After a good few seasons shooting heather now, mostly in the Peak District but in a couple of other places too, I've learnt a thing or two, largely by trial and error and I'm of the view that making a compelling landscape photography image using the heather as your main seasonable component isn't quite as easy as you first might think. So here are some of my own thoughts on what to think about when you're trying to make images with an explosion of purple across the landscape. Sure, nobodies a pariah of excellence when it comes to this kind of thing and, as always, these are my views based on the way I shoot to create the images of mine you see and are based on my own experienced and insight I've figured out in the field. Hopefully you'll find some interesting concepts and angles here rather than a ton of "7 top tips" type generic content social media is so full of these days.
Sounds obvious but think carefully about the different components of your scene and where the heather will feature, it is so easy to get a bit carried away with the sea of purple and just think it’s all lovely, but try to remember WHY you’re shooting in heather season. Is a large bush your main or secondary subject and therefore is it reasonably well defined with space around the edges? Is the actual heather at peak colour yet? If it isn’t, there's nothing worse than dull or dying prominent heather bushes so make sure you bide your time for the optimum few days if the actual heather bushes themselves are your focus. Will you instead include large banks of distant purple in the far ground to compliment something else that gets shot quite alot but this time with some different tones in the distance? The image below I shot of the sculpture at Fairbrook Naze is a good example of this, shot often in many other conditions but I was really after a strong sea of distant purple across the hills at sunrise to create some seasonal impact.
Image 1: "Oligarch".
Whatever you do don’t just plonk and shoot a large area of heather with a rock in the middle or some semblance of a path which is really just muddy ground. It looks ill thought through and loses the viewer immediately in a sea of purple but with no way out. Arrange things so there’s a point to each element, either a nice big defined, colourful bush, perhaps three variants of purple/pink all close to each other, maybe the branches resemble a shape of some sorts, sometimes the spindley branches underneath the purple flowers can look like skeletal fingers reaching out to things so get close with a wide angle and see whether there's something you can use at the bottom of your frame maybe as a small lead in to the heather bush? Perhaps a green fern stands out amongst all the purple giving you a nice colour contrast (like the cover image for this blog, where I had two contrasting ferns AND they were backlit by the late sunlight). And remember to consider the corners and underside - don’t needlessly cut off parts of the bush! Lastly, don’t let the purple over power EVERYTHING. It can be immediately dominating and your main and complimentary subject/s need to be clear, or strong enough in their own right to combat that dominance and turn the heather into a feature not a force of the image. This is also true of processing, don't don't don't get tempted to push that magenta in the WB or the purple and blue hues in the HSL/colour mixer. It'll feel fun at the time but the image will look odd and over-saturated. At time of writing the heather is still a week off peak, IF it makes it there - sometimes it doesn't and stays relatively flat - But if you were to believe the images coming out at the min you'd think it's the best bloom in years - until of course you see all the other oversaturated colours. Don't take a nice shot and ruin it in post production!
Make sure you shoot with a fast enough shutter speed to freeze any moving bunches of the main heather bushes, especially close up in your foreground. Shoot additional images with a higher ISO and blend these parts of the image over moving parts of the base image if necessary. And know how far you can push your cameras ISO before too much noise is introduced, if it’s ISO invariant you’ll be able to go higher than you think. I shoot Nikon z7II and can easily push to ISO800 without seeing any noticeable noise. This camera is ISO invariant, and at 400 it actually creates less noise than 200, 250, 320. Get to know where your cameras sweet spot it. Now, the more wind there is, the harder it will be to shoot predawn or apres sunset for the bluer, more somber after light because you'll need a longer exposure to let the light in. In my view heather shots work better with moodier, darker skies where the deeper cooler tones work so well with those naturally in the heather. So this means you need to be confident in shooting higher ISOs when it is darker to achieve sufficient exposure without too long a shutter speed that will allow movement in your bushes to creep in.
Think about the colours in the landscape you’re working with. When the purple menace is out as I call it, you’ll find an array of most tones in many scenes and it can be too much. Greens and yellows in the foliage. Purples pinks and magenta in the heather bushes. Blues and greys in the clouds, and potentially yellows oranges and even more pinks and reds in the sky if the light is out at dawn and dusk. If you have no choice but to shoot a scene with a range of colours, subtly desaturate some of them (either by tone, or by area in the image, or both) for aspects that are less important - a distant yellow hillside for example does not need to be glowing and golden, unless there's light on it AND that compliments the rest of the image. My view is although we normally like direct golden light on foreground subjects, this can often bleach some of the subtler blue tones from the heather and leave the image a bit confused in terms of warmth vs cool. For this reason I find overcast or sullen mornings often still really work well if the composition is strong, perhaps with the emergence of light somewhere in the sky but not yet obvious. If you get very lucky there will be some kind of light breaking through the mirk or through a passing storm, the image below demonstrates this to some extent, although I pushed the concept above a little regarding yellow light bleaching the colour of the heather - It was directional so I got away with it.
Image 2: "Cap".
The optimum is probably where you get a strong fluorescent pink/mauve glow at the horizon and emanating above it casting reflected tones back onto the landscape for a short while but without them being too warm. I still need an image like this, I've come close often but no real cigar. I've probably wasted many a morning at Over Owler Tor where there just isn't really the strongest composition available to make use of what is an excellent sunrise aspect for this kind of colour at dawn. Alternatively if you’re lucky and get that rasping yellow sun kissed light across the whole landscape that too can work, but one or the other not both, where you have both warmth and cool in the same shot it can feel confused if you’re not careful. As an addendum, be careful with your processing afterwards, as I've said above it’s very tempting to push the heather tones using vibrance or selective colour sliders and it shows. The heather as I write this is not yet in full bloom, yet some of the images coming out would suggest it’s the best bloom in years. The tell tale signs to be careful of are oversaturated yellows and greens especially in the darker distance. Or all the heather looking like it is one vibrant shade of purple, instead of when it is less saturated allowing more tonal variation to show as we’d see with our eyes. That purple/magenta push often shows in the clouds too, turning a naturally bluer grey or overcast sky into a slightly muddy magenta.
So, to conclude, don't get overwhelmed by what is a fantastic display of vibrance, and just shoot as you would using all the normal principles you've come to swear by thus far. The purple is fantastic but it is everywhere and if you're not careful it will take over. Coupled with often tricky dark and windy mornings where you just wish the damn stuff would stay still, or poor clouds stopping the light get through, it can feel like a pain. It's why I call it the purple menace!