I live in the core of the Boreal Forest in the interior of Alaska. Also called the northwoods, or the northern forest, mine is a landscape of often spindly spruce trees, quaking aspens, and birches. Here, endless opportunities for forest photography abound.
And while it is not a landscape that immediately leaps to the forefront of the photographer’s imagination, it holds a subtle beauty, not easily captured with a camera.
Creating images of the forest with a camera is a unique challenge and I spend a great deal of time wandering the woods around my home, camera in hand. There, I search for the occasional composition that captures the quiet beauty of the place.
The boreal forest is not unique when it comes to photographic challenges. Within the confines of a stand of trees, whether that is the northwoods, the redwoods, or the rainforest of the Amazon, there are few places where the standard rules of landscape photography (i.e. rules that apply to photographing open, sweeping vistas) apply.
There are not many places where the topography matters. Finding images within the sometimes claustrophobic environment of the woods requires a new mindset for the landscape photographer.
For those aiming to improve their forest photography, here are a few things to keep in mind.
Lighting Through the Day
Night and the Blue Hour
Forests are dark places and that is doubly true at night and during the blue hour. At those times, pale starlight and the dim glow of the sky struggle to reach the ground.
However, in an open woodland there is more potential. Moonlit forest photography is one such chance to make unique images. The moon, when full, casts a surprising amount of light onto the landscape and provides a potential subject in itself.
Shooting dark woods is much like other night photography except that the foregrounds of trees require extra attention. Consider how the limbs and trunks fall across the sky and compose so that they compliment, rather than obstruct the background.
Where I live in Alaska, I often have the chance to photograph the northern lights through the trees, and this can be a major challenge. As the lights move across the sky, I’m constantly shifting position to assure that they are visible through the trees.
The dim light before dawn or after dusk is a very hard time to shoot in the woods. Trees, already dark, become black silhouettes. Within the forest things are even dimmer, rendering even basic image-making difficult.
In short, the dark hours are not an ideal time of day. The only hope for successful images of the woods during these hours is to find an isolated tree against a backdrop of sky and embrace the silhouette.
A tripod mounted camera is an absolute must for any shooting in the woods during hours of the day when light is lacking. The long exposure times needed make hand holding an impossibility. A fast wide lens, like an f/2.8 or faster, will also be useful in the dark conditions.
Embrace long exposures and higher ISOs. When the moon is not your subject and the night is dark, consider something like f/2.8, for 3 or 4 seconds at ISO 1600 as a starting point. From there, adjust your shutter speed or ISO up and down (but leave your aperture wide open) until you find the exposure you want.
The low-angle light of the golden hour is often muted on the forest floor. The trees block most of the incoming sunlight, leaving behind beams to track across the ground, and through the branches.
That warm light will often reflect about, creating a juxtaposition of the cool, shaded tones, and the yellow sunlight.
This can be a beautiful time of day, and if you are fortunate to find a bit of fog rolling through the trees, these hours are matchless. There are challenges however, as the contrasts can be extreme.
The right camera settings vary a lot during the warm light of the golden hour.
I tend to constantly shift my shutter speed and aperture depending on the final product I want to create. Since I often work handheld in the woods, I try to keep my shutter speed up around 1/60th second or faster, particularly when using a telephoto.
An aperture of around f/8 will usually yield sharp images while maintaining a pleasing depth of field. But again, there is no ‘correct’ setting.
When the golden light of morning has faded and that of evening has not yet arrived, any sun reaching through the trees will result in a blasting contrast of hot sunlight and cool shade.
To be honest, during these hours, I often put my camera away and wait for better light.
That said, there is one exception, when I will make an effort during the middle of the day, and that’s when the sky is covered in clouds.
Clouds are like a studio softbox for the sun. They soften the harsh light, mute shadows, and provide illumination from nearly every direction. This is a perfect formula for photographing in the forest.
The harsh contrast caused by sunlight is removed, and what is left behind is the complex patterns of undergrowth, tree trunks, branches, and leaves. While far from perfect for the grand landscapes, cloud cover is perfect for the woods. On those grey days, I head for the forest with my camera.
