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Nature Photography Inspiration for Spring

Photographing cowslip flowers

As nature photographers we are spoilt for choice in spring. Trees, flowers, migrating birds, and insects all appear and many of our mammals become more active.

It is possible to become overwhelmed by the opportunities, and it can be tempting to try to photograph everything. One of the messages I want to put across in this article is to do exactly the opposite.

To take great photos we need to slow down, focus on just a limited variety of subjects, and take our time over each one. Coming back from a day of photography, I would rather have one great photo than a memory card full of mediocrity.

With this in mind, I am deliberately focusing the main part of this nature diary on a subject that doesn’t move, unless it’s windy!

Many times, I have heard the argument that photographing flowers is easy because, unlike birds and mammals, flowers stay still. Well here’s a counter-argument: it is precisely because flowers stand still, that they become a photographic challenge.

Taking a photo, in its most basic form, might be easy, but we have time to reflect and improve. The creativity of our flower photography is limited only by our own skill, inventiveness, and imagination.

How to photograph spring flowers 

The best photos of flowers tend to be taken either early or late in the day, when the sun is low in the sky. Flowers are great subjects for backlighting, especially when the sun isn’t too strong.

Misty, dew-laden mornings are the best, but the evening light can offer a warmth which also suits many flowers. There are times when I supplement the natural light with a reflector, often opting for a gold reflected light to warm the shaded side of the flower and its stem.

My go-to lens for flowers is the 100mm macro lens. This is great for extreme close-ups of small flowers, and I can achieve lovely out of focus foregrounds and backgrounds by pushing the lens into clumps of flowers.

photographing dandelion in spring
To get this close to a dandelion seedhead, a macro lens is required.

My second favourite is the 300mm telephoto lens, because I can really blur foreground and background with this. It enables me to be extremely selective with the background, so I can often get some interesting bokeh.

Remember that bokeh changes with aperture, so I usually experiment with this. I will often move my camera an inch or two either way to get the best positioning of the bokeh. I also like to include some foreground blur so I use this from ground level, either on a bean bag or on a ground level tripod.

Photographing tulips
A wild tulip shot early in the morning with backlighting, using a 300mm lens from a low angle of view.

The other lens that I use regularly is the 16 to 35mm f/4, when I want to show flowers in their surroundings. Using this lens at 16mm with a small aperture, I can achieve hyper-focusing from about half a metre to infinity. Wide-angles tend to be best when there are lots of flowers and a great view.

 

How to photograph flowers in Spring
Thrift in flower at Bedruthan Steps, Cornwall, shot with the 16 to 35mm lens at 19mm, and an aperture of f/14.

SPRING 3 Thrift in flower at Bedruthan Steps, Cornwall, shot with the 16 to 35mm lens at 19mm, and an aperture of f/14.

For extra creativity, I sometimes experiment with deliberate movement. By this, I mean we could let the wind blow the flowers, or we could move the camera during the exposure. For these ideas we need to consider the shutter speed, and maybe even use a neutral density filter to get a much longer shutter time.

Adding movement in flower photography
By moving the camera during the exposure I have created a ‘sea’ of movement in a dense patch of flowers.

But this isn’t the end of it: there are plenty of other ways in which we can be creative. For example, with flowers I sometimes try double exposures, with one exposure sharp and a second exposure slightly out of focus. The techniques are limitless.

Using multiple exposure in photography
Photo A: Here I have focused on the back of a wood anemone flower.
How to use double exposure for flower photography
Photo B: For this photo I used a double exposure with one half of the exposure out of focus.

Read more: How to Use Perspective in Nature and Wildlife Photography

The thought process

For photos that set out to show the key elements of the species (a type of image which we might refer to as a ‘record’ shot), it’s a good idea to find a plant that has a flower, bud, seedhead, and leaf, all in a good position to capture in one image.

Remember that it is acceptable to turn the flower heads slightly, or to twist a leaf upwards to get it into a slightly better angle. However, it is illegal to uproot plants, unless you have permission of the land-owner. Even then, it is illegal with species listed in Schedule 8 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act.

When it comes to being more creative, it sometimes helps to take a photo, go home, have a look at it, and then reflect. Compare it to competition winning photos and be honest with yourself. The next day, go back with some new ideas. Don’t expect to get a photo in five minutes; take time to find the best flower and be prepared to spend an hour or more on one subject.

