How to Photograph Trees and Forests
If you have ever been to a forest and tried to take photos, you probably know that it is not that easy to take a picture that does it justice. Forests are dark and have high contrasts of very deep shadows and bright highlights. The leaves scatter the light, and as a forest is usually not neat and tidy it can be hard to find a composition that works.
You need to learn to see beyond the chaotic surface and seek order and structure. You also need to train yourself to consciously “see” everything in the frame, because our brain often hides the little details from us. A camera does not have this ability, and it is this difference in seeing between what the camera sees and what you perceive that you need to overcome first.
The Right Conditions
Before you can even do this, you need to understand the problem with contrast in a forest. I always say that what most people consider to be the perfect weather, the kind you hope for when you go on vacation, is the worst possible option for forest photography.
You need soft, diffused light to not add to the visual chaos. This means that even if you go scouting, you really need to go to the forest when the sky is at least overcast. You will simply not be able to establish what the potential of a location is when the sun is out creating harsh contrasts.
Overcast skies are perfect for scouting and you can absolutely take pictures on days like these. When a forest has lots of distractions however, you might have to go back on a hazy, misty or foggy day. Dense fog will hide much of the unwanted elements out of sight and it also adds a painterly atmosphere to the scene.
Watch: How to Photograph Woodlands
I also love to take pictures on rainy days, when the colours become deep and saturated, which can really add to the enchantment. In this case, I will use my polarising filter to cut through the glare on leaves.
Evaluating the Scene
You will need to train yourself to see everything: the deep dark shadows on the trees on one side due to rain, glare on leaves, sticks on the floor, that one branch sticking out on the left, a spot of very bright light between the trees…
Scan the scene in front of you so that you have a full grasp of the potential composition. Evaluate every little detail and find a solution to any “issues.” This is what I love about forest photography; it can be very much like solving a puzzle.
There are quite a few things that will help you to clean up a scene. The first one is a telephoto lens. A lens like this can compress mist; it will let you zoom in on the essentials in the frame.
It will help you to “visually stack” the trees together, which will also bring a sense of depth to your shot. A telephoto lens is my best friend in the forest, and I would say that 75% of my forest pictures are taken with such a lens. However, it does depend on the kind of forest. If the fog is too dense, I stick to a wide-angle lens.
Learn more: How to Take Landscapes with a Telephoto Lens
The second thing that will help you clean up the visual chaos in the forest is your viewpoint. Don’t always settle for the scene as you see it for the first time. Walk around the area before shooting, because sometimes even moving a few centimetres will hide things from sight.
I recommend spending some time looking for the very best angle, and only then put down your tripod. Sometimes finding a higher or lower viewpoint will help tremendously in hiding things from sight that will distract from the scene.
Don’t forget that you can also clean a scene up by opting to shoot in portrait orientation. A vertical frame might be exactly what you need to emphasise the shape of a group of tree trunks, or if there is a lot of clutter on the forest floor.
I often opt for a vertical frame when I feel like emphasising the height of trees. It is, however, a little bit more challenging as it usually means that you are including sky in the image that might be very distracting (due to the bright patches it causes).
What are You Trying to Capture?
Many people will start out by wanting to capture a wide expanse of trees in the forest. This might seem like the most logical thing to do, but it will usually result in pictures that don’t have a real point of interest, or that will have a lot of bright sky showing.
Ask yourself what it is that stands out to you the most – what made you grab your camera in the first place? Try to capture this to the best of your ability by using the right lens, the best viewpoint, and making a good analysis of possible distractions in your composition.
It might have been something more specific that caught you attention. It could be the shapes, the way the trees are grouped together, the leading line of a path, or contrasting leaves against a dark background. Make sure you understand what it is that makes you want to capture the scene and then work backwards to capture it in the best way possible.
Getting Set Up
I always have my camera on a tripod in the forest, and I will always use the self-timer or remote control. Forests are dark places and, as I want to get as much dynamic range as possible, a low ISO speed is necessary. A tripod really is an essential in forest photography.
I will always use manual white balance (Kelvin); I set the colour temperature to match what I see. It is true that I could always correct it afterwards, but I really dislike seeing a bleak image on my LCD screen that looks nothing like what I am seeing.
There is one more thing to consider in the forest, and this is the wind. I must admit that I really don’t like wind when I am photographing in the forest, because I like to keep the leaves in focus and the small branches will sway at different speeds than the bigger ones which might result in odd-looking images.
You can opt for a slow shutter speed and introduce movement into the shot, but it can be hit and miss. For me, I prefer things to be frozen in time and sharp. On early mornings, the shutter speeds I can obtain at ISO 100 can be as long as 5 seconds. Getting it up to a speed that is fast enough to freeze the movement can result in having to choose an ISO that is higher than you are comfortable with.
Admittedly, many new cameras do very well at higher ISO speeds, but I personally avoid this (also because my camera is not one of the latest and greatest generation). This means that you might also have to solve an exposure puzzle and this is why I always have my camera in manual mode.
When setting your exposure, consider what aperture you need. A small aperture (high f-stop number) will render much of the scene in focus, but this isn’t always necessary.
Dripping rain will also cause leaves to move. Always look at the small branches at the base of the trees first to check if there is movement, and then choose your shutter speed appropriately.
If you are photographing the scene with a telephoto lens, then you might struggle to get everything in focus if there is a lot of depth in the scene. If there is no fog obscuring things, then you might even have to resort to focus stacking if you want the whole scene in focus – sometimes a very small aperture just won’t be possible.
Focusing Your Shot
Autofocus might be tricky in a dark or foggy forest, and you will often have to resort to manual focus. This will combat your lens hunting for focus, or failing to lock onto a target at all. Always make a conscious decision about what definitely needs to be in focus.
Think about what the viewer will look at first. If you are photographing a tree-lined path and the first trees are out of focus, then this will be hugely distracting and even confusing.
Forest photography might not be easy in the beginning, but it is also very rewarding. The moment when you stand in a foggy forest and you are able to take pictures that do it justice, that make your heart sing and which capture the magical side of our reality… it is all so worth it.