The easiest way to create successful forest photography is to remove all the clutter of the woods, the chaotic branches, the crowds of tree trunks, the mess of leaves and twigs on the forest floor and focus on one specific part.
With the dappled light of morning this can be done to great effect, as sections of the forest are illuminated. Look where the light is falling, or where it will soon arrive, and compose an image on those locations. A detail of the forest floor, a flower, a single backlit leaf.
Look for small parts of the woodland that tell a bigger story about the place. What is the season? Can you tell about that with a single detailed image? An autumn leaf or a spring bud may be good choices to share a bigger story.
For this kind of image, a short telephoto or even a macro lens is a great choice. Images with a shallow depth of field that turns the background of leaves and branches into a pleasing blur will likely be more effective than a deep depth of field where the tangled background distracts from the scene you want to highlight.
Seeing the Trees for the Forest
Stepping back from the details to large sections of forest can be much more difficult photographically. The woods are full of chaos. There is often too much happening to effectively isolate a clean and interesting composition.
This is where perspective matters. In the previous section about details, I suggested looking for the single element that will tell the viewer a bit about the place. Here, when trying to go a bit bigger, to show more of the forest landscape, you’ll want to keep those details in mind.
In the woods, find a detail, a branch, flower, or leaf that you find compelling and that is lit well. Then, using a wide-angle lens, allow your focus to fall on your detail, while also showing the surroundings.
This is standard practice in many types of landscape photography but in the woods the method is complicated by having to find the right combination of pleasing subject or forest detail and a background that provides a wider perspective on the forest.
This is tricky stuff, but can be an enjoyable challenge in composition. Images that show off the forest in all its glory, while retaining the fine details of the place are some of my favourite woodland images.
The Rare View
When the forest opens up, we are offered a rare chance to see a broad landscape of trees. These images blur the line between open landscape and forest landscape, but the composition holds some challenges not usually encountered in more open country.
Tight and wide-angle compositions are both options in these scenarios. A wide scene might provide a sense of scale, the drama of a seemingly endless patch of forest. But the composition can become challenging, perhaps showing too much of the nearby surroundings, and reducing the impact of the scale.
A telephoto image, on the other hand, has the advantage of isolating the scene from the surrounding chaos and allowing a clean composition.
There isn’t a right or wrong way to make these images. What will work and what won’t depends entirely on the scene at hand. Experiment with multiple focal lengths and see what works, but keep in mind the story of the forest, and where you are. Make an effort to tell that story by providing context in your images.
Black and White Forest Photography
If you’ve seen the classic images of the Redwoods in black and white by Ansel Adams, you’ll understand that forests translate beautifully into black and white. There’s something about the stark trunks of trees against shaded, dark backgrounds that results in clean, compelling compositions.
But black and white photography is tough. In the woods, it takes time to learn to “see” in black and white. We view the world in colour, and determining how a colour scene will appear in black and white is challenging and requires practice. Here are a few guidelines:
Look for contrast. Scenes with a mosaic of brights and darks tend to translate well into black and white.
Take advantage of backlight. Light coming from directly behind your subject which can be difficult to use in colour photography is very effective in the contrasty world of black and white.
Embrace the shadows. Exposing for the bright parts of your frame will often turn the dark shadows to near black. This can help you eliminate distracting elements in your frame.
There are few natural environments where leaving the colour behind can be so effective as in the forest, so give it a shot.
Deep in the woods, the sounds of the outside world are hidden behind layers of trees, branches and leaves. Even in small patches of woodlands, it isn’t hard to find isolation, a place to turn off the daily grind and find yourself in the quiet with a camera. I think this a big part of why I enjoy forestry photography so much.
Even a short walk from my backyard, I can feel as though I’m in the wild. Almost all of us live within a short distance of a patch of woods. Find yours, explore it, take the time to find those abundant (but hidden) photographic compositions, and then share what you make. I’ll look forward to seeing your images.
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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