How to Photograph Trees and Forests
What is the oldest living thing on Earth? There is a Great Basin bristlecone pine tree in the United States that has a core suggesting it is over 5,000 years old. What is the largest living thing on Earth? Obviously, a 300 foot redwood has to be at the top of the list. What’s the heaviest living thing on Earth? By now, I’m sure you get my point.
Trees aren’t just magnificent in their statistics. They are vital for human life. Since trees “breathe in” carbon dioxide and expel oxygen, our very existence relies on their presence. The issue of deforestation and climate change go hand and hand, and is the topic of countless books, articles, and documentaries. As photographers, we value trees in an additional way: as subject matter.
Vivid colors, elegant lines, and reflective bark are just some of the elements that make shooting trees so interesting. Trees are plentiful almost everywhere in the world, so they become an easy choice to photograph. But spend a little time in the forest with a camera and you’ll undoubtedly discover that making an effective image of trees is surprisingly hard
So, let’s explore some concepts and tips in order to help you take photos of trees and forests.
Composition: singular trees
The diversity of types of forests around the world is mind boggling. In some cases, trees will be out by themselves making a cohesive composition relatively easy. With a lone tree, we have an obvious subject that we can place in the frame wherever we would like.
In such cases, I like to try to find additional elements or conditions that make the composition more compelling than being “just a tree”.
With the advent of great photography planning software such as PhotoPills and The Photographer’s Ephemeris, we can see exactly where the sun, moon, or Milky Way is going to appear in the frame and plan out our shots either at home or in the field.
With a little scouting, I was able to prepare for the full moonrise and know precisely where it would fall within the tree branches of this gnarly old pine in Montana. Without the added interest the moon provided, this would have been a much less compelling shot.
Sometimes the shape of the tree itself is enough to create an interesting image. A trudge through the ancient bristlecone pines of the White Mountains in California reveals some absolutely stunning examples. I found that the soft light of late twilight was the most flattering for this ancient girl.
At almost 5,000 years old, this particular tree is almost as old as civilization itself. Just being in its presence is magnificent and humbling.
Once we get into groupings of trees, things get substantially more challenging. In my experience, finding a compelling forest composition is one of the most challenging photographic endeavors. It takes a lot of practice, some good mentoring, and a keen eye to make an exceptional picture in such a busy, cluttered environment.
Hopefully, some of the tips below will help get you started in the woods – but there is no substitute for experience.
Perhaps the single most important consideration in forest photography is getting the spacing between the trees to work in a cohesive way. The denser the woods, the more challenging this becomes. Since you can’t just push the trees into position, moving the camera to exactly the right spot to even out the spacing between the trees is the only possibility.
Sometimes, no matter what you do, they simply won’t line up effectively. Other times, you might be restricted in your movement due to brush, trees, water, or other obstacles. In these situations there isn’t much else to do but move along and try to find another grouping of trees.
For photographers as compositionally challenged as I am, this can take hours, so be sure to arrive long before you expect the best light to be.
Hand in hand with proper spacing is the arrangement of the trees in your composition. Again, it can be a monumental challenge to create an orderly and interesting image in a space as chaotic as a forest. Specifically, looking for groupings of odd numbers of trees that stand out from the background “noise” will often feel more balanced than an even number.
Not only are we concerned with grouping the trees correctly, but we must consider the front to back transition of our composition as well. Having a variety of distances between you and the trees in your shots will create depth and interest in your images.
Assume, at this point, that we have found a grove or forest of trees to photograph, and we have worked the area long enough to settle on a composition that we find exciting. In dense forests, your frame will be utterly chaotic. These are busy, cluttered environments and the basic premise of simplifying scenes in landscape photography is next to impossible… without a little help.
The easiest and most effective method of separating and simplifying your tree scene is to have some atmospherics subduing much of the background. Being a student of weather will help you identify what times of year your chosen location is likely to have fog, mist, rain, or snow. You will notice that many of the most dramatic tree images you see will include some wonderful atmospheric conditions for photography.
Even trees that are set apart from a busy forest will benefit from nice light, and the golden hour of landscape photography will serve you well here.
