From a sea of blue flowers and pink blossom to new life and an uptick in celestial activity, spring brings photographic opportunities galore
Flowers in bloom. Rushing waterfalls. The birth of new life. After a long winter the beginning of spring is the ideal excuse to dust-off your camera and get creative outdoors.
Nature comes alive in spring, with the longer days and warming temperatures leading to colourful sights such as wildflower displays and cherry blossoms, young animals frolicking, and even a little-known uptick in ‘space weather’. Here are some of our top tips for taking full photographic advantage of the change from winter to spring…
1 Bluebell woods
A carpet of bluebells is an evocative image of spring, but like cherry blossoms the season for capturing bluebells is short and sweet. They flower in April and May in the UK – home to over half the world’s bluebells – so you’re only going to get a short window to visit a bluebell wood to photograph them.
Although it’s a classic spring shot, bluebells can be tricky to capture. The options are endless. A wide-angle lens will help you create a dreamy scene, though you’ll need a very thick carpet of bluebells for that to work well. A telephotos lens can help you zoom-in on a section of bluebell growth for a more luscious look. You can also attempt some macro shots of the flowers themselves. Close-ups are best done after rain when you can see droplets on the flowers, but you’ll likely have to be very patient because even a breath of wind can make a macro shot very difficult.
Be really careful when in a bluebell wood because the flowers are very sensitive despite being perennials; they take many years to colonise a wood and if you stand on one it’s likely to die. So stick to paths and if attempting macro shots be very careful where you put your feet. There are actually two types of bluebells in the UK; the sweeter smelling British bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) and the less scented Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica).
2 Baby animals
Lambs gambolling in meadows and ducklings following their parents across streams and rivers; both are classic springtime photos, but they’re not particularly easy to get. A mistake a lot of casual wildlife photographers make is standing up. For a more interesting point of view crouch down to the eyeline of the animal. That way you’ll get a more natural-looking shot.
What lens to use depends on how far away the wildlife is, of course, but count on at least a mid-telephoto lens such as a 300mm. Once you’re in position you have another problem because young animals move fast! So you have two choices; use a really fast shutter speed to make the animal sharp (but the background likely blurred) or a slightly longer shutter speed – and a smaller lens aperture – to keep both the subject and the background reasonably sharp. Exact settings will depend on your lens. For ducklings, go near sunset for more chance of activity and both reflections and silhouettes. For lambs, try to capture them in mid-gambol and be careful not to oversaturate their pure-white wool.
There are ethics to consider before you stake-out a young family of animals to photograph. The golden rule is never to disturb wildlife, and that applies as much in your local park or a farmer’s field as it does when on safari. Firstly, don't wear luminous or garish clothing. Secondly, keep as still as you can. Thirdly – and perhaps most importantly – don’t get too close to them. Your focus should be on making yourself as invisible as possible. That way you won’t disturb your subject and you’ll also get more natural behaviour.
3 Cherry blossoms
The sudden flowering of cherry trees is a sure sign that spring has sprung. Incredibly photogenic, you’ll find the beautiful, fleeting pink blossom across the world everywhere from Europe and Asia to North America. Surely one of the more iconic places to head to photograph cherry blossoms is Japan, where the sakura tend to bloom from the last week of March until the middle of April.
The fleeting flowingering of the country’s thousands of cherry trees is a national obsession and there’s even a blossom forecast on the TV to track the blooms from south to north as spring unfolds. The most popular, and therefore most crowded, places to capture the sakura are Kyoto’s Philosopher’s Walk canal, Osaka’s Okawa River and Tokyo’s many urban parks, though it’s much quieter – and just as impressive – in the southern state of Kyushu and even in South Korea, which have far fewer tourists.
Since blossoming cherry trees are so bright they tend to work really well as foregrounds in nightscape photography. Easily reflecting any ambient light or moonlight, they can work well against a starry background, and thus also as the centrepiece of a star-trails composite photo. In manual mode and on a tripod, put your camera in front of the cherry tree and set it to ISO 800, the lowest f-number your lens has, and use a 30 second exposure. Make adjustments then take the same image repeatedly for at least an hour (put your camera on continuous mode and use a shutter release cable in the locked position). Then use the simple and free StarStaX software to produce a drag-and-drop composite photo.
4 Northern Lights
Not many people know that the aurora borealis – also known as the Northern Lights – are at their most intense around the equinoxes in late September and late March. It’s because the axis of our planet is perpendicular to the Sun, which makes its solar wind – the cause of the optical phenomenon – more likely to push charged particles down the field lines of Earth’s magnetic field.
However, before heading for 66-69° North latitudes (or thereabouts) to pray for clear skies in northern Scandinavia, northern Canada or Alaska for March 20’s vernal equinox do check the phase of the Moon. Displays tend to be easier to photograph away from a full Moon. Once you’re there the manual photography side of things is simple; wide-angle lens, tripod, 10-25 second exposures, ISO 800-1600 and infinity focus.
If you’ve always wanted to photograph the Northern Lights then get ready to start planning. We’re now entering a once-a-decade period when they’re going to be at their most frequent and intense. That’s because we’re in a new solar cycle and the Sun is waxing towards ‘solar maximum’, which will probably occur in mid-2025. The Sun has a 11 years cycle, with solar maximum being when the most sunspots are seen on its surface. That means more charged particles being hurled at Earth’s magnetic field, so more Northern Lights.
5 Waterfalls in full flow
Like a lot of spring subjects, timing is everything if you want to capture a waterfall at full throttle. That’s mostly likely after heavy rain, of course, but there’s something else you want if you want to create that classic ‘milky’ motion. Clouds. Since you’re going to have to use a long exposure – between a second and two seconds – it massively helps if there is no direct sunlight on the waterfall, which instantly over-exposes your shot.
On a dark day you can get away with stopping down your aperture (using a bigger f/ number) or using the shutter priority mode on your camera, and even using a circular polarizer. All will reduce the amount of light coming into your camera, but the easiest technique is to use a 1-stop or 2-stop Neutral Density (ND) filter, which lets you increase the exposure time.
If you want to capture something special alongside a waterfall then head for Skógafoss on the Skógá River in the south of Iceland. This 60 metre waterfall is south-facing, which means three optical phenomenon are possible; rainbows (and even double rainbows!) in its spray, the Northern Lights behind it at night (best seen between September and March), and Moonbows or lunar rainbows when a full Moon is low in the sky. If you’re really lucky you can get the latter two together!