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How to Photograph the Flowers of Provence

Don Mammoser captures the region's aromatic lavender and brilliant sunflowers with the Tamron 28-300mm VC lens.

By Jenn Gidman
Images by Don Mammoser

July in Provence means long soaks in thermal springs, teeming bowls of bouillabaisse, and … lavender. During a recent summer sojourn after one of his European photo tours, Don Mammoser traveled with his wife, Anya, to this region in southeastern France right when the lavender fields were in full bloom. "The whole area is wonderfully picturesque and colorful, and every little hill town has a lavender festival and lavender displays, where you can buy endless lavender-based products: soaps, tea, lotion, food," he says. "I was very impressed with how beautiful it all was."

Don and Anya drove out to the Valensole Plateau, where they explored the backcountry roads and fields of lavender, wheat, and sunflowers. "We arrived as they were starting to harvest the lavender crops," he says. "They cut off all the blooms so it looks like the plants got a haircut. Then a machine bales the lavender up, and another machine comes and picks up all the bales, which are taken elsewhere to be processed and, I assume, exported. And the whole time you're standing there, you're taking in this amazing fragrance. It smells so good."

As he does on all of his overseas travels, Don packed his workhorse lens: the Tamron 28-300mm VC. "I like to travel light, and this lens perfectly fits the bill for me," he says. "I'm able to capture wide-angle photos, close-ups, and zoomed-in telephoto shots, all without ever having to change lenses. I love the variety, versatility, and the convenience that offers."

Read on for details on how Don photographed Provence's "blue gold."

Be as picky about your backgrounds as you are about your subjects.
I don't know if it's to make the fields more beautiful or if it has something to do with pollination, but there are sunflowers planted on the edges of most of the lavender fields. I wanted to create a composition in which I could photograph one or two sunflower heads, but with a background that showed I was in Provence during lavender season. I shot almost wide open at F/6.3 because I wanted the sunflower in this photo sharp and the background blurry, but so the viewer could still tell it was lavender.

I had to handhold to capture this because I was forced to contort my body into a certain position to capture the background I wanted. There was plenty of light, so I was able to shoot using a 1/500th sec. shutter speed, which doesn't present any problems when handholding. In addition to that context of the lavender in the background, I was also pleased with the amount of detail this lens helped me show in the sunflower.

© Don Mammoser
200mm, F/6.3, 1/500 sec., ISO 200 (handheld)

Experiment with depth-of-field.
In Provence, you can have one field of lavender, then right next to it a field of sunflowers. This sunflower field reached back as far as the eye could see, and so I wanted to go for something I call "artistic flow," with a gradual drop-off in focus. I hoped to get the flowers in the foreground sharp, with the ones in the midground a little more blurry. As for the background flowers, I wanted the viewer to know they were sunflowers, but to make them look more like a wash of color.

I shot this photo at a midrange focal length (210mm) at 1/125th of a second, extending my aperture down to F/10, which gives me that midrange depth-of-field. I could've taken a series of photos and stacked them together so the whole scene would have been in focus, but I wanted a more natural feel to it. When you're standing in a field like that, when you focus your eyes on one sunflower, that flower becomes clear, while the others become like particulates in the background. That's what I wanted to do here—make the photo sharp where I focused, but fading off into the other areas.

© Don Mammoser
210mm, F/10, 1/125 sec. , ISO 400 (handheld)

Use a zoom like the 28-300 to capture different photos from the same vantage point.
The people of Provence mostly plant lavender in really straight rows, because it's easy to maintain and harvest that way, but this one area we found had a slight curve as the land came up over the hill. The 28-300 compresses elements in the photo to make them look closer, so when I used the zoom all the way at the 300mm end, it simply accentuated that small curve.

© Don Mammoser
300mm, F/13, 1/200 sec., ISO 100 (tripod-mounted)

The next picture is the same scene, but instead of zooming in all the way at 300mm, like the previous image, I backed off a bit to 230mm. My wife often serves as my model, and she was wearing this terrific hat, so I asked her to stand out in the field. I lined her up so there was a nice diagonal between her and that one lone tree, and she just struck her own pose. I got two completely different photos from basically the same position (I may have moved just a foot or two).

© Don Mammoser
230mm, F/16, 1/20 sec., ISO 100 (tripod-mounted)

Balance the composition of your photo.
The Senanque Abbey is a 12th-century Cistercian abbey still in use. Monks still live there and perform services and tend multiple gardens—including a vegetable garden, one with fruit trees, and this lavender garden. People can come and photograph both outside and inside the abbey during certain times.

The abbey happened to be nearby one of the hill towns where we were staying. I'd seen several postcard and calendar shots with this abbey as the subject and wanted to head over there to explore. We went there twice: once in the morning, then in the afternoon, when I thought the light angles would be better. I didn't want any one subject to dominate, so I split the image into thirds: the lavender, the abbey, and the blue sky above. I managed to get a shot when no other people were around and when the light was ideal. It almost looks like a scene you'd stumble upon in the Middle Ages—like it's been there forever.

© Don Mammoser
42mm, F/14, 1/60 sec., ISO 400 (handheld)

Keep your eye on the sky for that perfect sunset shot.
In the summertime, Provence is sunny about 99 percent of the time. One of the only drawbacks to that beautiful weather is that there aren't many clouds in the sky, which means it's hard to find a dramatic, colorful sunset. We'd seen an expansive lavender field near the hill town where we were staying, and on our fourth night there, I noticed some clouds coming in from the west as sunset was approaching. I decided to quickly head over to the field to see if I could capture some color as the sun went down.

I set my tripod fairly low to the ground for more of a wide-angle shot and set it to F/18 so I could maximize my depth-of-field and capture a sharp sun. Then I waited. Sure enough, about a half-hour later, the sky started to glow in complementary oranges, pinks, and purples. Up until that point, every night had been a plain blue sky, so this was a gorgeous change of pace.

© Don Mammoser
65mm, F/18, 1/4 sec., ISO 100 (tripod-mounted)

To see more of Don's work, go to www.donmammoserphoto.com.