Read more: 6 Tips for Photographing Flowers

Six spring flowers to photograph

I’m going to avoid the obvious, more traditionally photographed spring flowers, such as bluebells, daffodils, and orchids. Here are a few interesting species to look out for this year.

1. Snakeshead fritillary

This beautiful species grows from a bulb and can be found in proliferation on some wet meadows in the Thames Valley, particularly in Oxfordshire, and at Cricklade in Wiltshire. It is also grown in many gardens, where singles or groups can be photographed.

Spring photography ideas to try
I took this photo of a snakeshead fritillary early in the morning when there was a heavy dew. I used a 300mm lens set at f/3.2, and a gold reflector to light up the nearside of the flower.

This plant was so-named because the nodding flower heads were likened to snakes, though the ‘fritillus’ family name came directly from the Roman dice box of the same name, which had a chequered pattern on it- just like the petals of this flower. (Mid to late April is best for these). 

2. Cuckoo pint (lords-and-ladies)

This is a very common flower, growing in hedgerows and woodlands across the country. Its slightly phallic form has had an influence on almost all of its common and local names; even the innocent sounding ‘cuckoo pint’ is derived from ‘cuckoo’s pintle’ (penis).

Photography ideas for you to try this spring
The cuckoo pint has a distinctive flower; not colourful but rather sculptural.

The reference to the cuckoo is due to the arrival of the bird at the same time that this plant is in flower.

3. Pasque flower

This is a strikingly beautiful flower sitting atop a furry stem and leaves, ideal for backlighting. Few flowers have the spring credentials of the pasque flower, whose name is derived from ‘paschal’ from the Hebrew word for Passover, ‘Pesach’.

Flowers to photograph this spring
The pasque flower has a beautifully furry stem. For this photo I used the 300mm lens and deliberately found an angle of view in which I could fill the space to the left with a second flower.

The pasque flower blooms in mid-April, around the time of Easter. It grows on chalky ground, with plenty in the Chilterns and Hertfordshire (of which it is the county flower).

4. Spring squill

This is a tiny flower found growing around the coast of western and northern Britain. It has star-shaped blue flowers growing in clusters on a small but stout stem.

Photographing flowers using filters
Spring squill is quite a small flower, so it is difficult to photograph with a wide-angle. Here at Land’s End in Cornwall, it was growing densely enough to provide foreground colour, in combination with great scenery. I took this photo with a 16mm lens at f/14, and used two graduated filters (2-stop soft and 1-stop hard).

It is easily recognisable even without flowers (which bloom in April and May), as its succulent grass-shaped leaves curl distinctively at ground level.

5. Cowslip

Named because of an association with cattle pastures, cowslip now grows most commonly on sand dunes, chalk, and limestone areas, often in great profusion.

Photographing cowslip flowers
For this photo of cowslips, I used a 300mm lens with a 1.4x converter and I positioned the camera low enough to get foreground blur in front of the dominant flower. I often like the idea of blurring the foreground to obscure the point where the stem of the main flower goes out of frame.

Found in April and May, this is a vibrant subject that is well-suited to backlighting.

6. Foxglove

In late spring, banks of disturbed ground can burst into colour with the tall stems of foxgloves. The contrast of colour created between the flowers and the stems is striking, and they often attract the attention of bumblebees. So, be ready to get the shot of a bee approaching a flower!

Flower photography ideas for spring
In late spring foxgloves can make wonderful subjects. Remember the old adage that threes and fives work best!

TOP TIP: Find flowers close to where you live so you can go back repeatedly. You don’t need to go to anywhere special to take great photos of flowers!

Good hare days

Spring is the best time to photograph brown hares for two good reasons. For one, the vegetation is still much lower than it will be in the summer, meaning they can’t hide as well and, more importantly, the hares are more active in the early spring when they are mating.

We’ve all heard the saying ‘as mad as a March hare’. This is a reference to the strange behaviour of hares during their breeding season. Male hares get very pumped up with hormones in spring, usually around March, and feel a strong urge to mate. The females will only mate when they are in season, and can find themselves having to rebuff the attentions of a large number of suitors.

