How to shoot poppies

When it comes to seasonal events then there is one that is always certain to get me interested. It’s the time of year when poppy fields start to appear in the English countryside, writes Andrew James. You’ll be driving along when suddenly a place that was previously just a drab and uninteresting field has, overnight, become a splash of the most vivid red you’ll see. They could be out there now, in a field somewhere near you.

The trouble with poppies is that you never know where or exactly when they are going to appear. They are rarely, if ever, in the same place two years running. They are just going to spring up in a suitable field – wherever last year’s seeds were blown in the wind. But that’s the fun – their unpredictability.

There are a million and one ways you could approach photographing poppies. I’m just going to tell you about how I like to do it and what I think yields the most amount of success. But first I want to tell you what to avoid!

Avoid strong wind and harsh light
Photographing poppies on very windy days is an absolute nightmare. You have a large petal sitting at the end of a long and slim stem, so even in the gentlest breeze this means that the flowers are going to sway a lot. It’s not impossible to get good shots in windy conditions, as long as you have plenty of light and you can keep your shutter speeds really high then you will get some shots but you’ll find it frustrating. Precise composition goes out of the window in these conditions and you are left with guesswork.

With poppies, strong light from above can create very bright ‘hotspots’ that are very difficult to expose for. This is particularly the case if the poppies are wet – perhaps after a rain shower. You can do something about it if you have no choice other than to shoot in your lunch hour – the answer is to put on a polarising filter to dampen down the highlights and increase the colour saturation. I always tend to use a polarising filter anyway to really bring out the strong colours, whether the light is harsh or soft.

These last two images illustrate perfectly what I want to achieve with poppy shots: Simple, shallow depth of field, fine art style images that show off the delicate nature of the poppy itself. As I frequently write, what’s behind the main subject is just as important as the subject itself so I often look for isolated poppies with either other poppies out of focus behind or darker hedgerows. This helps to create a sense of depth in the image. To do this I usually shoot at f/2.8 because I don’t want or need much focus in the image – I simply want the background and often the foreground to create an interesting blur.

Look for undamaged poppies. If you pick on one that has wind or rain damage on it or is already partly dead, then your shot will suffer. Hunt out the best specimens you can find. While most of the image will be out of focus or at least ‘almost’ out of focus, it’s still essential to get the right bit in focus. I use a single AF point and lock it onto the area more or less at the very centre of the flower.

With focus on the main flower, the foreground can fall to a wash of colour, while the background here is uncluttered. Shot at f/2.8 at 200mm on a 70-200mm lens.
An even darker background caused by lack of light falling on an area of hedgerow can make a single poppy really stand out.

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