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Photography: How to shoot wildflowers at sunset

Ewen Bell, photographer of our Australia story, explains how he harnessed the direct sunlight to shoot this image in the Flinders Ranges

Photography: How to shoot wildflowers at sunset
Wildflowers at sunset in the Flinders Range, Australia. Image: Ewen Bell

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Shutter speed: 1/2500
Aperture: f/2
ISO: 100

Two things made this shot possible: shooting at the very last light of day and working with a fast prime lens. It was shot in the Flinders Ranges in South Australia. I was standing at a lookout on the southern edge of the mountains, several miles back with a clear view of the setting sun. At this time of day the direct sunlight has lost its intensity and the colour of the sunshine drenches everything in a golden yellow. The wild grasses and shrubs were already bone dry and the light removed almost every last hint of green from the landscape. Instead of fighting the monochromatic nature of the scene, I delved deeper into it by turning my lens to face the sun. There were just a few minutes left before losing the sun behind the Ranges, making the lighting relatively gentle. By shooting at f/2, I softened the flaring that would otherwise leave an obvious trail across the frame, and just a hint of colour distortion remains where the flowers have caught focus.

I love the play of light coming through the grass, but it’s the small strands of wild flowers bursting above the scene that are the champions for me. They are easy to focus on and the backlighting through each flower petal adds a fine degree of detail to the overall frame.

In the preceding days I saw these flowers all over the Flinders Ranges, so I wanted an image that celebrated their charms. These flowers do well in the dry sections of the landscape — anywhere the terrain is very open and full of rocks. Flowers often reveal a lot about the geology of a place, hinting at the minerals that lie beneath the soil and the recent history of rainfall. There are other flowers in this national park that only bloom after a huge flood, maybe once every ten years.

Technically this shot is very simple; it demanded a little imagination more than a depth of experience. Shooting into the sun lets you adjust how the contrast plays out in a scene. It typically gives you less colour depending on how much you angle away from the sun itself. I love this idea for compositions as it lets you hide things in plain sight, such as a road or a farmhouse. Things can get lost in the bokeh or the shadows — or both.

Shooting at f/2 allowed me to highlight the hero of the shot — the flowers — because all else drops away out of focus. By kneeling down in the grasses, I could work a few seeds into the immediate foreground to add another soft layer to the composition.

I love bringing layers into my photography. I often grab a shot of the main subject and then step back to look at what’s outside of the frame, and ask myself what else I can bring into it. The more layers, the deeper the complexity. Just those few little grass seeds up close in the foreground, blurry with bokeh as they are, add the final touch to the aesthetic. I rarely want to fill the photograph with my subject; rather I allow the image to embrace the focal point, framing it within the frame.

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Published in issue 7 of National Geographic Traveller (UK) Photography Magazine

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