Shooting Woodland Photography
November 7th 2020

This blog was initially published on the PhotoHound website.  I have worked with PhotoHound for over three years, and highly recommend their fantastic guides.  The guides include locations all around the world, and although the focus is on photography, they are just as handy for the non-photography traveller as they offer a ‘where’s where’ of stunning places to visit!  Check them out below.
PhotoHound: How to Photograph Woodlands & Forests

Whilst woodlands can offer up some truly stunning imagery, they are often chaotic and unforgiving, leaving the photographer bewildered at the shear wealth of subject matter. With trunks, branches, foliage, undergrowth and plant life mingled and intertwined, mayhem often ensues. It’s this challenge (and it really can be a challenge) that can prove one of the biggest draws of woodland photography……..whilst also scaring many others off. It requires practice but overcoming these challenges can deliver some of the most enjoyable and rewarding photographic experiences!

Here are my thoughts on avoiding this often-overwhelming confusion and how to succeed in woodland environments.

Characterful trees and spring flowers combine to provide an engaging scene.

Woodlands, a Location for all Seasons.

Woodlands can be shot not only throughout the year, but throughout the day and in varying conditions; scenes being unrecognisably from day to day with varying weather conditions, light and the changing seasons. While forecasted mists send woodland photographers giddy with anticipation, the woods offer much versatility so get out, explore and experiment.

- Fog and Mist
Woodlands and fog, or mist, are a match made in heaven. It reduces the clutter, blurs and softens the background which in turn places emphasis on key foreground subjects. Swirling through the trees, it delivers atmosphere in buckets turning an ordinary scene into something magical. This is especially true when the sun is high enough to pierce through with sunrays, or softly warm the lingering mists.

- Overcast and Wet
I am often guilty of being overly reliant on foggy days when other conditions can offer just as much opportunity. Overcast and rainy days are a fantastic time to visit; not only does the canopy provide shelter, but these conditions can soften and subdue light while flooding the scene with added vibrance. This is especially true when utilising the power of a circular polariser, the colours of wet foliage literally popping from the scene.

- Sunny Days
With all landscape work, clear skies and a high sun equal harsh and contrasty light and this is equally true of woodlands, with the splattered light only adding to the disorderliness and confusion of a scene. However, there are exceptions making these conditions worthy of venturing out. Locating a small clearing, a tree of interest and heavy surrounding foliage where light enters only to highlight the ‘star’ tree can lead to some truly unique and stunning images. If you cannot find that needle in a haystack, heading out early or late when the sun is low will allow the capture of light as it softly paints tree edges whilst shadows creep across the forest floor giving depth and interest.

 - Seasons
The floral displays of spring and autumn’s vivid exhibition of colour are the main draw, especially as these periods bring with them an increased chance of fog and mist, but summer and winter should not be discounted. Summer’s heavy green foliage provides a feeling of seclusion, hidden away from the outside world while winter trees, denuded of foliage cover, offer their own stark beauty and the fleeting possibility of tree trunks half covered by driven snow. Favourite local locations can, and should, be visited throughout the year and in varying conditions; that familiarity will lead to a portfolio brimming with worthy images.

Drooping tree branches provide a natural tunnel that leads the viewer’s eye though the image.

Tools of the Trade

Popular consensus advocates zoom lenses for woodland photography and whilst it can’t be argued that they offer great flexibility and simplify the task of pulling clarity from the woodland chaos, other lens types can open up creative opportunity. It is always worthwhile considering the merits of various lenses and the style of photography you intend to shoot before packing your bag.

- Telephoto Lenses
The versatility of a zoom lens allows compositional flexibility, the ability to easily crop distracting elements from a scene and the positive effect of compression will bring subjects of an image closer together.

- 35/50mm Prime Lenses
Venturing into the woods with nothing but a prime lens can be a liberating experience; with less decisions to consider, your mind will be free to focus on image composition. Prime lenses are inherently sharp and the perspective more akin to what we see with our own eyes and whilst it may be limiting in spectacular conditions. It not only lightens the load but encourages creativity.

- Wide Angle Lenses
A wide-angle lens may have its limitations, but it can deliver some of the most striking woodland imagery. Shooting low and close to spring flowers accentuating their heads or shooting upwards from the base of characterful trees, with the lens’ natural distortion aiding the composition as the tree stretches into the canopy.

- Polariser
Not only are polarisers a great way to minimise or remove water reflections, they are equally valuable deep in the woods. They can drastically change a scene, removing foliage’s natural shine and saturating their vivid colours. This is especially true of autumnal hues, which can burst with fiery orange and reds.

Care should be taken as the combined effect of polarisation and the already dark conditions contribute to a need for extended shutter speeds. Whereas slower shutter speeds work well for seascapes, even a slight zephyr will result in blurred branches, leaves and ferns; details that should be sharp can massively detract from the final image when not. Increasing the ISO will allow for adequate shutter speeds to be maintained in most situations.

- Tripod
This lack of light will also necessitate the use of a sturdy tripod to avoid camera shake; if you have them, adding spiked feet can also aid stability in muddy or spongy forest conditions.

- Macro Lens

Whilst I do not have a macro lens, woodlands must be one of the most subject rich landscape locations for macro photography. Moss, ferns, flowers, insects and fungi, to name but a few, offer a ‘miniature’ world of opportunity.

Going low and close, places emphasis on floral displays, delivering a unique view.

Spending Time in the Woods

For woodland photography, the primary aim is to simplify and make sense of the often-chaotic mess that nature presents you. With practice, compositions will become more readily visible, be that focusing on particular elements or using a wider vista to show particular trees as part of their surroundings.

