How To Take Photos Of Trees
The great thing about trees is that they don’t run away when you point a camera at them. Therefore, you might think “I know how to take photos of trees”. But, of course, there is more to it than that! The great thing about trees is you can spend hours setting up a shot waiting for the light to be right and being as fussy over every little detail as you wish. The tree won’t get bored and wander off.
And just maybe, we will answer that age-old philosophical question, “When a tree falls over the forest and there is no one around to see, do the other trees help it up or just leave it lying there?”
You can do a surprising amount of research when photographing trees. For example, you want to know the weather, you want to know when the tree looks at its best, and how best to tell the story of the tree.
You can use things like Google Earth or Google Street view to help you determine what a tree looks like before you even get to the site. See my Planning your Photos Tutorial for some of the tools out there.
Sometimes, it’s worth adding perspective. Let me show you what I mean. Adding people in the photo can show how truly massive the tree is. Conversely, you can make a little tree look very big. Without a person or some other recognisable object as a frame of reference, the tree could be any size.
Sometimes it may be impossible to fit the whole tree in the photo. In that case, concentrate on the most remarkable thing about that tree. Also, don’t forget to include some foreground interest.
Trees for framing
Trees are great for framing a picture. Not all tree photos have to put the tree in the centre of the frame. Sometimes you can use the trunk and the branches of the tree as a frame for the picture
Trees for framing – How to take photos of trees
Go in close
Sometimes just focusing on one part of the tree can bring it to life, whether it be some fantastic roots, a hole or even just the bark it can tell a story or rendering an emotion. Bark has some great texture on it and with side-lighting, it can make it stand out even more.
Different times of the day
A tree will look very different at different times of the day. The above photo of the bark was taken in mid-summer at about 14:00 hours. The harsh light helps bring out the bark detail. Also, you don’t have to limit yourself to what are considered the golden hours, you know, that time just after sunrise or that hour before sunset.
Autumn – 2 hours before Sunset
What brings out the best in one tree won’t necessarily bring out the best in another. Sometimes direct sunlight or that very bright midday light just isn’t right for the photo you want.
Prepare to make multiple trips
Sometimes you might have to make multiple trips to the same tree. For instance, review your tree on your computer when you get home you may notice something you missed when you are there. The joys of digital photography are that the results are instant and you can see immediately any changes you could make to the image to make it better.
Not all photos have to be taken in the sunshine, not all photos have to be taken during the day! A shot of trees in the early morning mist can be much more evocative than the same shot taken in bright sunny weather. Sometimes even rain can help an image by softening the light to get the results you want for that image. Putting the sun behind the leaves so they are backlit can make for great shots too.
Monochrome or black and white pictures can lend themselves to tree photography very well. Undoubtedly, monochrome bark photos do exceptionally well at showing the texture and pattern of the tactile bark.
Also, a misty black-and-white photo in a forest can be very evocative and give a great feel to an image.
Trees can be very beautiful subjects but it’s as well to have something in the image that draws the attention. Whether it be an old twisted tree, a woodland stream or some other detail that grabs the attention of the viewer. Find the thing that will grab people’s interest then compose the scene around it.
The depth of field can be an important part of the composition of the photo. If you can convey the depth of the forest allowing you to see further into it, it will make the image so much better. Leading lines can help the composition of your photo. For example, a path meandering its way through the woodland into the distance can convey a sense of depth.
Reflections can also be used as a compositional element. When using reflections, don’t unbalance the photo. Keep, roughly, the same amount of reflection in the photo. If you have to cut any of the picture, keep more of the reflection in, it seems to make more sense.
Earlier, I mentioned about foreground interest. This is another great way of adding depth to your image and giving it more oomph and pizzazz.
Don’t forget the rule of thirds either. The tree photo can work very well in the left third or right third of the frame. Most cameras have marks when you look through the viewfinder to help you judge the rule of thirds
Take Your Time
When you have found your tree or point of interest stop and wander around. Check out all the angles and all the possible views to find out which is best. Take several views and angles in the photos and see what looks best. Also, a little tip which is work to my benefit on many occasions is to look behind you. Things look so different from the different perspective stop and look behind you occasionally, that way you will see extra things you might have missed.
A Fun Little Project
As can be seen below, one thing I’ve done in the past is to take photos of a specific spot at different times of the year, to show that spring summer autumn and winter. It can be a great set of images to see just how much the same viewpoint changes throughout the year.
A tripod is a must and I tend to favour the wider angled lenses. My current lens of choice is a 10-20mm Sigma. It has a fast aperture and for the price, is a great performer. If you are using a wide angle lens start by getting up close. Also, go low. Crouch down and fire off a few frames and review your pictures. Then make any necessary adjustments.
That’s not to say a telephoto lens does not have its place when photographing trees. A series of wooded ridges can be compressed by a telephoto lens to shift the perspective in a photo.
The compressed perspective of a Telephoto Lens – How to take photos of trees
Also, a lot of upright trunks compressed with a telephoto lens can make a very interesting pattern. A telephoto lens can also be used to get closer to the detail of the tree as mentioned before.
A selection of filters can be useful, things like graduated filters. The sky is usually lighter than the ground so a graduated filter can expose the sky at the same level as the ground. Alternatively, these can be added in postprocessing.
But, most importantly, don’t forget that a UV filter or skylight filter over the end of your camera lens to stop it being scratched or damaged. It’s so much cheaper and easier to replace the filter rather than the whole lens.
Of course, these are very general settings for when you want a sharp, clear image with lots of depth of field. My main camera is a Nikon D7200. Generally speaking, I always start with the lowest possible ISO. However, sometimes the picture will lend itself to a high ISO setting, a more grainy picture will add more atmosphere and mood. More often than not, I will use aperture priority with the camera set between F8 and F16. In dark forests this makes for a very slow shutter speed, therefore, that tripod I mentioned earlier is a must. And depending on the scene, I may well bracket +/ – 2 steps.
If you are unsure on bracketing, check out my tutorial on Exposure. Light can be tricky in forest photography, with bright highlights and dark shadows that having a choice of exposures when you bracket can make sure you get the right image first time
Don’t forget the Mozzy Spray!
The one non-photographic item I would suggest is mosquito repellent! When under trees they will be attracted to you. Mosquitos first target you by sensing the CO2 as you exhale, so unless you are not breathing, they will find you! So, spray or apply some repellent to stop them from bothering you. You will want to be concentrating on your photos, not the mosquitos.
Of course, having the right clothing is important too, always check the weather wherever you are going. As they say, there is no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing!
How To Photograph Trees – Conclusions
This, of course, is just how I approach and take photographs of trees. There are different approaches, but this is what works for me. The only way to find out whether it works for you is to get out, find the trees, and take plenty of photos.
And, of course, dare to be different. Who knows, you may just come up with a totally unique way of capturing an image showing the tree or forest in the best possible way. Just because you have never seen a picture like it, doesn’t mean it is a bad one.
Another good way of learning how to take photos of trees is to see what has been done and learn from others. Pinterest is a good place to start and check out the work of famous tree photographers.
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How to take photos of trees