Master the Art of Photographing Forests and Trees
Landscape photography is often associated with the Grand Landscape and the famous vistas. I love a beautiful sunset from a vantage point with impressive mountains in the background just as much as anyone, and I have several times traveled across the globe to find such a scene and capture it.
However, one of the problems with this kind of photography is: you sometimes have to travel across the globe to find a scene and capture it! And when you do, you will probably find that you are not alone on location and the scene has been photographed so many times before that you will have a hard time separating your own masterwork from thousands of others.
I am not saying that there aren’t any grand vistas out there that you can discover and make your own, but you get the idea. Most of us do not live close to countless undiscovered, fabulous viewpoints and many of the famous, grand landscapes have been so much photographed that making something new can be difficult.
My own home country, Norway, is well known for mountains, waterfall, fjords, midnight sun and aurora borealis but I still find that chances are limited and it may be difficult to do a grand vista with a ground-breaking touch. Furthermore, the area where I live is dominated by more mundane nature; woodlands with Norwegian spruce.
I love to get out in nature and create images more or less on a daily basis. Thus, a few years back I came to the conclusion that I had to get a grip on photographing more intimate landscape scenes in the woodlands nearby. This would open up a whole new world to me, and allow for literally innumerable compositions and possibilities. I thought. I soon found that the forest is a cluttered, chaotic and unforgiving place to photograph and the good compositions can be very hard to find and figure out. To add insult to injury, even a well-composed forest scene is somewhat demanding for the viewer, rendering it less suitable for the fast-paced world of social media of which so many photographers depend on.
The sub-genre of forest photography can be quite scary. It is, in my humble opinion, the most difficult part of our craft. However, after having studied those that master this very elegantly (Hans Strand, Lars Van De Goor, Christopher Burkett, Charles Cramer and Kilian Schönberger to name a few), I set out to learn the tricks of the trade. Years later, I found myself just as frustrated as before and with an extremely thin portfolio of forest images. But I’ve kept on working and throughout the years I hope to have unveiled a few of the secrets that make forest images compelling, at least in my eyes.
While the grand landscape most often benefits from spectacular light, the forests are more forgiving. Grey, dull skies and even rain softens the light and simplifies the scene.
Direct sunlight or hard midday light may create too much chaos with burnt out reflexes in foliage and a cluster of black shadows. An overcast day may be ideal for venturing into the woods, but I’m not saying that a clear day is unsuited. Just be sure to visit very early or very late, in the hours where the sun is low in the sky and the light not too hard. Few things are more beautiful than trees in the soft, warm light of the morning sun.
If you are lucky enough to find yourself in fog, this adds an ethereal atmosphere, simplifies an otherwise chaotic scene and enhances the depth in the composition, an element I find very important in forest-photography. I will come back to that shortly.
In my opinion, ideal conditions for capturing forest scenes are early morning fog that slowly clears out as the sun appears. Such conditions may result in spectacular light, including light beams, and may lift an otherwise average location to divine levels. Unfortunately, this is rarely to be seen, at least where I live, so having memorized a few locations and compositions beforehand makes it much easier to run out and capture that stunning image when conditions happen to appear. As with most landscape photography, planning is the key to success.
As beautiful as a straightforward forest scene can be in the right light, I often find that a composition needs a special element that draws attention. It can be almost anything, as long as it is a detail that somehow stands out. It can be a single tree that is particularly gnarly or just skewed; it can be a small pond or stream, a few flowers, leaves or even a sunstar from a low-angle sun.
Looking for elements to focus on makes the search for compositions easier and I often find that the scene benefits from that little extra “it”. When I am out wandering the forests, I primarily look for such details and then try to figure out the rest of the composition around it.
I find depth to be an extremely important element in the forest images that I like. Finding a composition where you somehow see further into the forest, creates the impression that the forest goes on and on and what you are photographing is just a tiny element in a bigger whole.
Factors that may help you increase the sense of depth may be placing the “it”-element in the foreground or using leading lines created by branches or fallen trees towards a backdrop. Light and atmosphere is also a major contributor to the sense of depth. I have already mentioned how fog gives a wonderful blurring of more distant subjects, but even if you don’t have fog, light can be used. Small clearings in dense forests are always brighter, and when I have found an area I like to capture, I often try to compose towards a lighter area to enhance the sense of depth.
