Posted by: kerryl29 | January 30, 2012

Like the Lorax, I Speak For the Trees…And So Can You

While it certainly didn’t–and doesn’t deserve to–receive anything close to the credit for spawning environmental advocacy as Rachel Carson‘s trailblazing Silent Spring, Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, in my estimation, doesn’t receive the recognition it deserves.  The children’s book, written in 1971 and adapted as an animated television special the following year, had a major impact on me as a child and was probably my earliest exposure to an environmental point of view.  It surely colored my perspective moving forward.

Shadowland black & white, East Side Woods, Morton Arboretum, Illinois

The book’s title character, the Lorax himself, says he “speaks for the trees, as the trees have no tongues.”  Perhaps the Lorax is still whispering in my ear, because I’ve found myself inexplicably drawn to trees and, as my photography has developed over the years, I find myself trying, in a way, to speak for them myself.

Birch Tree Twins, Hiawatha National Forest, Michigan

Maybe it’s a function of the part of the world in which I reside (and, therefore, do the majority of my shooting), but over the years I’ve frequently ventured deep into forests with my camera gear.  These kinds of settings can be extremely challenging from a compositional standpoint; wooded locales tend to be cluttered and “messy,” in the sense that there are frequent visual distractions permeating from every direction.  And yet, some of my most successful and meaningful–at least to me–images have come from such environs.

Tremont Trees, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

When I’m photographing in the woods, I’m typically looking for one of two things:  patterns and/or interruptions of patterns.  In this instance, it’s important to think of the word “pattern” in a broad sense; it could mean something as simple as a fairly predictably arranged set of tree trunks, or the alternation of dark and bright tones or clumps of trees alternating with clearings.

Hemlock Hill Black & White, Morton Arboretum, Illinois

Pattern interruption, on the other hand, might be a strategically placed splash of differentiated color or a single tree trunk or branch that breaks up an otherwise directional pattern or a distinguishing element that belies a deep woods setting.

Squaw Rock Trail, South Chagrin Reservation, Cleveland Metroparks, Ohio

What I’m looking for, in other words, is something eye-catching.  And please don’t misunderstand; it’s not as though I head out consciously thinking to myself “let’s see what eye-catching elements I can identify.”  What makes an element eye-catching is precisely the ability to naturally catch the observer’s eye.  If something is eye-catching, I don’t have to find it;  as long as I’m observant, it will catch me.

Hall of Mosses Trail, Hoh Rainforest, Olympic National Park, Washington

Once found, it’s the responsibility of the photographer to transmit the eye-catching element to the viewer.  That’s where the art of composition comes into play; you need to use the frame to emphasize the elements contained within in a manner that translates your vision to the passive viewer.  In a sense, that’s photographic art in a nutshell.

When I’m engaged in this exercise in the forest, trees are invariably part of the puzzle.  I think about how the trunks and branches fit into the puzzle.  Are they emphasizing the story I’m trying to tell?  Would it be better to shoot the subject matter as a vertical, perhaps emphasizing the majesty of tall trunks, or as a horizontal, which might better accentuate the breadth and number of trees in the setting I’ve chosen?  Should I widen my perspective or tighten it?  Are there distractions that I can eliminate?  What about that branch, cutting through the corner of the frame…can I move in closer to remove it or will that negatively impact the overall composition?

George Washington Forest, Hiawatha National Forest, Michigan

Do I need to include the entirety of a tree or stand of trees or is it enough just to show a part of them?  Is it critically important to show the bottom of a trunk, as some kind of an anchor, or can I eliminate that part of the image, and successfully leave out some unwanted distractions (forest floor clutter, for instance) as a result?

Tulip Trees & Red Maple, Elkmont, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Just so there’s no misunderstanding, there isn’t a single correct answer to any of these questions.  They’re merely a few things among many that I ask myself when shooting in the woods.  And if you ask these and other questions–many of which I’m sure I’ve never even conceived of–of yourself when photographing in the forest, you too can attempt to “speak for the trees” via your own vision.  Speaking through imagery may be a logical oxymoron, but it’s a highly honorable exercise, I assure you.


  1. Beautiful pics – thanks for sharing!

  2. Very well said, and illustrated, Kerry. Count me in as a fellow Lorax!

    • Thanks; we can always use more Loraxes…or is it Loraxi? 🙂

  3. That 2nd B&W is out of this world… it is mesmerizing, absolutely love it 🙂

  4. Yes, I agree with ‘krikitarts’ – very well said.
    I love the black and white images in particular. The shadows of the tree trunks in the snow really add a strong element to the overall composition.

    Trees on your side of the world seem to be much straighter and taller than ours here (in Australia) – well at least near where I live.

    • Thanks; you can’t tell in the Shadowland image, but this was taken the day after a blizzard dropped two feet of snow (and the accompanying winds produced copious blowing and drifting). I was set up in a rather deep drift to get the shot.

      I wonder if trees really are, on balance, straighter in North America than Australia…

  5. I love photographing trees as well, especially shooting up into the treetops. I love that perspective! Great photos!!

    • Thanks; I don’t shoot the looking up perspective very often, but between the leading lines formed by the anchoring trunk (the one emanating from the lower left-hand corner), the dusting of snow on the trees and the patterns created by the shapes of the hemlocks, I thought it was worth it. I’ve done this with pretty decent effect with spruce trees as well.

  6. This is wonderful Kerry. And no, I’m not picking the B&W as my favorites because it’s not possible to choose a favorite. I love them all for different reasons. Speaking through imagery is probably a logical oxymoron but logic has little to do with photographic vision. Your images ‘speak’ volumes Kerry.

