The great thing about living in this part of the world is how nature changes over the annual seasons. And that's rarely more apparent than in early May, when the trees sprout fresh green leaves, and the woodland sparks into life. It's a fabulous time to be out in the woods. Just a few weeks before the trees form their canopy, which will cut out most of the sunlight from the forest floor, a few plants seize the opportunity to catch some sun. The most spectacular of which, in my opinion, is the bluebell.
Last year I stayed local and photographed a bluebell wood just a bike ride away from my house. This year I fancied a change of scene, so we made a weekend of it to catch a springtime woodland further afield.
A couple of years ago I wrote an article for Outdoor Photography Magazine about the benefits of combining a photo shoot with a weekend away. It’s something I really love to do. If you can switch the 'photography brain' on and off at different times, it's really the best of both worlds. You get to photograph a location, landscape, or species too far away for a day trip, but you also get a 'mini-break'; quality time away, either on your own or with friends/family.
I think the key to a photography mini-break is being able to compartmentalise; deciding when is going to be 'holiday time', and when is going to be 'photography time'. That's a skill I've had to work at, since our earlier trips were more of a juggling act of trying to do both at the same time, and not really succeeding at either. On this occasion the time I wanted to be out at was 5am, and our plans for the daytime were largely to take it easy and enjoy a change of scene after the long winter stuck at home. So with no pressure, and a new woodland to explore, this was a really relaxing and fulfilling weekend.
I don't think my landscapes are the most technically complex. I tend to keep things pretty simple. You can shoot bluebell woods with any kind of camera, and any type of lens. But I prefer the mid-to-telephoto range. Around 50-100mm. Most of my bluebell photos are taken at around 70mm. Then it's really just a case of the old adage "f/8 and be there".
If I do have a golden rule, which applies to all my woodland photography, it's to keep the sky out of shot as much as possible. Of course you usually want to include the horizon in an image, but I rarely break the top of the trees. That keeps the scene focussed on the woodland environment, and conveys the enclosed feeling of the forest. And this is a key reason why a mid-range lens works better than a wide-angle/smartphone. Once the sky gets in on the act it's so much brighter than the woodland below, it really draws the eye, detracting from the scene, as well as overpowering the dynamic range of the camera sensor.
On a similar note, I don't tend to include the sun in the photo either. I usually prefer a more even light across the whole image, as I think it creates a more relaxing result. And in every other photo I've shared in this post, the sun is either just out of shot, or intentionally positioned behind a tree. But here I chose to break that rule, and place the sun in-shot. It introduces more contrast, and it's harder to deal with technically, but it's nice to have one shot with an extra element.
Springtime In The Forest
Of course bluebells look amazing, but I wish I could capture the smell of the bluebell woods. They're just amazing - mixed subtly with the ferns and beech trees. There's a slight chill in the air, a little dampness, and bird-song for acres around. One morning I heard a pair of tawny owls too-wit-too-wooing, but they're so rarely ever seen. It's a primeval sensory experience that suggests to me that humans are subconsciously attuned to the forest environment in a way that hints at our prehistoric past.