The giant redwood trees of coastal California love the wet moist air and temperate climate. During the spring and summer, fog is a frequent companion to sunrise and sunset. When the fog begins to burn off, the sunlight can start to claw through the gloom creating fantastical light beams.
Persistence is usually required here, as the right light conditions are fleeting and hard to line up with an effective composition. It took me the better part of a decade to finally land a shot of the fabled light beams that I was satisfied with.
Not all trees are created equally. Be on the lookout for interesting branch shapes and leaf arrangements in the forest. In particular, old and gnarled branches can create a spooky mood, especially when combined with pre-dawn or post-sunset light or mist. Old or mostly dead trees will add to the mystique of the location, and create a real sense of the area for your viewer.
If you are able to find an interesting tree, sometimes the graphic nature of its shape should be the star of the show. Allowing the trees to fall into backlit shadow is a great method of highlighting the wonderful characters of your subject. All trees are not created equal in this regard, and some trees are definitely more interestingly shaped than others. One such example is the desert Joshua tree.
Finally, don’t be afraid to go vertical. Getting an aerial perspective of a grouping of trees can be a wonderful and unique way to showcase their character. Search for nice patterns in the canopy, and vary your altitude until the character of the forest you are shooting becomes clear. Bonus points awarded for shooting in inclement weather.
Thus far we have been talking about trees as being the star of the show. We have talked about various ways to make your forest shots work via spacing and arrangement of your subject matter, and ensuring that you are on the lookout for effective atmospherics to help declutter the scene.
However, trees are nothing if not versatile. They can stand on their own, yet they are equally as effective in a supporting role. Photographs of a field of flowers, for example, are often greatly improved if there is a dramatic tree or trees in the background.
Wildlife is another popular photographic subject matter, and since many of our feathered and furry friends live in or near the forest, we must work to make a cohesive image by combining the two. Trees can be a massive distraction in these types of images, or they can be used to frame or compliment the wildlife in your image. The most effective shots incorporate the latter.
Using trees to anchor some excitement in the sky can be a fantastic way to create an interesting photograph. In the photo below, imagine the aurora borealis shimmering across the sky without the trees to anchor the scene. It would have been a much less compelling image.
Finally, use trees to highlight the changing of the seasons. Trees are chameleons, and change their look to match the season they are in. Winter snow clinging to vast branches of evergreen trees. Warming temperatures coaxing flowering buds out of their winter hibernation. Blooms of rhododendron trees bringing brilliant color into the forest in the summer months. Finally, fall brings a veritable symphony of color to many parts of the world.
While compositional challenges are plentiful in forest and tree photography, it is not the only issue that we need to tackle to make a good photograph. There are a few technical issues that loom in the woods that we must endeavor to overcome.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle when trying to showcase the vast grandeur of tall trees is lens distortion. As you point your camera up, the trees bend sharply in towards the middle of the frame. This can be an interesting effect, but it also can take your viewer out of the sense of place you are trying to convey if it veers too far from reality.
Photoshop comes to the rescue when attempting to combat this problem: try “Select > All” followed by “Edit > Transform > Perspective”. By widening out the top and/or squeezing the bottom of the image, you can dramatically straighten those leaning trees. It should be noted, however, that employing this weapon will cut out much of the sides of the image, so be sure to shoot a substantially wider piece of real estate than you think you will need so that you have plenty of pixels to work with.
Fixing distortion isn’t merely a post processing exercise, though. Choosing a longer focal length lens will dramatically reduce the effect. As an added bonus, the tighter crop of a telephoto lens will help to simplify busy scenes.
There is no free lunch, however, and depth of field problems will creep in despite your best attempts to reduce your aperture to compensate. Focus stacking is problematic due to the intense clutter in the forest, so it’s best to stop down as much as possible and accept the diffraction of the smaller apertures. If the wind is blowing even a tiny amount, that small aperture can be a killer by requiring a long shutter speed to create a useable exposure. Nobody said it was going to be easy!
I hope that you will read this and feel excited about the opportunities and challenges of taking photos of trees. When you get out into the woods, don’t insist on perfect – you’ll never find it.
With limitless trees to shoot, you will always be thinking, “I wonder if it’s better over there?”. Enjoy being where you are, and don’t forget to take a deep breath and appreciate the incredible spectacle of Earth’s oldest inhabitants.