After our trip to the Redwood State and National Parks near Eureka, California, I was inspired to write some tips for better forest photography. Forests are beautiful but when we point our camera at a stand of trees, or even take a photo of a single tree, it doesn’t always have the impact that it had when the beauty attracted our eye. Like the saying goes, “You can’t see the forest for the trees.”
Forests are further difficult to shoot because there can be a lot of contrast, between the sun hitting the forest floor and the trees casting shadows, or it can be dark and dull. Taking beautiful photos of forests takes practice. In the 10 years I’ve been living in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve had many opportunities to learn to take better forest photos. I can now pass on some of these tips that will help you get photos that show off the magic of the forest.
For better forest photos start by knowing—“Why am I taking this photo?”
“Why am I taking this photo? Why am I taking this photo?” This should become a mantra when taking any photos but it has great importance when shooting in a forest, as there is so much that can distract from the story you want to tell.
Is it the texture of the bark? Glossy leaves catching sunlight? Patterns of trees standing tall and straight? The moss on a branch? The roots and ground that beckon you to come and relax beneath its branches?
The point is that you are taking a photo to express the beauty you saw, or something that caught your attention. You want to tell the story of the subject of your photo. When you or someone else looks at the photo, you’ll want it to rekindle the magic.
Once you know why you are taking this particular photo, you can compose the photo so that it emphasizes the subject or creates a composition that draws the eye of the viewer to that object that inspired you.
So here’s how you do it…
Our eye naturally goes to the subject that stands out within the frame of the photo. The object may be brighter and lighter than that surrounding it. It could be the only thing in focus. Lines that lead our eye to the subject are helpful. Create the right composition by removing anything that is not needed and distracts from the subject of the photo.
Focus — Focus is useful in telling a story in a forest. Short depth of field—where only the subject is in focus and the rest is blurry—brings our eye to the focused object. By using an f-stop with the lowest number on your lens (i.e. f 2.8) only a portion of the photo will be in focus. A telephoto lens will also have a short depth of field and will blur the foreground and background.
Pay attention to what you want in focus. If you are trying to get the bark of the whole tree, the widest f-stop may blur some of the texture you are trying to emphasize. To get more of the tree in focus, you may need to pick a smaller f-stop (higher number). Experiment until you have what you want in focus— step away from the subject and zoom in more, or step closer and use a shorter lens.
Conversely, you might want to get as much of the forest in focus as possible. Here you’ll want to use a higher number (i.e. f 16) and/or a wide angle lens that will keep more of the foreground and background in focus.
When you are using focus to tell your story, it is a good idea to use the aperture priority mode on your camera. In Aperture priority, you choose the f-stop and the camera will expose the photo to accommodate your choice.
When you use an automatic exposure mode like aperture priority, the camera will default to using matrix exposure. When you press the shutter down halfway, the camera looks at the brightest and darkest and averages out the exposure. This is a simplification but the idea is that when the camera looks at all those light and dark areas, it will choose where the shadows turn to black or the light areas become a white blob.
To choose to keep a subject light or dark, requires that the camera’s light meter exposes for only a portion of the photo rather than averaging the light of the scene. Change the metering mode on your camera to spot metering and point the center spot meter at the subject you want properly exposed. On many cameras you can lock the exposure with an AE lock button, then recompose the photo without changing what you want exposed correctly.
Another way is to take a shot then use exposure compensation to overexpose (+) or underexpose (-) the photo then take another shot and continue until you get the look you want. Some cameras have an EVF (electronic viewfinder) or you can use the back LCD screen to see the exposure of the photo you are about to take. The good thing about shooting trees and nature, is you usually have time to play with your settings to get the look you want.
Keep the subject in the light— Forests can be dark places even on sunny days. You want the subject of your photo to be in the light if possible, then expose for it so the details are clear and sharp. Don’t worry if the rest of the photo goes darker, you can lighten shadows in post editing or it could make for a good effect.
Silhouettes emphasize shapes and patterns –
In fact, shadows and a lack of detail might be what you want. If the shape of a subject, or a pattern —like several trees standing like soldiers—is the story you want to tell, letting them go dark can eliminate details that detract from the story.
