It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.’ There is hardly a better quote to describe the unpredictable nature of the month of March than these words by Charles Dickens from his great novel of thwarted ambition and redemption, Great Expectations. For March is a month that straddles two contrasting seasons of cold and warmth when winter melts to spring’s rebirth. And yet, experience tells us that for every year that it heralds an early spring, so too has March been repeatedly defined by the last icy blasts of an overlong winter. Remember the ‘Beast from the East’ last year when freezing winds from Siberia swept across Europe, sending temperatures plunging as low as -30ºC in the first two weeks of March. The UK wasn’t spared as it experienced its coldest winter week in five years when temperatures reached almost -12ºC in some parts.
These wintry conditions in what is supposed to be the first month of spring were made even more severe when the extreme cold front combined with Storm Emma which swept from the Atlantic to bring blizzard conditions to much of Ireland and the west coast of Great Britain. The severity of this exceptional weather was underlined by the UK Met Office, which issued a rare ‘red snow warning’, meaning a potential risk to life. It proved accurate as the ‘Beast from the East’ of March 2018 is believed to have been responsible for 17 deaths in the UK and more than 70 in continental Europe.
Month of changes
Of course, what happened in 2018 was not a typical March, though Dickens’s quote serves to remind us that even in the 19th century it was a month with a reputation for fickle weather. That aside, March is still regarded as the first month of spring, the month when trees begin to leaf and bud, early spring flowers emerge and migratory birds return to sing, mate and nest – whatever the weather. It is also the month of the equinox when the hours of day begin to lengthen appreciably and the long dark nights of winter recede.
With so many changes in the natural world there are ample opportunities and subjects for the photographer to focus upon without having to journey far, particularly if you turn your lens to the first flowers of spring. Whether in your back garden or local park, flowers make ideal subjects for creating frame-filling compositions and to hone your focusing skills. Of course, snowdrops are usually the first to force their way through a frozen landscape, whether growing wild on a forest floor or planted in a municipal garden bed. But it is the brilliant yellow of the daffodil that is most associated with March, the appearance of the flower of Wales is symbolic with the arrival of St David’s Day on 1 March. Other early spring blooms, both native and exotic to be seen in many British gardens and parks in March include forsythia, narcissi, camellia and the delicate yet striking petals of cherry and apple blossom which add bright welcoming colour to many a grey suburban street.
Just a perfect day
When photographing flowers outdoor, whether in woodland parks, commons or public gardens, it pays to first make a reconnaissance walk to locate and observe potential budding trees and shrubs and to take note of the local weather conditions and the direction of any prevailing breeze, as well as the sun. In some countries, notably Japan, the media gives daily updates on the cherry trees’ blossoming. A similar custom occurs in New England for seeing the fall colours at their height. Here in the British Isles days of perfect weather for photographing early spring flowers are likely to be few. Nevertheless, should the rain and wind hold off, then an overcast day is ideal, because a thin layer of cloud will diffuse the sun’s rays to produce an even light with negligible or faint shadows, making the flower’s natural colour and details easier to shoot.
There are many compositional options to consider: a general record shot of the whole flower with a defocused background; a wider view showing the flowers in the context of their environment; a closely cropped study focusing on a small area to emphasise the colour and form of the petals. For each of these set-ups, a tripod is essential for accurate framing and focusing. Even on a relatively calm day the softest of breezes can cause flowers to move, so having your camera and lens set perfectly still on a tripod makes it easier to observe the degree of movement caused by the wind and know when to time firing the shutter.
For close-up photos of flowers that fill the frame with nothing but the colour, shape and minute details, a macro lens is indispensable. A true macro lens can focus close enough to render the subject at life-size on a camera’s image sensor, measured as a ratio of 1:1. Macro lenses are a fixed focal length – usually of 50mm, 100mm, even 200mm – and enable you to focus to within a few centimetres of a flower petal. Focusing this close for a life-size image offers a unique perspective but depth of field is very shallow, even when the lens is stopped down to the minimum aperture of f/22 or f/32. Any critical adjustments to focusing are a huge test of a camera’s autofocus accuracy, which is why most professionals switch to manual to make any fine adjustments.
Stopping down to the minimum aperture will also extend the exposure time. Although this can be compensated by increasing the ISO rating accordingly to maintain the shutter speed, it still makes sense for the camera to remain fixed to the tripod and to use a remote release to fire the shutter. An alternative to a remote release is to simply use the camera’s self-timer. In recent years, an increasing number of landscape and plant photographers have favoured a technique called ICM (intentional camera movement), which eschews the tripod in favour of deliberate blur. Sharply focused images taken on tripod-mounted cameras are replaced by handholding the camera, choosing a slow shutter speed and making a slight movement of the camera up, down or across during exposure. ICM is to nature photography what Impressionism was to painting and is proving increasingly popular. Scenes of large groups of flowers such as daffodils, irises or cherry blossom are ideal for this technique.
If daffodils are the symbolic flower of March, then the hare is the symbolic animal of this month. The centuries-old expression to describe someone as ‘mad as a March hare’, is derived from the long-eared mammal’s frenzied behaviour, so often witnessed at this time of year in the fields, moors and farms of the British countryside. After the passive months of winter, hares are often spotted jumping unexpectedly above grass cover for no obvious reason or fighting in pairs by standing on their hind legs to seemingly ‘box’ each other with their front paws.
Contrary to popular belief, pairs of boxing hares are not two males fighting for the attention of a female. In fact, the two hares are more likely to be a male and a female, the latter trying to fend off the amorous attentions of the other. The most common species of hare found in Britain is the European brown hare, also widespread in central and Western Europe. Brown hares probably arrived in England with the ancient Romans. Mountain hares are more common in Scotland, where they thrive in the heather-clad hills of the Highlands. During winter their coats change from summer’s pale grey to a mix of snow-white and blue-grey. These hares keep their white coats throughout March and represent a true photographic challenge – white against white.
Making accurate exposures in these conditions is not easy. White fur against snow reflects plenty of light and camera meters tend to give a faster exposure reading than is required. As a result, if shooting on an automatic exposure mode, underexposure is likely. Of course, you can override the camera’s meter reading by setting your own exposure value manually or taking a spot reading from a neutral grey tone in the image area and locking that value by using the camera’s AE-lock. Alternatively, try a burst of exposures, each with a different meter reading, by using the camera’s bracketing mode and switching the drive to continuous.
If that sounds too much like a winter challenge, then why not wait for the arrival of spring’s chorus of songbirds? A bird feeder or two in the garden will quickly attract your local visitors and provide an opportunity to observe your subjects through the window, noticing their different plumage. March is a peak month for many species with the chirping and trilling calls of chaffinch, blackbirds, robins, skylarks, great tits and wrens building to a crescendo in April and May, when these year-round residents are joined by migratory cuckoos, yellow wagtails, whinchats, turtle doves and wood warblers.
A long telephoto or zoom is essential to shoot from a distance that keeps you out of sight of your subject. Focal lengths of around 200 to 400mm are ideal for most back gardens, and the wider the maximum aperture the better for maintaining the fastest possible shutter speed. A wide aperture also has the added benefit of reducing depth of field to throw distracting backgrounds, such as the neighbour’s fence, out of focus. But if the birds suddenly disperse, it might be that the fence has provided the neighbour’s cat with an unhelpful viewpoint. Always beware the ides of March.
This was published in the March 2019 edition of Geographical magazine
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