Every year around the second week in May the UK countryside is alive with a blue blanket of colour, the perfect time for bluebell photography.
This blue hue moves in a wave from the south of England, reaching the Scottish woodlands about three weeks later.
In a similar way to the cherry blossom in Japan and the autumn colours of New England, this annual event in nature brings people out to experience the beauty and fragrance that is free to enjoy.
Types of bluebells in the UK
Nothing beats the early morning scent and sight of a bluebell wood. With the heady fragrance hanging in the air and the cool dappled light filtering through the vibrant green young-leafed tree canopy, it is something special after a long winter.
Bluebells prefer the native beech woodlands where the later emergence of leaves allows the bluebells time to flower before the light drops. Once the leaves have emerged the woodland floor is too dark for bluebells to thrive.
The bluebells growing wild in England are the native bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) with a drooping head, curly-edged flowers, creamy white pollen and the beautiful delicate scent associated with bluebells.
In contrast, the bolder, more regimented Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica) is a darker colour with tubular flowers and no scent. These are found in gardens across the country.
Invasive and aggressive they pollinate with the native bluebell. It would be a disaster to lose one of our beautiful native flowers to a similar but uninvited guest in our ancient woodlands.
When to see bluebells in the UK
Bluebells are only in flower for a very short time each year. This is usually from mid-April until mid-May but will vary slightly depending on how cold and damp the late winter and early spring have been. The first bluebells are usually seen in the far south of the country and then the blooms will spread north in a fragrant wave.
The best time of day is either early morning or just before sunset when long shadows and dappled light can enhance your photography. Misty mornings can add atmosphere to the photograph as can sunburst through the trees at sunset.
A slightly overcast day can bring out the details of the flowers and the trees which is great for more detailed photographs.
Where to see bluebells in thE UK
Bluebells can be found across the UK. Some of the bluebell woods are large and get very busy while other locations are hidden, known only by the locals.
Not all bluebells grow in woodland areas. Skomer Island in Pembrokeshire and Isles of Scilly off Cornwall are both islands that are coated in beautiful bluebells.
How to photograph bluebells
While it is easy to find a bluebell wood, getting nice photographs of the woodland can be difficult. Light, debris and other people can hamper efforts but the simple tips below should help you to photograph these ancient woodlands.
Remember that these woodlands are not made for being trampled. Do not leave the path however tempting it is to get into the wash of bluebells. They only need to be trampled a few times to be destroyed forever.
Choose the right lens
It is so tempting to use a wide-angle lens to show a large area but this does not compress the flowers enough and leads to a less-than-impressive display of bluebells, however impressive they are in reality. You are much better at taking a lens that covers a good range from 70-200mm. This will help show the bluebells as more of a carpet.
This photograph was taken on an iPhone and while it shows the bluebells, they are nowhere near as dramatic as they appeared in reality.
Composition – find a clean area of woodland And a fOcus
Messy photographs are all too easy to produce and it is sometimes hard to find a clean area without debris and fallen trees. While these can enhance the composition, usually they are just annoying.
Using paths to aid composition can help, winding in from the corner of the frame the path will draw the eye into the image. Sometimes a plant or log can be used to enhance your picture.
The photograph below shows a messy bluebell wood. Some woodland can be ‘gardened’, selecting where you stand to eliminate logs and twigs from the frame, but others like this are beyond a bit of light trimming.
Getting the light right
Getting the lighting correct is a nightmare with bluebells as they change colour with the ambient light. At sunset, they can appear almost golden lilac, at midday they will be a harsh blue.
Getting the correct lighting can be difficult and careful planning of sun position and the layout of the woodland is needed. One place where the sun and woodland work well is Micheldever Woods in Hampshire.
Long shadows across the woodland give an atmosphere to the photograph, midday sun takes all of the atmospheres from the scene and leaves just a harsh blue expanse.
An overcast day is perfect for the details of the bluebells where their colour and textures will be subdued and subtle.
Don’t forget to visit in the early morning for atmospheric misty scenes in the woodland.
Get the right angle
Despite the problems with the harsh light of day, it is possible to get some beautiful macro photographs with the bluebells.
Macro shots need more light because of the large aperture.
This can be difficult in low light but is perfect for midday photography using the shade from the tree canopy to block out the harsh light.
Shadows can still be a problem but choosing your subject well and nice photographs can be achieved.
As well as getting close it is worth taking some photographs down low with your camera or phone almost within the bluebells or for a wide overview of the woodland floor take your photograph from shoulder height.
You can also experiment with height and distance from the bluebells. Being further away from the bluebells will give the feeling of more of a blanket of colour. The closer you get the more clumps that will become visible.
Being above the bluebells can also give the illusion of a blanket of colour. Too high and you start to see gaps between the bluebells, to love and they merge too much. You do need to experiment with the perfect height and angle.
Garlic and other wild flowers
Even if the bluebell photography is not working how you planned, there are always other opportunities. At the same time as the bluebells are in flower, wild garlic and pink orchids will start to appear and can blend well with the bluebells as they start to go over.
Playing with long exposures and camera movement can also help well the light and the woodland is not ideal. By setting a longer shutter speed, mounting the camera on a tripod and moving gently a beautiful blur can be achieved.
Leave no trace
When you visit the bluebell woods you should be careful not to tread on the bluebells. They need very little trampling to be destroyed forever.
If you want to take photographs of people ‘within’ the bluebells then use the paths that wind through the woods to your advantage. If the camera and the person being photographed are both on the path, getting down low with the camera can give the illusion of the person being deep within the bluebells.
Take your time
Finally, nothing beats time in these ancient woodlands. Take time to inhale the aroma of the bluebells, listen to the birds in the trees and watch the light dance through the trees and new spring leaves.
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