The poppy season is upon us once again when splashes of red wash across the landscape as if from the brush strokes of Monet. When I go in search of a poppy field there are key aspects that I look for in order to create a good composition. Mainly, a thick concentration of poppies with no bare patches and minimal weeds that will break up the colour. Another aspect is to have a plain background such as a hedge or trees, instead of power lines, housing estates or other distracting backgrounds. Of course, you can remove these in Photoshop, but it’s nice to start with a clean landscape if possible. If you are lucky enough to have an interesting subject in the background such as a church, lighthouse or possibly a single tree, all the better. Skies are just as important too. Jet contrails can be just as distracting so beautiful cumulus or cirrus clouds are preferred, otherwise use a high horizon line to crop out bad or boring skies. If you have clouds moving towards or away from the camera, try a long exposure using a neutral density filter. I used a Lee Super Stopper 15-stop filter for this image to make an exposure of 2 minutes 30 seconds. Here are five top tips to help you capture your own masterpiece.
When working in a field of poppies, I generally use three different techniques to acquire three different looks. The first one is probably the most common landscape technique using a wide-angle lens. This type of lens has great depth of field capabilities and gives the impression of being able to walk into the scene. In this image, I used ox-eye daisies to break up the red and positioned the camera at a 45-degree angle and came in close enough to the daisies in the foreground to give them prominence yet high enough to look across the field to the distant tree line. When you use a wide-angle lens, the tendency is to shoot at your own standing height or the full extension of your tripod and take in as much of the scene as possible. This can make all of the features of the landscape quite small and water down the impact. By coming in close to something such as flowers as in this shot, it gives the image more depth.
As the sun was at a 90-degree angle to the camera I could use a polarizing filter to its maximum potential to increase colour saturation and make the clouds pop from the blue sky. Generally, the matrix-metering mode of a DLSR is very accurate in properly exposing a scene like this, but sometimes depending on the direction of the sun and tone of the sky, underexposure can result. If this happens, try using a neutral density grad filter over the sky to balance the exposure or increase the exposure by using the exposure compensation feature on your camera.
There are times when flowers in your foreground are blowing in the breeze and using a small aperture to obtain more depth of field will result in blurred flowers because of the slower shutter speed. One method, though an expensive one is to use a tilt/shift lens. This lens will solve the problem by tilting the lens element and changing the orientation of the plane of focus. This allows the use of a wider aperture, thus a faster shutter speed to capture the moving flowers. This image was shot at f/11 at 1/30 second. Another much less expensive method is to increase the ISO allowing a faster shutter speed to stop the flowers from blurring. Digital cameras are so good these days that even increasing the ISO the noise is minimal. Also, there is noise reduction software such as Topaz DeNoise that does a great job of removing noise from photos.
The second technique I use is to isolate or compress the subject using a telephoto lens. Isolating a single poppy or two by using a telephoto lens such as the 70-200mm f/4 as in this image allows the use of a shallow depth of field. This selective focus technique draws attention to the subject. I have also used selective colour by having a single red poppy amongst the yellow flowers. Compositionally, it breaks all the rules by placing the subject in the middle of the frame, but these are only guidelines and in this case, help to accentuate the single poppy.
To carry out this technique, you will need to place your telephoto lens relatively close to the poppy so the background and any foreground fall out of focus. Then by using a wide aperture such as f/4 so there will be little depth of field. The viewer’s attention will be naturally drawn to the sharpest point in the frame.
Another use for a telephoto lens is to compress the scene. As you stand and look across the field of poppies, the flowers in the distance look denser because of the angle of view. You can see more green vegetation between the poppies that are closest to you, but the further away you look all you see is red. Using a telephoto is particularly useful if the field of poppies are not very dense or if you want to compress features in the scene such as trees. I exposed the scene at 1/15 second at f/13 to have enough depth of field.
My final technique is using unusual angles to get a completely different perspective on the poppies. Using a low angle to get a bug’s eye view shooting up to the sky is a great way to create an image out of the typical views of the poppies. This is fun, as you never really know what you will come up with. I fitted the camera with a 16-35mm lens set at 16mm and set the camera on the ground facing upwards so there was no need for a tripod. If your camera has a display that you can tilt up, use Live View to see the composition. I propped the camera up by resting the lens on a filter wallet and used a polarising filter to darken the blue sky giving more saturation and colour contrast between the reds and blues. It’s best if you shoot away from the sun keeping it at a 90-degree angle to the camera to get the best polarisation. Composing and calculating the exposure can be tricky and is something you have to work at to get it right. After doing the initial composition, I adjusted the camera and moved the plants until obtained the composition I was happy with and compensated for the exposure as necessary. My exposure was 1/80 second at f/8.
It’s difficult to know where a poppy field will be from one year to the next as there can be a massive full field of poppies one year and nothing the next. They seem to run in three-year cycles, but nothing is certain. When farmers leave a field fallow to restore its fertility, this gives poppy seeds time to germinate if they are present. I have photographed good fields in Norfolk mainly in North Norfolk, Gloucestershire around the Cotswolds area and Yorkshire near York. I’m lucky to live close to North Norfolk, which is referred to as Poppyland. I normally drive around the countryside looking for splashes of red, but with petrol prices going sky high, there are other ways to find good fields. Word of mouth is always helpful. Friends will tell me when they find a field of poppies, but what a non-photographer thinks is a good field, may not suit a photographer’s eye. With the ease of smartphones, I ask them to take a few photos and mark the location on Google Maps, then I can decide if it’s worth the drive. Social media is another great way to find poppy fields as there is always someone out there that gives the exact location and you can see if the photos are recent by when they were posted. But with all this information at hand, there’s nothing like doing the leg work yourself, finding a brilliant field and coming away with some masterpieces.
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