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How to Photograph Trees and Forests

Photo By Cristian Popescu
Camera Data: Nikon D80, F4.8, 1/200sec, 44mm FL, ISO 100

Most of us know the old saying “you can’t see the trees for the forest”, and though this tends to describe someone who is missing the point, if you don’t know how to properly photograph trees and forests you’ll miss the point (or subject) too.

You might think that it isn’t all that complicated an issue to take a good photograph of a tree or woodland setting, but it really all depends upon what you want for a final image. For instance, are you trying to capture the size of the tree, the majesty of it in the landscape, the power of a group of tall or ancient trees? All of these photographic intentions require different approaches, and if not done properly can end up missing their goals entirely.

So, let’s say that you are someone who wants to capture a woodland setting full of dappled light making its way through the tree tops high above. How do you setup your camera for such an image? What equipment do you actually need? What are the camera settings for such a moment?

Photo By Petr Kovar
Camera Data: Olympus E-510, F5.6, 1/100sec, 42mm FL, ISO 400

A setting like this will provide some scale to the trees and allow a photographer to obtain some depth in their photograph, but they must have several key elements in their viewfinder if the image is going to be a success. The first thing is the contrast to the deeply colored and angular tree trunks, and this means some sort of paler green undergrowth along the forest floor. There must also be some sort of element that leads the eye into the scene, which could be a slim little footpath or even a downed tree that runs into the image. Lastly, there must be that sunlight because it gives the appealing glow to the scene while also adding height to the trees as well. This light must be sprinkled along the ground, but it must also be detectable beyond the trees as well, since this is the only way to give an image some depth.

If you are missing any of these elements you need to relocate your camera until you can easily distinguish all of them in the scene. Once you have done this you will then need to setup the camera on a tripod with the wide angle lens attached. Even if you have decided that your photograph is going to be cropped in the portrait format, you must use the wide angle to give the scene depth. Why is this necessary? Regardless of the height of the tripod; the angle of the camera with this lens is going to create a more accessible perspective for the setting. It will pull the foreground towards the lens and though this is considered mild distortion, it makes the photograph “work” more effectively.

With the camera and lens in place, you are going to have to assess the lighting in the image to determine your camera settings. When we are talking about dappled light through tree tops and some sort of sunlight beyond we are actually getting into a few challenges. For one thing, how do you know where to meter? For another, what sort of aperture settings should be used for this image? Additionally, would it help to use a polarizing filter to balance of the light in the scene? One of the more challenging things to record on film is dappled shade because it is often tricky to know how to capture it without creating over or underexposure issues.

One of the simplest approaches is to meter off of the highest light values and then take the photographs with the camera set at two stops lower than the reading indicated. Because shady locations with elements of bright light tend to create darker pictures you may initially think that it is a good idea to run with the automatic settings, but you will end up with either blown highlights or underexposure; rather than the desired dapples of sun.

If you were to stand in the same position and simply tilt the camera straight up into the treetops, with the sun coming down through the leaves, branches and needles, you would actually use the same approach. Although, you would definitely need the polarizing filter at this point in order to reduce any possibilities for undesired lens flare.

What if you are looking at a single tree? How is it best photographed? The first thing to consider is how you are going to pull that tree from the setting or background. Remember the “tree for the forest” concept and position your camera in a way that allows the tree to really become distinct from all its surroundings. How is this done? One approach asks you to make sure that the tree (or silhouettes of a few trees) stand out starkly against the horizon and the sky. This usually means a single tree with a unique shape and which is situated in an isolated position.

Consider one of the most photographed trees in the world – the Lone Cypress along 17 Mile Drive near Pebble Beach, California. This is a remarkable natural wonder, and a great opportunity for capturing a lone and isolated tree.

Photo By Tanya Kumar
Camera Data: Canon Powershot SD750, F4.5, 1/400sec, 14mm FL, ISO 80

Interestingly enough, a loan oak tree in a field of flowers or grass can also become just as interesting if the right lens and settings are used to record it.

For this sort of picture, the photographer is going to opt for their long lens and an aperture that keeps foreground, mid-ground, and background in focus. This is probably another occasion where the tripod is necessary, but when it can also yield the best results.

If separating a tree from its surroundings is not going to work out, such as when visiting Muir Woods or any well-known forest where ancient trees are in abundant supply, simply introducing something to give perspective to the size of a tree is going to create drama and make a good photograph. If you are visiting a redwood forest or want to demonstrate the enormity of an ancient Tulip Tree you may just need to position a person or small group of people near the tree to create perspective and really illustrate the size of the trunk or the height of the tree. This doesn’t have to be a posed portrait and just waiting for hikers or visitors to stroll past the tree may create a very interesting composition.

What about black and white photographs of trees and woodlands? Are there any specific trees that look better when photographed without color? When we talk about tree photography without color we might automatically envision some of the dramatic photographs created by the late Ansel Adams. He was known for using the textures of stones, bark, clouds, and natural forms to create all kinds of depth in black and white images. This is something which should inspire a photographer to seek out scenarios and settings in which they can snap effective pictures of trees in the colorless format as well.

While there are no specific varieties of trees that work best in the black and white medium, it is important to understand that a single tree or a woodland setting is going to have to have a lot of different and highly contrasting tones in order for it to look interesting or appealing in a black and white photograph.

For example, a single majestic oak tree against a brilliant blue sky may be a good color subject, but such a sky can actually become dull and flat in the world of black and white imagery. This means that the photographer will have to find trees with a lot of drama of their own. This might be something like a formal alley of white-barked birches, or a grotesquely contorted tree in a very stark setting, or even just a single tree in a unique location where various tones exist. The thing to remember is that the same principles that apply to all black and white photography will remain in place when choosing trees as the subject.

Photo By Nick Coombs

It is also vitally important to remember that any photographs can be dramatically improved in the post-editing process, particularly if the photographer tends to shoot in the RAW format. For example, simple masks can often achieve some of the same effects as polarizing filters in the field, or even improve the composition through cropping.

About the Author

Amy is an multi-award winning photographer from Australia. She teaches enthusiast photographers how to take beautiful, professional photos in easy, plain English. She has a monthly photography emagazine and ebooks to help you create stunning images every time. DigitalPhotographySuccess.com

Comments (16)

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  1. Mansu says:

    brilliant article, love that first photo Amy, it’s amazing.

  2. Catherine says:

    Thanks for a great article Amy. I am a subscriber to Foucs Ezine and I love it. You give such great information and my photography has been much better.

  3. Faye says:

    Hi Amy,

    How do you get the tree in focus when you only have backlighting?

    Thanks, Faye

  4. Donna says:

    That black and white tree is excellent.

  5. Cloe says:

    Helpful article here. Thanks a lot

  6. Kenny says:

    Thanks for your hard work on this blog. You are always doing a terrific job.

  7. Bill Smith says:

    I love trees and am always photographing them. Thanks for the awesome update! Love your ezines by the way, they are fantastic. I have never bought anything so helpful in my life. You’ve really changed the way I do photography Amy.

  8. Felicity says:

    We live opposite a huge forrest reserve and I have just started getting into photography. My friend recommended your site and I came accross this article. I love it! You are a great writer and a talented photographer and I am so happy I found you. Thank you Amy.

  9. foto prewed says:

    There’s certainly a lot to learn about this topic. I really like all the points you made.

  10. David Patterson says:

    Thanks! Off to photograph the giants in California.

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