Compositional Tips
- With the exception of sunstars, the woodland sweet spot for shooting apertures is between f8-f14 which avoids the loss of clarity caused by distraction associated with smaller apertures. There may be instances where these larger apertures result in backgrounds losing some sharpness, but woodland photography is forgiving in this area and a slight softening as the image moves away from the primary focal points can be pleasing whilst mimicking the way the human eye sees.

- Old woodlands with mature characterful trees are a great source for images. A lonely old oak contrasting against a strand of young beeches trees gives the picture reference and a story and an old tree of interest can in many cases, carry an image on its own.

- Use pathways, tracks and tree tunnels to act as leading lines. Use of natural or man-made paths to lead the viewer through the image is hugely effective, especially when meandering through a dense forest scene. Pathways are likely to have more light streaming through than the surrounding areas, and this comparative brightness, further aids composition as the eye is naturally drawn to lighter, warmer areas of an image.

- Find interactions between particular trees or sets of trees where a tree may bow towards or cower away from its neighbours, or trees that twist, intertwine and embrace one another. Anthropomorphisation, the attributing of human characteristics to non-humans, is extremely effective and surprisingly achievable in older woodlands, capturing trees’ relationships with each other.

- Look at how the light falls and interacts with certain elements of the scene; because of the way light falls some images may work better, or only work, when the light is in a certain position. The soft highlighting of details will add depth and three-dimensionality, bringing subjects to life.
- That light will also cast shadows, and these can be used as effective leading lines, again providing depth.

- Depth is key to woodland photography, without it images look flat and messy. Having that ‘I feel like I could step into the image’ feeling is only achieved with depth; creating that perception is achievable with the use of leading lines, shadow and light, and the shift from cool to warmer tones dragging the eye through the image.

- For additional impact, look to incorporate sunstars and sunrays. Sunstars, achievable by shooting with small apertures (between f16-f22), will be more easily achieved than sunrays, which can be more allusive and are normally found around an hour after sunrise when the sun has risen high enough to penetrate and burn off overnight moisture; this evaporating moisture creates thin localised mists which the sun can illuminate with shafts of light.

Little Touches
- Look for colours, both harmonious and contrasting – woodlands are home to a wealth of natural colours, and their interplay can add interest and beauty.

- Remember the ‘rule of odds’ that highlights images more visually appealing when there is an odd number of subjects; studies have proven people more at ease and comfortable when viewing imagery with an odd number of subjects.

- Look for areas sporting cleaner undergrowth. There is nothing more frustrating than getting home to realise winning images on the camera screen, are spoiled by debris littering the woodland floor. - Wherever possible, try to eliminate all or as much of the visible sky as possible. This won’t always be possible but the small patches of sky/light peeking through, can cause unsightly contrast and distraction.

- Again, where possible, aim to keep key elements or potential distractions away from the image edges.

Scouting locations will make the above tips far more achievable and as vital as scouting is with many landscape locations, it is far more so with woodland photography where finding cohesion can be an unenviable task. Not only is this time a fantastic way to spend a couple of peaceful hours but wandering without the specific goal of creating images can free the mind to see compositions. Knowing a woodland location well will give you a head start when the conditions are right; both in knowing where the mist and fog are most likely to be and utilising those special conditions with pre-visualised compositions.

Having a number of potential compositions in hand can allow you to work effectively with the available light and ensure you make the most of conditions. However, remember patience is key - find a subject, take your time, try different lenses, perspectives and styles and you may be presently surprised by the quality of images produced. One excellent image you’re truly happy with will always trump three so-so images.

Scouting for unusual trees will pay dividends when conditions are favourable.

Post Processing

Processing preferences are always subjective and what works for one may not be to everyone’s taste, so experimentation is key. Woodland imagery is often at its most pleasing when processed in a softer manner. Sparing use of the contrast slider, reserving it for foreground trees and flora, use of a negative value on the Dehaze slider (negative values will soften and add a fog like effect) and the Orton effect in highlight areas can deliver a soft dreamy look.

Colour is key and can add to a scene’s drama, and while it may seem that the mix of yellows and greens should be easy to handle, working to harmonise these hues will deliver a more pleasing result in many cases. Be careful with saturation, it is very easy to let the yellows, greens, and autumn reds get away from you and give an overly colourful look – less is often more when post processing woodlands.

Additional finishing touches that can aid in directing the viewer’s gaze, include the addition of a vignette and warping. Warping may only be necessary when using wider lenses, allowing for the correction of any converging verticals, although those can actually assist and add interest in certain circumstances. Due to the naturally darker nature of a woodland, heavier vignettes can be used and still deliver a natural look, whilst drawing the eye away from areas less aesthetically pleasing and towards the main focal elements of the image.

‘Three, is the magic number’, especially when coupled with autumnal colours.

A Final Note

Woodland photography can be difficult. Sometimes you’ll come away with nothing and when conditions do not comply you may feel frustrated, but it’s important to remember to enjoy the time spent there, slow down and smell the roses, so to speak. Utilising these visits for scouting will allow you to make the most of those often-illusive magical conditions when they do appear.

This is not meant to be a definitive guide, more, suggestions and ideas from my experiences. Woodland photography, probably more so than other landscape genre rewards experimentation and originality, so play around and enjoy the freedom to try new things – removing the ‘obvious’ shot often available with seascapes and landscapes provides a great chance to create something completely unique.

Finally, tread lightly wherever you shoot and leave the place a little better than you found it.

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