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by Andy McInroy
Photographs Of The Month - June 2009

Portglenone Bluebells
IR436, Bluebells, Portglenone Forest, County Antrim

Photographing Woodland Bluebells

One of the joys of the springtime is to stroll through a thick carpet of woodland bluebells. It is hardly surprising that such a beautiful subject has become a bit of a photographic cliché. However, when the bluebells arrive in late April, I can rarely resist the temptation to capture them on camera. Cliché or not, bluebells are not necessarily easy to photograph. For starters, these woodlands can present you with a minefield of exposure, contrast and colour correction problems. In this article I'll describe some digital photography techniques that will hopefully help you to capture them at their finest.

1. Planning
Firstly, a bit of local knowledge is indispensable. Bluebells can flower between mid April and the end of May, However, in my experience they are most photogenic during the two week window in the middle of the season. Here in Northern Ireland this usually occurs at the start of May, but this will depend on seasonal variation, so it pays to watch the local newspapers and photographic forums closely. I am lucky to have a small bluebell wood on my doorstep, so I was able to gauge the condition of the bluebells before I made a longer drive to the larger bluebell glades of Portglenone. This ancient woodland comes alive in the springtime and must rank as one of the finest bluebell woods in Ireland.

2. Weather and Timing
An important aspect to consider is the weather. There is actually no bad weather for photographing a bluebell wood, but the weather will have a bearing on the techniques you use. Lightly overcast days can be ideal for controlling contrast which makes the exposures much easier. These conditions give a soft, muted effect which can work very well. Misty days can give a special mysterious mood and depth. Sunny days can give sun-dappled woodland floors, although this presents problems of contrast which must be carefully controlled. The time of day is also an important consideration. Shooting in the evening gives a warmer light with long shadows. Midday shooting gives a more neutral light with a greater proportion of blue wavelengths which suits the flowers very well. I decided to visit Portglenone around the middle of the day when the sunlight was penetrating the canopy directly overhead and was bathing the forest floor in a patchwork of light.

3. Composition
Your choice of composition when photographing bluebells is limitless. You can use a wide angle lens to capture a large swathe of the carpet. Alternatively, you can use a telephoto lens to focus on the texture of a trunk or leaves, perhaps leaving the bluebells out of focus behind it. The telephoto can also be used to good effect in more patchy bluebell woods to give the impression of a thick carpet. You can even use a macro lens to photograph individual flowers, although I've always found it a challenge to avoid wind blown movement. On my visit to Portglenone, the sunlight was filtering through the branches to dapple the forest floor, so I decided to focus initially on a wider view of a bluebell covered embankment near one of the main paths.

4. Positioning
When using a wide angle lens, it is often recommended to get down low to the ground. However, for wide shots of the bluebell carpet, my suggestion is to shoot from a tripod at head height or perhaps even higher if you can. The reason for this is threefold. Firstly it maximises the view of the bluebell carpet. Secondly it focuses the attention on the carpet as a whole rather than on individual flowers. Lastly, because the camera is some way off the ground, there is less constraint on the depth of field and you will be able to shoot at a mid aperture (e.g f8) which will result in a sharper shot overall.

Portglenone Bluebells
IR435, Woodland Path, Portglenone Forest, County Antrim

5. Exposure
When you take your photograph it is worth using exposure compensation to push your camera histogram as far right as you can before the highlights start to overexpose (clip). This will allow you to retain detail in the shadows while also minimising digital noise. My suggestion would be to shoot at your selected aperture (say f8 to f13) and compensate the exposure by adjusting the shutter speed. As with all tripod work, the shutter should be released by cable release or self timer to prevent camera shake during the exposure. Also, if your camera allows it, you should always shoot in RAW mode. This will allow you to deal with the difficult whiteblance control at home.

6. Basic Processing
So with the exposure made, it is time to move on to the digital processing on the computer. If you have used the 'expose right' technique that I have just described, you may find that your image looks a little bright and washed out on your computer. This can be corrected with a simple brightness adjustment to bring the image back to a level which looks close to what you observed at the time. You may also wish to adjust the contrast and add a little fill light to bring the shadow detail out again. You might also wish boost the saturation a little, although this might be best left until after the whitebalance adjustment. Overall, this part of the processing should be kept as simple as possible.

7. Whitebalance
By shooting in RAW you now have the opportunity to take control over the whitebalance. This will allow you to correct for the light conditions and address any colour casts caused by the green canopy overhead. Whitebalance is controlled by two controls in the RAW conversion software, 'Temperature' and 'Tint'.

The 'Temperature' control allows you to make adjustment for the warmth of the overhead lighting conditions and cloud cover. For outdoor work, this would normally be set to 'sunny', 'cloudy' or 'shady' but most conversion software allows you to specify a particular 'colour temperature' in degrees Kelvin. Remember, a higher temperature light source results in a 'cooler' image, so a correction in post-processing will act in the opposite direction to warm it. In my image, I chose to set the the whitebalance to 'sunny' (5500K) which was consistent with the conditions and avoided the blubells in the direct sunlight appearing too pink.

The 'Tint' control allows you to remove any strong green or purple colour casts which the 'temperature' control cannot correct. In my examples, a strong green colour cast is caused by the leafy canopy overhead. The slider runs from green at one end to magenta at the other. In this image the slider was pushed heavily towards magenta. This corrects for the strong green cast across the image and also resuts in a stronger and more natural looking bluebell colour.

In the cropped images below you can see the transformation between my unprocessed RAW image and the final photograph. The changes are subtle, but you can see how the whitebalance tint adjustment has corrected the cast (e.g in the treetrunk) and also enhanced the blue colour of the flowers to their more natural appearance. Overall, the image has been transformed from a rather washed out original RAW file into more natural representation of the scene that I enjoyed with my own eyes.

Perhaps my article has come too late for some of you to try these techniques this year. With the season now coming to an end, perhaps you might like to bookmark or store this article away for next year. Do let me know how you get on. The beauty of the bluebell season is that, even if you miss it, the cycle of the seasons brings is quickly around to be enjoyed again.

Initial RAW image
Default processing
Final Image
Brightness reduced
Fill light added
Contrast increased
Saturation increased
Whitebalance 'sunny'
Colour corrected (to
remove green cast)
by shifting whitebalance
'tint' towards magenta

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Technical Details - 1st Image
Date/Time: 2.25pm, 11th May, 2009
Aperture: F11
Exposure time: 1/10th second
Whitebalance: Sunny
Focal Length: 14mm
Lens: Pentax 14mm DA
Camera: Pentax K10D
Support: Tripod and cable release
Filtration: None

Technical Details - 2nd Image
Date/Time: 3.40pm, 11th May, 2009
Aperture: F16
Exposure time: 1/2 second
Whitebalance: Sunny
Focal Length: 14mm
Lens: Pentax 14mm DA
Camera: Pentax K10D
Support: Tripod and cable release
Filtration: None

Text and photos © Andy McInroy