Posted by: kerryl29 | June 10, 2019

Real Notes on Forest Photography

Over the years I’ve had a number of people ask me about the in-the-field experience of photographing in the woods.  They’re particularly interested in knowing how I go about the process of composing in such settings.  I’ve resisted writing about this subject because I’ve struggled trying to put something together that’s even vaguely actionable for others, but having received a few additional inquiries since posting the last entry, I’ve decided to give it a shot.

My last post was entitled “Wisconsin: McGilvra Woods (and Notes on Forest Photography)”…unfortunately it was almost completely lacking the notes.  I made a few generic comments, of little value to anyone, and spent the rest of the time talking about the specific experience of photographing at McGilvra Woods (and, truth be told, I didn’t say very much about that, either). Let’s see if we can rectify that shortcoming this time around.

Good Light in the Woods

I’ve discussed the subject of “good light” on a number of occasions on this blog.  As I have stated previously, “the practical definition of ‘good light’ depends…on the subject matter and on the emotion you’re trying to project. Good light is the product of a set of circumstances, not an inherently objective thing.”

So, what is “good light” as it pertains to forest photography?

Coastal Trail, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, California

I posted the above image because it’s such an outlier for me.  I almost never photograph in forests when the light isn’t even.  (I would note that the light was even when I started photographing on this particular morning; eventually, the sunlight began to burn through the fog, producing the conditions that you see here.)  But something like this is extremely rare for me.  Much more typical are the conditions you see in the image below.

Rockefeller Grove, Humboldt Redwoods State Park, California

When the light is even–be it open shade or overcast–the annoying, distracting hot spots that dominate forest scenes when the sun is shining are absent.  Hot spots pull the eye of the viewer, and almost always in haphazard, undesirable ways.  The “god beams” image at the top of this post is an exception precisely because the “hot spots” are desired, creating the image’s center of interest.  But, again, this is atypical.  Most of the time, hot spots are more or less randomly placed in the frame, creating the aforementioned distractions.

Evans Notch, White Mountain National Forest, Maine

Compositional Considerations:  Myriad Options

Over the years, this is the subject I’ve received the most questions about regarding forest photography.  It’s also the subject I’ve had the greatest difficulty describing in a way that’s meaningful to most people, because the method I use to find compositions is more intuitive than formulaic.  In other words, I don’t have a kind of a formal, structured manner that I use to compose.  Instead, I typically simply see something that interests me and follow my instincts.  That said, there is something of a pattern that can be detected upon examining the results, so I’m going to try to kind of reverse engineer what I do and see if that’s of any value.

Aspen Hillside, Santa Fe National Forest, New Mexico

Forests are, visually speaking, generally chaotic places and so what I’m ostensibly trying to do when composing in the woods is bring a sense of order to the chaos.  How does one go about doing that?  In broad terms, I’m almost always looking to establish some kind of a visual anchor to the frame–some element or set of elements that the eye can latch onto and make sense of.

There are a number of ways to do this with forest scenes.  In the image below, for instance, the visual anchor is the group of white birch trunks, arching through the frame.  The trunks are bright and eye catching, and form a comparatively structured place for the viewer’s eye to rest, amid a plethora of supporting color.

Maples and Birches, Crawford Notch, White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire

The tulip tree trunks in the below image serve the same purpose.  They’re not as bright as the birch trunks, but they’re larger and more uniform, thus creating a bit of a pattern in the frame below.  Either way, they create an identifiable structure to the viewer.

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

Another way to go about forming some sort of identifiable structure is to lower the camera position and introduce a form of depth into the image by using a foreground/background type of approach.  This, almost by definition, involves thinking somewhat counterintuitively–using a wide angle focal length in close quarters.

Toothwort Forest, McGilvra Woods State Natural Area, Wisconsin

Many photographers don’t give much consideration to using wide angles in settings such as this, but I think that’s an oversight.  I like to set up very close to forest foreground objects–ferns, wildflowers, etc.–and then let the trunks of the trees serve as mid-ground and background objects.  This approach has the benefit of establishing depth in the image as well as allowing the most chaotic parts of the frame to kind of fade into the background.  The use of a wide angle naturally produces an effect where comparatively distant objects are reduced in relative size in the frame while nearer images are enlarged.

Fern Forest, Kebler Pass, Gunnison National Forest, Colorado

Bendix Woods County Park, St. Joseph County, Indiana

This approach almost always requires use of a focus stacking process; I almost literally never have enough depth of field when I use this technique to render the entire frame sharp with one exposure.  I posted an entry devoted to the focus stacking approach a year ago and you can check it out here.

Fern Forest, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Bluebell Forest, East Side Woods, Morton Arboretum, DuPage County, Illinois

Another approach I use with wide angles and foreground objects is to find something with leading lines–fallen tree trunks and trails are a good example of this–to provide depth.

East Woods, Morton Arboretum, DuPage County, Illinois

Forest Path, Dark Canyon Loop Trail, Kebler Pass, Gunnison National Forest, Colorado

Lady Bird Johnson Grove, Redwood National Park, California

Wildland Trail, Jasper National Park, Alberta

Boreal Forest Trail, Creamer’s Field Migratory Wildlife Refuge, Fairbanks Northstar Borough, Alaska

Getting very close to trees with normal, or even short telephoto focal lengths, and employing a focus stacking technique is another way to introduce an unusual technique to emphasize depth and/or produce a more abstract image.

