Shooting Tulips During the Busy Festival (shooting busy tourist scenes)

It’s that time of year again – it’s Tulip Time – and I wanted to reshare an earlier post of mine offering some tips and tricks to getting good photos of this commonly shoot scene.

It takes a special photograph of a flower to be considered unique or original.  Still, their color and splendor are a siren song drawing photographers to capture their beauty.  Where I live this phenomenon is magnified during the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival.  The annual display of color draws thousands of visitors from around the world and it seems each of them is armed with a camera to snap images to take home and share.  Stroll through any gift shop or local art show and you’ll think there isn’t a photo of a tulip that hasn’t been taken.  So should a serious photographer just keep the gear packed up and avoid the tulips all together?

Clearly I think the answer is “no.”  For me, the draw to photographing tulips is easy.  I work in the heart of tulip country. Since, I drive by the fields on a daily basis, taking time to enjoy the tulip fields is easy.  Being a photographer I can’t pass this opportunity to improve my art.  While it’s sometimes hard to find inspiration for photography, during the tulip festival it’s a piece of cake to find interesting and willing subjects.  

Still, the challenge remains – how do you photograph something that has been shot and will continue to be shot millions of times? How do you make the image interesting to shoot and to view?  My answer is not profound, but using some of the lessons I’ve picked up along the way allows me to capture images I can be proud of.  These tips worked in the tulip fields and can work in similarly popular photo opportunities and tourist stops that cry out for you to “take a picture.”

Change Your Point of View

On of the obvious ways of trying to capture a unique and interesting image of a well photographed subject is to change your perspective.  The temptation at the tulip fields is to shoot everything wide to capture the blankets of color.  While this perspective can capture beautiful and interesting images, sometimes getting low, getting close, or changing your camera angle will offer a new image.

Multi-color tulips as their buds turn to early blooms during the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival.

Open Your Eyes and Look Around

When you approach a vast landscape, or in this case, fields of colorful flowers, it’s easy be be swept up by the grandeur of the scene and wanting to capture it all.  It’s hard to argue with the beauty presented by acres of tulips stretching before you in large swaths of vibrant color, and you shouldn’t avoid getting that big picture.  But you should also take a moment to focus on the little things. The details right in front of you; or at your feet; or behind you. There are some really interesting images to capture when you take a moment to see the trees through the forest, to borrow from an old saying.

A yellow and red tulip tries to stand out in a field of red tulips.

Be Aware of the Background

Something that can really diminish an image captured at the tulip fields is the photographer’s lack of attention to the far background.  A photo of the vast and colorful fields stretching to the horizon can offer an outstanding image.  Unfortunately, a beautiful picture of a field of flowers can quickly turn into just another snap shot when the background is littered with parked cars, campers and tourists.  When the flowers and colors are perfectly framed and the exposure is set; before you press the shutter, take one more look to the horizon.  What will be in the background?  Will your image terminate on that ugly 1983 brown and white RV? Chances are if you take a look around and adjust your position, you can fill the background with bucolic fields, a barn, a tree or the Cascade Mountains. Even if the distant background falls out of focus, knowing what will appear in the frame will dramatically alter the quality of the image.

Spring Tulips in Skagit County, Washington.

Incorporate the Visitors to the Fields

It is a frustrating truth photography the tulip festival that there’s no getting around the large number of visitors that are enjoying the flower displays.  Obviously, this is an issue you can encounter at any high traffic tourist location.  It’s unavoidable that people will constantly walk in and out of frame.  The easiest solution is to bring a great big dose of patience with you.  Use a tripod, set up the shot, and wait.  While there’s no guarantee you’ll ever get a clear shot, waiting for that shot instead of cluttering the image with people will be worth it.  But sometimes the image is never clear of people and you need to be inventive.  In that case,  consider incorporating the people in your composition.

Tulips in a display garden during the annual Skagit Valley Tulip Festival. I spent a lot of time trying to frame pictures without the many garden visiters stepping into the shot. Here I think the ladies enjoying the blooms helps make this image.

Arrive before the crowds (and before the good weather)

It’s natural to go the fields when the sun is shining and warm and the fields have opened to visitors.  There’s a chance, however, if you visit the fields before the crowds arrive, and before the sun bathes the petals with warmth, you might capture something different.  In the early morning hours the fields are often blanketed with mist offering an eerie atmosphere.  The blooms are closed like a fist and coated in dew. You won’t get the “classic” field of color, but you just might get something unique.

Purple tulips on a misty cool morning in Skagit County WA
The sunrises on the Skagit Valley Tulip fields with the top of Mt. Baker on the distant horizon.

I’m not going to concentrate my photography on flowers, but I’m not going to ignore the opportunity to practice my art and capture the amazing beauty that’s right in my backyard.  I may not capture an earth shaking, never-before-seen tulip image, but I will make an extra effort to help my photos tell a story. If I do that I’ve taken a step beyond catching another snap shot and getting closer to art.

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