This is when we witness hares ‘boxing’, an act which usually involves a female seeing off an over-zealous male, and to call it boxing is a little misleading. Boxers follow a set of strict rules, a code of conduct which is completely lacking from the behaviour of a brown hare.

The female hare shows absolutely no mercy when it comes to fighting off an unwanted male, kicking him in the face and somersaulting him through the air with her sheer strength, biting or scratching fur from his back, and even chewing pieces out of his ears.

The more he keeps coming, the worse the punishment becomes. But be sure, this isn’t a sparring match or even a serious competition; he means her no harm but takes a lot of punishment.

Photographing brown hares
Here we see a male brown hare who fancies his chances, meeting a female brown hare who doesn’t! Both hare shots taken with a 300mm f/2.8 lens in combination with a 2x converter at f/5.6 and 800 ISO.

With camera in hand I have only ever witnessed a boxing match once, in the Cairngorms when I was leading a group of nature photography students. We weren’t there to photograph hares, but we had seen them many times.

A pair of hares suddenly arrived while we were eating lunch, and proceeded to box only a short distance away. We downed sandwiches, grabbed our cameras, and were all photographing the hares as they battled on the lane in front of us, seemingly oblivious to our presence. They ran away while still in combat but came back for a second go, so we didn’t need to stalk them.

My other experiences of photographing brown hares have involved lengthy periods of stalking, using walls and hedges, or even sheep, to mask my presence. I have occasionally used a car as a hide, which works really well if the hares are found near safe roads or farm tracks.

Photograph of brown hare in Spring
Later in spring, meadows will have some flowers and slightly longer grasses, but not enough to allow the brown hare to hide away. This photo was taken from a car window.

I live in Cornwall, a part of the country which is not great for brown hares. The best areas are those associated with larger fields in lower lying areas, such as East Anglia, Nottinghamshire, and Lincolnshire.

Further north, I have seen plenty of hares in sheep farming districts, such as the Forest of Bowland, and in Scotland, where they are widespread even to slightly higher ground in the Cairngorms.

TOP TIP: Boxing hares move very quickly, so be prepared to increase the ISO to get a shutter speed of about 1/4000th of a second if you want to freeze the action.

Read more: Photographing a Species In-depth

Photographing butterflies in Spring

There’s no surprise that spring sees the start of the butterfly season. At this time of year we will see a mix of species that have hibernated in adult form, such as the peacock, comma, red admiral, brimstone, and small tortoiseshell, as well as newly hatching spring species.

The earliest butterflies to hatch in the year include the holly blue, orange-tip, green-veined white, grizzled skipper, and speckled wood, all of which can be found widely across the country in the right habitats.

The first of the fritillaries to occur, usually in early May, is the pearl-bordered fritillary. This is a rare species and, though it is found in most regions of the UK, it is very localised and will require a visit to a special site to find one.

How to photograph butterflies in Spring
A pearl-bordered fritillary rests on a red campion, photographed using a 100mm macro lens.

My advice is to join a local butterfly group. Many counties have an active group, often affiliated with Butterfly Conservation, a national organisation. They might undertake conservation work during the winter to improve butterfly habitats, but in the spring and summer they will almost certainly lead guided walks on which they share expertise.

Join such a group, learn from its members, and give something back by way of time or money, to help support your local butterflies.

TOP TIP: When joining other people for a butterfly walk, try not to push in with a camera. Let other people enjoy their butterflies unhindered, and be prepared to hang around afterwards to get your photos. The light is often better later in the day, anyway.

In conclusion

Spring presents us with many opportunities, but it’s better to focus carefully on one than to try to tackle them all. I like to challenge myself to focus on something I might previously have overlooked as being unappealing or too common, and try to take a great photo.

This sometimes demands a lot of time and patience, and doesn’t always come to fruition, but it’s better to aim high and fail than to be satisfied with mediocrity.

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Visit David's website

Originally a maths teacher, David has been a professional photographer and writer for the last twenty years specialising in wildlife and landscape photography. He has undertaken many photographic commissions; lectured on the Marine and Natural History Photography degree course at Falmouth University and written thirteen books about wildlife and photography in his adopted county of Cornwall where he has lived for the last twenty-five years.

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