Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Bluebell Season

Bluebells, near Corhampton, 2010 © Graham Dew
Bluebells, near Corhampton, 2010

There is a very brief season when certain woodlands in southern England acquire a lustrous bluey-purple carpet of beautiful bluebells. The season is usually quite short, starting around Mayday and over by Whitsun. These delicate plants need the warmth and light of spring to encourage them to come out, but the display comes to a fairly sharp end when the trees above come into leaf and starve the bluebells of light. Well, in this rather peculiar dry then wet, warm then cold spring, the bluebells were largely gone when we went up to Micheldever Woods this weekend for an evening stroll. There were a few to be seen and those that were around looked in fairly good condition, but there just wasn’t the density or extent that we have seen in many previous visits over the years.

The image above was taken a couple of years ago in another local wood to the east of Winchester. The typical bluebell shot is one of a swathe of blue taken in open woodland with tall, bare vertical trunks reaching up to a bright green canopy, often shot with a telephoto lens to compress the flowers and increase the density of colour, often shot in wide format. Whilst the mass of blue in a wood is very attractive, I find the subtle variations in hue in the petals, from light blue to purple, as well as the delicate shape of the plants, visually more interesting. So to make this picture I went in very close - a bluebell flower is only about 10mm long. One of the problems of shooting in woodland on a sunny day are the bright spots of sunlight that can blow out the highlights in the background, which makes for a messy and distracting, uncontrolled image. Because of this I went out shooting early in the morning, and as a result the bluebells were in shade. I had been hoping to find a shaft of light that would light a few specimens, but I could not find any. So this image was lit by a little pop of fill-in off-camera flash, through a small softbox to give a delicate illumination. I tried different positions of the light and liked this version best with the light coming from below. It gave good definition to the bluebells and seemed to make them glow in a fairy-like manner.

This picture was taken last year on my Panasonic LX3 camera, and is a good example of how high-end compacts have a unique set of attributes that make them a very useful tool in the photographers toolkit. The first important aspect of the picture is the proximity of the lens, which from memory was about 50mm. This, coupled with a wide angle of coverage, makes the subject appear very large, whilst allowing a large view of the background to be captured. It is a completely different perspective from the dedicated macro lenses of larger cameras, and to my mind, a more natural and attractive look. It is the difference of holding something close, or using a magnifying glass. The small sensor and short focal length enable this, and I know of no other way to get such an image in larger formats; m4/3, DX, FX and beyond. It was the primary reason that I bought the camera in the first place.

The other key element used in the picture is the flash. Whilst just about every camera above compact size will have a hotshoe to connect a flash, only a handful of compacts have this feature, and it enables the use of off-camera flash. In addition, the LX3 has the advantage of a leaf shutter. All DSLRs and mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras have focal plane shutters that have a maximum sync speed of 1/250, and usually quite a bit lower. This makes it very hard to balance the flash light to the ambient, unless one has a lot of flash power. The LX3 will effectively sync at all speeds, allowing a high shutter speed to choke off the ambient light as needed. With the LX3, I can use a high shutter speed, a largish aperture and be able to light the subject with a small flashgun through a diffuser. The ambient (background) exposure in this image was f8 at 1/10, ISO100, so I wasn't taking advantage of the high sync speed, but it's a handy capability to have when you do need it. The other benefit of the leaf shutter is lack of vibration. This makes the camera silent when taking pictures but also allows lower shutter speeds to be used without blurring. Coupled with the in-lens image stabilisation it is quite possible to get shake-free images at 1/10s as in this image.

So, a picture that relied on some of the more unique aspects of a high end compact camera that continues to earn its place in my camera bag.

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