A woman runs through a field of sunflowers holding her daughter’s hand. The sky above them is cloudy, with flashes of light peeking through.
Behind them, capturing every moment, is Helen Don.
“There’s just nothing like Valley View Acres,” she said of the farm in Middletown. “It’s like heaven on earth. The mountain backdrop, the rolling hills, and it’s always windy.”
Don is a photographer with her own business in Middletown and has been taking family photos for 13 years. She started taking pictures when her eldest son was born, wanting to document everything. When friends and family started asking her to take photos, the business grew organically from there.
The family lived in Montgomery County for a long time, and that’s where Don started taking pictures in sunflower fields. When they moved to Frederick County two years ago, she discovered Valley View Acres. For photo shoots, she likes to bring her clients into nature and away from other people. Fields of sunflowers, like those at Valley View, provide the perfect backdrop.
For just a few weeks each year, sunflowers tower over photographers in the fields of Valley View Acres. The farm has grown sunflowers since 2018 and boasts eight hectares of blooming flowers from mid-July to mid-August.
Valley View hosts weekend festivals, but during the week the space is mainly used by professional photographers and videographers who want a natural landscape. Only a few photographers are allowed in the field at a time to ensure plenty of space and options for the project. It is becoming more and more popular as a destination for photo shoots.
Authenticity is key for many of the photographers who shoot in the sunflower fields. Lacey Peterson, who has run her photography business for nearly 10 years and also runs a childcare center for seven children, plus her own three children, says balancing everything can be “very chaotic”. Much of Peterson’s photography takes place on weekends or evenings, because that’s when families are usually available for shoots.
While Peterson has a home studio, she likes to shoot on location and has used Valley View for his sunflowers, as well as other locations. Many of the farms are closed to the public and require photographers to be licensed or have liability insurance.
“I prefer to shoot where kids feel their most natural, authentic selves, whether it’s at their favorite park, their backyard, the playground, a creek, their ice cream shop,” she said.
She makes sure to talk to her clients about expectations and rules before taking them to the sunflowers. People aren’t always responsible or using best practices in Frederick, Peterson said, but added, “My clients are up to date and know the rules. I work with wonderful families. I have never had any problem.”
Don faced the problem of damaged flowers, especially when shooting with small children, she said. But in general, she and her customers usually don’t touch the sunflowers.
Jennifer Riley, who has been taking photos in the field since 2019, said the families she photographs have always been very respectful of the space. Valley View Acres also allows Riley to cut some of the sunflowers for her shoots, she said.
Riley has been a professional photographer for nine years, but has been taking pictures since she was in high school. When her children were young, she wanted to capture the “fleeting moments”, as she put it.
Riley opened her own studio three years ago and offers indoor and outdoor photo sessions.
Nature brings its own considerations, including heat and bugs. To combat this, Peterson and Don both do shorter photo shoots, lasting about 15 to 30 minutes. But Riley says her shoots are typically longer. She prefers to shoot during the golden hour of sunset, and it’s cooler at that time too, which helps.
The fields are planted far from the nearest parking lot, so photographers often advise customers to wear comfortable shoes and bring water.
But all the hard parts are so worth it, Don said. The awe-inspiring faces of her clients when they see the sunflower fields and the natural surroundings of the location make the whole process such a unique experience.
She always suggests that clients do their photoshoots outside. Children are happier and people are more relaxed. In fact, she often suggests that when clients come to the sunflower fields, they should take pictures with bare feet.
“I think [Valley View Acres] is really a new place because most people live in cities where you don’t have that ocean of sunflowers,” she said.