Photographing Almond Blossom in Valencia, Spain
Feeling the warmth of the sun, inhaling the fragrance of almond flowers, ears filled with birdsong; Sue Bishop visited Valencia in Spain to photograph almond blossom, here is her story
It was one of those very, very early morning flights. I looked blearily out of the rain streaked plane window at the sunrise, or to be more accurate, the gradual lightening from dark grey to mid grey, over the wet tarmac of the runway as we taxied for take-off. It was the first week of February, after the wettest January on record in the UK.
Only a few hours later, I was walking through almond orchards with my camera bag on my back, feeling the warmth of the sun on my face, inhaling deeply as a gentle breeze wafted the fragrance of almond flowers towards me, my ears filled with birdsong and my eyes with the vista of trees frothing with pink and white blossom.
This little piece of heaven was in the Valencia province of Spain. I was staying in a village called Parcent, in the Casa Carrascal, a lovely hotel owned by my good friends Sue and Dave. I had almost four days ahead of me to explore and take photographs – complete bliss!
Sometimes in a situation such as this, it’s easy to forget that your own euphoria won’t necessarily translate into a good photograph. I was experiencing the place with four of my senses – sight, sound, touch, and smell, but of these, only sight is relevant to a photograph, and sight is a very selective thing. I saw only the beauty of the blossoming trees; the camera would see that too, but would equally see the bare trees amongst the flowering ones, the patches of scrubby earth below them, or an unsightly cement building behind. So I allowed myself an hour or so, just to revel in it all, and then began to make my mind think like a camera, and look more objectively for something that would make a beautiful image.
Sue and Dave had told me that nobody minds if you walk through the orchards on their land. Even so, the first time I did it, I half expected to hear a shout from an outraged landowner! But whenever anyone saw me wandering through the trees, they gave me a friendly wave and a smile. In fact, being able to do this was a huge bonus, as I often found that the best viewpoint was not from the road. The only way to find the images that work best for you is to walk around every side of every field, looking at it in all directions, and then walk through it, looking for that perfect tree with just the right background. I was out for 9 hours each day, and in that time I would maybe only cover 10 kilometres on a map, but with all my meanderings, I had in fact done a lot more than that!
Almond trees are pruned whilst they are in flower, so in some of the orchards, many of the blossoming branches had been cut and lay on the ground. Fortunately though, there were many more that had not been pruned when I was there. Some orchards had buds just unfolding, others were in full flower, and a few were starting to show leaves among the blossom. When the weather was warm, a tree could change quite noticeably in just a few days.
In many of the orchards, the trees were growing from bare earth. I was on the lookout for orchards where grass, or even better, wildflowers, had been allowed to grow between the trees. After a few hours of looking, I began to think that the trees growing in cleared land had been generally better tended, so had more blossom, while the blossom on the trees with grass around them was often a bit sparser. But I was not to be daunted in my search for that photographically perfect orchard!
My eyes were on full alert for close ups, individual tree portraits, lines of trees making pleasing patterns, and wider vistas showing the orchards in their mountain setting. For close ups, a windless day is preferable, as it’s very difficult to compose and focus properly on a flower that is being tossed about in the wind! You also need to find a flower that is in peak condition – ideally having only opened up that day. It also needs to have a nice gentle mix of colours behind it, with nothing too bright or too dark to distract. If there is a reasonable amount of space between the flower and its background, then you can throw the background out of focus with a widish aperture.
Photographing Almond Blossom in Valencia, Spain
Often, I found a lovely individual tree, but the area immediately around it made it difficult to find a good background for the photograph. My ideal was to find one where the backdrop could be other blossoming trees, or a gentle wash of out of focus foliage, or a tree which I could set against a dramatic mountain, as the orchards were in a valley surrounded by beautiful mountains. Sometimes, the trees were planted in orderly rows, and you could then look for a picture using the repeating pattern of the tree trunks. I would sometimes spot these from a distance, but approaching, would find that the pattern didn’t work, either because of a tree with no blossom on it, or because the aisle of the trees led the eye towards a background that wasn’t visually pleasing – the worst time was when I saw a lovely line of trees leading the eye down to a parked van!
As well as being planted in orchards on the valley floor, there were trees planted in terraces on the sides of the mountains. Some of this terracing involved beautiful old stone walls, which themselves could add a pattern to an image.
As always in any kind of photography, light was a major consideration. On my first full day there was an overcast sky, and this was ideal for making gentle, romantic images of blossoming trees above soft grass or wildflowers. On such a day, it’s best not to include too much sky, as a white sky doesn’t usually add much to an image. Overcast light is also ideal for close up photographs of flowers, as it lights all parts of the flower equally and avoids harsh shadows. On my trip, the only day which was still enough for close up photography was also sunny, so I used a reflector to push some light back into the shadowed side of the blossom.
My other days were clear and sunny, and it then became necessary to think about the direction of the light. Fortunately in February, the sun never gets too high in the sky, so it is possible to shoot throughout the day without worrying about the harshness of overhead sun. Nevertheless, the angle of the light, i.e. front light, side light, or back light, will make a big difference to the resulting photograph. Front light is safe in terms of being easy to expose correctly, and doesn’t create unsightly shadows, but it can be a bit flat, and will not add interest in itself.
Back light can illuminate the blossoms beautifully against a dark backdrop, but you may want to bracket quite widely, as there is a wide range of tones between brightly lit white blossom and the dark, almost black tree trunks. Side light gives lovely shape and modelling to the trees and also to the landscape around them, and can also give a bit more of a ‘lift’ to the blossom than front light does. If the light is coming from the side, a polariser will help the white and pink blossom to really sing out against the blue of the sky; but beware of over-polarising, which can cause odd gradations of blue from one side of the picture to the other, and create an artificial looking result.
I am a romantic at heart, and sometimes in the bright light of the sun, the blossoming trees didn’t look quite romantic enough for me, as the hard light seemed to delineate every separate petal and twig. So, in post processing, I added a touch of soft focus to some of these images by creating two new layers of the original, using Gaussian blur on one layer, and then putting a sharp layer on top of it and reducing the opacity slightly. On my overcast day, I created a similar feel in-camera by taking multiple exposures, with one exposure sharp and another defocused. This could also be done on the sunny days, and created a slightly more extreme effect.
At the end of each long day of looking, looking, looking at almond trees, I went to bed glowing with fresh air and sunshine, with almond blossom dancing in front of my eyes. Arriving back at Gatwick in the rain (what else?) felt like coming back to a harsh reality. I’m already feeling tempted to go back to Valencia in February next year!
Read this and many more articles in High Definition inside Issue 40 of Landscape Photography Magazine.