Composition- Leading lines. — We want the viewer of our photo to look at the thing that we found most interesting. We want their eyes to follow a path and stay within the photo. Leading lines are like arrows that direct the viewer to the story we want to tell. Hiking paths make great leading lines, as do branches that diagonally lead your eye into the photo. Plants, rocks, branches, etc. that have highlights in a dark photo can also lead the eye into and around the frame.
Fill the frame by getting in close—Some of the most interesting subjects in a forest are the details. A group of mushrooms on a log. Tiny purple flowers among the clover. Colors and textures of bark. Sometimes you can tell a big story by getting a close up of the details around the forest. Always aim to find a couple of small things on a trip to the forest so you can tell the whole story.
Get low or high— Depending on the type of forest, you may want to emphasize the height of the trees. Getting low down to the ground and shooting upward will make the trees seem to tower above you. (Check out the note on defringing below when shooting branches against a sky). There are many stories in the tops of trees (particularly nests, flying squirrels and other wildlife). If you have a chance to look out over a forest from a nearby mountain or rim, look for the stories in the tops of the trees.
Add a human for scale — A camera can’t always convey the size of the subject, especially when the object is larger, or smaller than what we are used to seeing. Sometimes it’s good to have a human in the photo for reference of the size of trees and other plant life. A couple of people walking on a trail among the redwoods will give a sense of the these giant magnificent ancient trees. Fingers reaching in to pick a tiny flower or a huge mushroom, will give the viewer a sense of the size of the object and help to tell your story.
Tips for better forest photos
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Shadows and highlights — After talking about exposure, the biggest tip I can give you is to not get frustrated by lighting in a forest. Our cameras can only do so much and we work with their limitations. There are often extremes of shadows and bright highlights. If there is no wind, you can attempt to do an HDR of three photos if your camera has it. This combines three photos to get details in the highlights and in the shadows. If your camera doesn’t have an HDR feature, you can do it manually. Take at least 3 photos. The first is overexposed to bring up the details in the shadows. Then take another one that is in the perfectly, then take a third shot to underexpose so there is details in the highlights. There are many photo editing apps that can combine the photo on your computer so you get the most from the photo. In Lightroom, it’s called Photo Merge HDR.
Be sure to shoot in the RAW photo format if possible, as you will be able to bring up the shadows quite a bit in post editing.
Be careful never to let the whites “blow out.” That is, be sure you can always see detail in the highlights. You can never fix a blown white, but you can lighten a white that isn’t bright as you want it.
Shooting in fog — Nothing makes me happier when I’m shooting a forest than to find fog. Rather than think it’s a bad day to take photos, fog adds mystery, plays with the colors, and is perfect to emphasize the sun’s rays shining through the trees. To increase your chances of finding fog, try to get out when it’s still cool but the sun is high, particularly in creek bed areas and along the coast.
Sunbursts- Certainly, you’ve seen those great photos where the sun is peeking through the branches and creating a star of bright light. Two things are needed to make this happen. First, you must stop down (high f-stop number) for a narrow opening. I’ve found that f-16 is a good place to start but you’ll have to experiment with your camera and lens. The other thing you need is to position the sun on the edge of a branch or trees or as it comes through the tree branches. If the sun is out in the open, it can turn into a blown out blob.
ISO— So a sunny day can be a challenge of bright highlights and dark shadows. Shooting in the morning or later in the day or on an overcast day can be a good solution. Still, without the bright light, forests can be dark places. You may be surprised that you have to raise the ISO (or the camera will) to high numbers of ISO 1250, 1600 or beyond. Most better cameras can handle up to 3200 ISO, but the photos will be grainy, noisy, not clear\ which is the opposite of what you want —sharp details of leaves, needles, bark etc.
To use the lowest ISO possible, bring a travel tripod with you. When your shutter speed has to go longer than 1/60 (or 1/80— depending on how steady your hand is), use a tripod. Hopefully there won’t be rustling branches from wind, or the moving objects will be blurred. Without a tripod, you’ll have to do your best to brighten shadows and use noise reduction in your photos.