    I was out in the woods this afternoon and yes, those woods are cluttered. I was on a mission to get to the trestle and the water and didn’t stop to photograph any trees today. I brought my tripod, my F3 and three lenses. Can’t wait until tomorrow when I develop the film.

    My piggies are tired from all that walking but it’s worth it.


    • Thanks very much, John. That means a great deal.

      Can’t wait to see what you came up with from your own walk in the woods.

      • I got some decent shots Kerry. I’ll put the post together tomorrow and post on Thursday.


  7. oh do I ever love your work

    • I second the motion, Mr. Weisser…incredible work…and I wait and wait and wait for each new post. 🙂

      Always a pleasure….

      • Thanks, Scott.

    • Thanks very much; that’s very gracious of you to say.

  8. As a beginning photographer I am ever so happy that I happened upon your blog. Today’s post is wonderful, not only in the photography, but in your comments that have helped me to stop and think and learn from your questions. This helps me to learn the questions that I can be asking myself to move forward and improve. Thank you!

    • Thanks, Angeline; that means a great deal to me because I do post these entries in the hope that budding photographers will find them useful. I’m glad this resonated with you.

  9. Kerry, what a wonderful post! I also love the Lorax and have always had a deep love for trees. Your photos make them sing.

    • Thanks very much, Lynn!

  10. Fabulous work. Thank you for inspiring more walks in the woods 🙂

    • Thank you kindly.

  11. Excellent post and beautiful work as always Kerry! I’m partial to the two pictures from the Smoky Mountains as that is hands down my favorite area to photograph! Trees are cool!

    • Thanks, Michael…yeah, the Smokies…I often say that I think it’s the most widely-appealing place to photograph east of the Mississippi.

  12. Lovely work 🙂

    • Thank you, Eden.

  13. lovely photos and patterns. please keep speaking for the trees

    • Thanks, Robert!

  14. Very well-put: “as long as I’m observant, it will catch me.” Since I started my blog a few months ago, I’ve been saying, “I just need to pay attention.” I’m working on it, but you’ve said it better right here.

    • Thanks, Mel. Just being aware of the importance of observation gives you a huge leg up!

  15. What Amazing Photos


  16. beautiful images and thanks for bringing my attention to “The Lorax” One of my favourites is ‘The Giving Tree’ by Shel Silverstein

    • Thanks, Jane.

  17. Wonderful post, Kerry. You speak well on the behalf of trees. And thanks for some insight into shooting these types of subjects. I really struggle with shooting deep wooded areas.

    • Thanks, Brandon. Deep woods can be tough. From a compositional standpoint, sometimes it can be easier to think of these scenes more like you would a close-up than a traditional landscape.

  18. Super photos Kerry and a very well written piece!!!!

    • Thanks very much, David.

  19. Beautiful shots! 🙂 My favs – 1st, 4th, and the 5th. Incredible! 🙂

    • Thanks, Nandini!

  20. I think the story about the tree is great. I remember reading The Folk of The Faraway Tree with I was growing up, and that tree was so big and so amazing, I wanted it to be in my back yard. There was a time in the books when the tree was sick and everyone helped to save it. I love trees, and thinks trees are very important, though I’m not big on photographing. Love your images though.

    • Thanks, Leanne.

      • Hey, I hope you don’t mind, but I nominated you for an award on my blog

  21. Your pictures are amazing. I am so grateful to you for taking the time to visit my blog and to comment. I now have a circular polarising filter and a series of neutral densitiy filters that you mentioned. I will back down to the Fowey River very soon for some more expermentation with shutter speed, filters attached. Your pictures are an inspiration to aspiring photographers like myself. Thank you again.

    • Thanks very much for stopping by and for leaving such a gracious comment.

      Glad to hear that you were able to pick up those filters; I think you’ll find them to be of tremendous help in creatively rendering nature–moving water in particular. The polarizer is a big help in removing glare from things like wet rocks and reflections on the water when shooting around waterfalls and cascades.

  22. Beautiful photos and excellent tips for shooting in the forest! I’m usually overwhelmed and frustrated about not knowing how to frame tree shots, but I’ll give it another try I think 🙂


    • Thanks very much, Christine.

  23. Now that it’s the season of frost up there, you can take comfort in what Frost wrote (with a single word changed): “One could do worse than be a photographer of birches.”

    Steve Schwartzman

    • Bob Frost’s momma didn’t raise no fools. 🙂

      Frost was writing, of course, about climbing birch trees, but…truth be told, the birch is the species of tree I find most photographically inspiring (particularly when surrounded by colorful maples and ash).

  24. Wow, I love these shots! It can be tough to figure out exactly what needs to be in the image. Other times, it’s as easy as letting go and letting your eyes draw you to the right thing.
    So are you a tree-hugger? I like hugging trees.

    • Thanks for the comment. I don’t think I’ve ever literally hugged a tree, but I might be a metaphorical tree hugger. 🙂

  25. […] said before, on a number of occasions on this blog, that–in my opinion–forest photography can be among the most aesthetically challenging […]

  26. […] noted my affinity for photographing in deep forest settings before, so it should come as no surprise that I was happy […]

  27. […] Time spent in other locations over the years made my session at McGilvra Woods feel like a trip down memory lane.  Having spent extended stretches in heavily wooded areas I’ve developed a real affinity for trees over the years, as I noted in a past entry. […]

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