Edges and corners
When composing forest scenes, I believe that taking extra care of the edges of the frame is important. Always take an extra look through your viewfinder towards these areas to make sure that they contribute to the composition and don’t work against it. Beware of highlights that draw attention from the main subject and what you want to convey. Unless there is a specific point to it, I try to avoid including anything of the sky in the forest scenes.
In the field
For forest-photography, I carry a range of focal lengths ranging from around 16mm to 105mm (full frame equivalent), a polarizer, a tripod and a remote. Good shoes, right clothes, a snack and mosquito repellent are also important.
When I set out to photograph in the woods, I often start by looking for the small extra “it” that draws my attention. As soon as I have found something that interests me, I make a long walk around this subject, carefully considering light, depth and all other elements. I take care not to step on anything that may be included in the composition later.
Forest photography is hard, and at least my brain needs time to take in the scene properly. If you find it difficult, a small break with a snack will help you see if there really is something there. Take your time. Patience is key. If I still find the scene interesting, I then take out the camera and try out different frames and different focal lengths through the viewfinder. Carefully consider the choice of lens. Focal length is so much more than angle-of-view. Different focal lengths alter the compression of the scene and thus the relationship between near and far subjects. For a composition in the forest, this relationship can mean all the difference.
I don’t set up the tripod until I’m pretty confident that the scene is good and I have found the best possible composition of it. I then start to take care of the technical details. I almost always use a polarizer when photographing in woods. This removes unwanted reflections and desaturation of foliage and makes the colors stand out better. I always photograph at the lowest possible ISO, but in many instances that can actually be quite high. Light is often dim in the woods and the polarizer also steals some light. If I manage to make a composition with some depth, I want a decent depth of field, and thus a fairly small aperture. All this contributes to long shutter-speeds. The problem is, even a slight breeze will move ferns and branches and blurring details you may want to keep tack sharp.
So, the ISO needs to be high enough to give an adequate shutter speed to freeze those details at the same time as you have a small enough aperture to have the right depth-of-field. With modern sensors, I have no problem with using an iso up to around 800. I have often found that the chaotic and heterogeneous forest scenes are rather forgiving with respect to noise.
Regarding depth-of-field, I sometimes use focus stacking, but in my experience, this must be used with caution. First of all, the blending process is not always perfect and may render branches and foliage weird. There are of course workarounds for that, but my point is that uniform, tack sharpness all through the scene may steal some of the depth in the composition. I find that a sharp foreground and main elements suffice and that the compositions actually may benefit from a very slight blurring of the distant elements.
My go-to aperture is around f8-16, and I try to keep my shutter speed as fast as possible, depending on the wind. Although I put much work into metering the scene, I often end up bracketing up to +/- 2 steps. The light is difficult in the forest with bright highlights and dark shadows and although the histogram is of much help, you will not really now how you want your exposure before you look at it on a larger, calibrated screen.
I do not use a standardized post processing for forest-images. As with all my landscape work, captures are processed on an individual basis. However, a few common elements can be pointed at. As mentioned, my experience is that noise rarely represents a major problem. Sharpening should be done carefully, as always, to avoid artifacts. Contrast and clarity must also be used with caution, as it is very easy to get a too hard result. I often end up with taking down clarity slightly to about -5 and I often leave contrast to 0. Sometimes, a scene may benefit from a touch of Orton-effect, but I tend to use that in highlights only to add to the soft, hazy feel in the lightest areas. Be very careful with the colors, and adjust hue, saturation and luminosity separately with care. Give the greens and yellows special attention and try out different balances. I always try to capture the scene right in a single exposure, but techniques such as panorama stitching, perspective-blend, focus stacking or even focal-length stacking can be used although the forest-scene with all its lines and details may make a good blend difficult. If there are small, disturbing details (such as odd branches and light spots from the sky) that I want to remove, I have found that the spot repair tool in Photoshop often does a decent job. If not, the clone-stamp tool can be tried out.
This is merely a description of how I think when photographing in the forests. Please consider it as suggestions and examples on how woodland-scenes can be captured, not guidelines or rules! Find your own ways, sometimes the beauty lies in breaking away from the tips and tricks and make something completely original!