Fern Forest, Kebler Pass, Gunnison National Forest, Colorado

Birches and Beeches, Long Pond Road, Orleans County, Vermont

Dogwood and Sequoia, Tuolumne Grove, Yosemite National Park, California

I spend a significant amount of time looking for intimate scenes in forest settings, where such opportunities abound.  There’s effectively no limit to the kinds of intimate compositions you can effect in the woods.  Let your imagination run wild.

Arethusa Falls Trail, Crawford Notch State Park, New Hampshire

Red Maple, Orleans County, Vermont

Forest Floor Intimate, Dark Canyon Loop Trail, Kebler Pass, Gunnison National Forest, Colorado

Bluebells Intimate, Morton Arboretum, DuPage County, Illinois

Spring Forest Floor, Forty Acre Rock Heritage Preserve, South Carolina

Fallen Maple Leaves Close-up, Blackwater Falls State Park, West Virginia

Trillium Ravine Preserve, Berrien County, Michigan

Fern Forest, Riverbend Park, Palm Beach County, Florida

Fallen Leaves, Eagle Creek Park, Indiana

Forest Floor, The Roost Trail, Evans Notch, White Mountain National Forest, Maine

I hope this post has given you some practical notions about ways to photograph in the woods.  Forest scenes may seem hopelessly chaotic until you are able to envision techniques that will winnow out the chaos.  There are countless ways to do so; this entry highlights just a few.


Responses

  1. Great article. Ideas were inspiring. I think you were too hard on yourself regarding the Wisconsin article. You saved me a trip there.

  2. Thanks for sharing these tips. I’d forgotten about using a wide angle up close. Back when I used a point-and-shoot camera, I did that often because of limitations of my equipment. Thanks for the reminder that there is value in that technique.

    • Thanks very much–glad to hear that you found something of value in this post.

  3. Since I live in a forest, these tips will come in handy. The close up photo of the interlocking light and dark maple leaves is a special find.

  4. You’re far too modest. This was a great instructive post. I’ll have to try out wide angle in the woods (we’re going up in the hills at the crack of dawn tomorrow!!!) Fog is a possibility, though no guarantee. Hopefully the sun won’t be too bright.
    What do you do to guard against ticks? 😉

    • Thanks, Gunta. Here’s hoping that your uncharacteristically early foray into the forest goes well. 🙂

      Re ticks…if I do head into a location where ticks can be expected to be plentiful, I try to leave no skin exposed; utilize footwear that comes to at least mid-calf (or, failing that, pull my socks outside my pants cuffs); and do a thorough post-hike tick check on my entire body (very much including the parts that were covered).

  5. Kerry, I’ve always love your woodland photos, so this reverse engineered explanation was fun and instructive to read. I’m inspired to take more care and effort with my photos this summer 🙂

    • Thanks, Lynn. From what I’ve seen of the images in your most recent posts, you’re routinely hitting your stride.

  6. most excellent
    gallery of forests
    and guidance 🙂

    • Thanks very much!

  7. I took photos of branches and a tree full of foliage, sidelit by the setting sun that was seen by someone else as “not working very well”, but your images give me encouragement. I will look more closely to see what works and why, or why not? I appreciate the value of photo-stacking, especially after experiencing being drawn into the depth of the woods, and knowing why.

    • Thanks, Jane.

      FWIW, in my view, whether something “works” is pretty subjective. There will be a consensus response to this question some of the time, but on other occasions it’s very much in the eye of the beholder. As I see it, the key is asking *yourself* whether something works and why (or why not). If you can routinely answer that question pairing, you’re way ahead of the game.

  8. very beautiful mesmerizing pics. definitely i will try these in India here

    • Thanks very much!

  9. Hi Kerry,

    Nice article and summary of one of the most difficult environments in which to do good landscape photography. It’s a real challenge to do anything wide angled or even intimate in the jungle like forests in my NE Florida home. I find myself going to the local forests mainly to photograph abstract patterns and anthropomorphic faces on trees. Of course, these excursions are off the table until the cool season arrives again in November. My tick bites are still healing from an outing I chanced a few weeks ago, but I only have myself to blame for not being prepared. 🙂

    -Blake

    • Hi Blake. Thanks for the comment.

      I agree that forest photography is inherently difficult and it’s more difficult in some places than others. It sounds as though it’s particularly difficult where you are.

      Be sure to watch out for those ticks!

  10. This is a timely article for me. I’ve recently been visiting east Texas forests and bogs, and it’s been quite a challenge to figure out a landscape so different from our coastal prairies.

    One of the best things about this article is that it introduced me to the concept of stacking. It helps to make sense of some things others are doing, and also allowed me to feel a little better about my inability to get that nice crispness throughout the image with single exposures. I’ll set all that aside for the time being, but there are enough tips here to keep me busy on my next foray into the woods — especially with the fern forest I found. This really was a useful post — thank you.

    • Thanks! And I’m glad to hear that you were able to pull something actionable out of this post.

      BTW, I may ask you for some location suggestions in the months to come. More on that in the relatively near future.

  11. this was very helpful, and the pictures came out great😍

    • Thanks very much!

  12. Love these! Beautiful photos! I just started a new blog dedicated to trying out all kinds of new hobbies and documenting the process. My most recent post is the first of a photography series! Check it out!!

  13. I really like your red trees!!

  14. Amazing photos. I love all of these


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