wide sweep of the carpet and are really good for foreground subjects like old branches or rocks they will obviously give you a bigger vista to include but sometimes with bluebells, less is more.
A longer focal length of say 70-200 mm can be really handy in a forest environment as you can pick out subjects and light spots and of course it stops you being tempted to walk further into the bluebells and damaging them, it also has the advantage of really being able to throw the background out of focus if that's your desired effect.
A long lens can really score well when you have a forest floor that is littered with small branches and other distractions that can look very unsightly on a wide angle lens as it allows you to avoid them by getting to isolate your subject from the distractions.
Longer focal lengths will compress the scene nicely and make the bluebells appear more plentiful than they actually are so it can be a good technique to employ when presented with patchy bluebells rather than a dense carpet of them.
Be aware though a longer focal length will exaggerate any camera movement even more so pay attention to shutter speeds and if necessary bump up the ISO a touch to give you a shake free shot.
Macro lenses really come into their own with bluebells and while I don't tend to shoot this way myself very often, every year I see some stunning examples from people who do and each year I think to myself, I must do more of that !
Macro lenses with a true 1:1 reproduction on the sensor will give you the most intimate portrait of these wonderful flowers and enable you to capture the pollen on the inside or raindrops on the bluebell itself, they open up a wonderful world to explore.
Depth of field can be an issue with macro lenses because you are so close to your subject so therefore unable to get it all in focus without focus stacking which is an art form in itself.
Don't get me wrong you don't have to get it all in focus and it can look super effective when using shallow depth of field to isolate an area of the bluebells like the stamen for example.
Again experiment with this and see what works for you, but as always zoom in to your shots to ensure you are happy that there is no shake and that your focal point is as sharp as you need it to be.
I will always take three lenses when shooting bluebells, 15-35 mm, 24-105 mm & 70-200 mm and I'm guaranteed to use all three, but without doubt the lens which remains on the camera the most is my 24-105 mm, its just so flexible so if weight is an issue then this lens is king and should be your "go to" lens.
Filters for Bluebells
I generally don't use any ND filters or graduated filters for bluebell shots as in most cases they are simply not needed and I want to get as faster shutter speed as I can.
The one exception to this rule is the polarising filter and this is absolutely essential in my opinion for forests.
The polariser will enable you to take the glare off the leaves as well as punching up the colour saturation in the way that only a polariser can do but remember its effect will come mostly into play when shooting side lit subjects at 90 degrees to the sun.
You can use this on all lenses when shooting but be aware the effect can be slightly strange on super wide angle lenses and maybe a little undesirable, so just pay attention to overly dark areas if using it.
You probably won't suffer anywhere near as much if using focal lengths of 24 mm upwards on a full frame camera.
The polariser really is a useful filter though and I wouldn't go without it, in fact if you don't have one and you want to shoot bluebells this season then make it your number one purchase, it will be worth it and you don't need to spend a fortune on one either.
I personally use the Kase filters K9 holder & polariser which is superb but there are many other manufactures out there and many different levels of quality but get what you can afford and reap the benefits.
Best camera settings for bluebells
There is no clear settings for this as each shot will dictate what you use.
If you want sharp focus on a foreground subject with a beautifully out of focus background then shoot with a wide open aperture such as F2.8/F4 whereas if you want everything in focus aim to use F11 to F16 for example depending on the depth of the subject.
ISO should be kept as low as possible so 100 for most cameras or 50 if you have a camera capable of expanded ISO, but you will be governed by your shutter speed and if there is any wind movement on the bluebells, if this is the case then up your ISO by 100 at a time till you get the desired shutter speed but beware the higher the ISO then the more noise you will introduce to your picture, hence the desire to keep it low where possible.
If you are shooting a portrait subject with bluebells in the background then again wide open at F2.8/F4 is preferable to give you that dreamy smooth effect.
Best lighting for bluebells
Again this is a very personal thing and there is no right answer cause its down to individual taste and interpretation.
Shooting into low direct light will give you fantastic long shadows of the trees and can look very dramatic as its such a high contrast image but it's also the hardest to expose for due to the high dynamic range.
Bracketing can overcome some of this problems along with exposure blending which I'm not a fan off but I do see the benefits of it for this type of shot.
Side lighting is probably my favourite way too shoot bluebells as it gives a far easier to expose scene with much more balance but it does lack the drama of the high contrast scenes.
Light directly on your subject from behind you can be a real favourite of mine too, it enables the tree trunks to glow in low golden light but watch out for getting your own shadow in shot, I tend to use this when using a longer focal length so my shadow isn't an issue plus it allows the most available light in the scene but watch out for over exposing your image in this type of light, as always keep an eye on the histogram and look at brightness as well as the RGB channels too.
Do remember though that direct hard light from above will have the effect of bleaching your bluebells and they will lose a lot of their colour so try and avoid those situations and as I keep saying, watch your histogram as it will tell you all the information you need to know.
Post processing Bluebell pictures
Bluebell pictures can be notoriously hard to process because they will often contain a very green colour cast on the image, or in some instances blue.
Im sure you have seen many pictures where the bluebells are so deep blue that it looks far from natural and likewise sometimes the level of magenta in pictures is simply too high.
Levels & curves adjustment can be your best friend here along with the histogram to see which of the RGB colours are presenting issues.
If you have paid careful attention to your histogram when taking the shot and more importantly the RGB histogram then you will have tried to avoid clipping the green & blue channels and it will give you a far better base image to start with.
My first channel to receive attention is usually the green channel and it is backed off slightly to give a bit more magenta into the image.
The blue channel is then addressed next and any subtle adjustments will be made to give the true colour of the image by removing the cast, But this isn't a firm rule, each image will require different levels of adjustment but it's a good starting point.
Very little really needs to be done to a forest image of bluebells if taken correctly in the first place other than a colour cast adjustment if needed and possible contrast adjustment through the curves panel but there is one bit of post processing that can really help in these scenes and that's the Orton effect.
The Orton effect basically adds a sharpened layer and a blurred layer over the top of your image and gives it a very dreamy effect (Google it as there are videos everywhere on how to do it) Im not going to go through how to do it on here as it has been covered by thousands of people online before, but its absolutely worth looking up.
The Orton effect really enhances forest pictures but it has become very common so use it as an artistic choice IF and only IF the image will really benefit from it.
Avoid over sharpening bluebell images and avoid high use of clarity, these are delicate flowers and require delicate adjustments in post processing, in this case less is absolutely more, don't kill a good image. If anything back off the clarity slider to give a softer dreamier finish to your picture if it requires it, sliders can go both ways, not just to the right ;) !!
Fully immerse yourself in the experience
This might sound a bit obvious and a bit hippy like but try to take it all in and fully immerse yourself in the experience, breath in the sweet perfume of the bluebells, appreciate the delicate nature of them and the serenity and solitude of the forest.
Appreciate the wildlife around you, you are in their habitat and while you might not see them you can be sure they are watching you and you may find its quite common to see a deer or two who seem to love natural banquet provided for them.
Respect the forest and flowers, encourage others to do the same and let the calm nature of a bluebell forest infect you and bring your stress levels right down.
Take a coffee and some food and simply relax in one without shooting, these are here for just over a month each year so really try and enjoy and appreciate it and I guarantee it will reflect in your photography.
Above all please respect the forest and its treasures for future generations to enjoy.
I wish you all well in your quest to capture this most beautiful flower, the humble bluebell. As always, Happy shooting
More bluebell pictures and locations can be seen HERE
With poppy season coming after bluebells you can read my guide to finding and photographing poppies HERE
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