It’s tulip time in many parts of the U.S. and nowhere are the tulips more colorful and splendorous than in Washington’s Skagit Valley. Fields and fields of the highly valued bulb are grown for commercial sales. Each year at this time, the area plays host to thousands of visitors who come for the annual Tulip Festival. The exits from Interstate 5 which skirt the town of Mount Vernon and connects Vancouver B.C. to the north with Seattle to the south are literally backed up for miles with cars making their way on the weekends to see the rainbow-colored floral fields.
(I last wrote about the tulips here.)
As a local, I have the luxury and advantage of being able to go to the fields on a weekday and avoiding the crowds. I also get to pick my day, waiting for the weather to clear. And so I did earlier this week when I awoke to sunny skies at sunrise. When I go, I’m out the door by 7 a.m. to make the 20-mile scenic drive south so as to arrive by 7:30, even earlier is better. By arriving about the same time as do the field workers, I not only miss the multitudes of tourists but I have better light for photographing these gorgeous flowers. The dew is often still on the petals, the colors are bright and the sky is bluer. (That can of course be boosted with the help of a filter over your lens or later manipulated digitally in post-production.)
I never know exactly which field I’ll work in unless I scout them ahead of time, as I did this year when I drove down to get the required permit from the RoozenGaarde growers that allows professional photographers to go into the fields without scrutiny from the field foreman. I pick one spot because the light changes so quickly that by the time you’ve moved from one place to another, you’ve lost the optimal conditions. I “work the location,” capturing the chosen field from as many different angles as I can, studying the surroundings to maximize what’s there and letting the location be my guide as to what and how to photograph it.
Some years I feel more productive than others. I rarely concentrate on just the flowers themselves. I try to make use of whatever is present: field workers, farm implements, signs, other artists or photographers who might be there, farm buildings to help create a sense of place. When I focus on the flowers, I strive to find different ways to photograph them and try to zero in on a particular feature or color. If I decide to photograph the field en masse, I look for the overall impact of color or the setting. Until I’m in the editing and post-production process I often don’t know how I ultimately want to treat an image.
After years of having done this, I know how to dress. The fields are frequently muddy and the early a.m. air chilly. I dress for the conditions. Jeans and a sweatshirt are must with a warm jacket that I can shed if it should warm up, as it did this year.
Gloves with the fingertips cut out are also handy for those times when the morning temperatures are cold. I also wear my insulated ‘muck’ shoes that I use for gardening because they are warm and wash off easily. After years of crawling around in the dirt with a gardening pad, I now strap on heavy-duty knee guards so that I don’t have to scoot around on a pad and can literally get on my hands and knees to get the shot I want.
Equipment-wise, everyone has their own preferences. A UV lens filter is a must. I stick with my zoom lenses and fit close-up filters over them for really tight shots. Sometimes I use a tripod, sometimes not. And a lens hood helps to block out annoying light flares. I don’t spend a lot of time switching lenses or cameras in part because it creates less risk of getting damaging dirt on my sensitive digital gear. I find it’s better and sometimes more interesting to work within the parameters of my equipment.
I don’t make the trek to the tulips every year but this year I did as a way to unwind and relax after months of preparing for the film festival of which I now head up. Usually I’ll take a friend along with me. This year I did it solo and enjoyed the time to myself. No matter how you go, alone, with family or friends, these beautiful blooms are sure to restore your soul and remind you how wonderful the spring season is.