Do You See the Forest Through the Trees in Your Photos?

When taking landscape photos, it’s easy to get caught up in grand, sweeping scenes. But if you can look beyond the scenic landscape and into the forest, you’ll likely find beautiful compositions awaiting you. Here are a few of my favorite tips for forest photography.

Moody moss covered forest

Capture a more intimate glimpse of the landscape by concentrating on the forest itself rather than the grand, scenic landscape.

1. The play of light

While on a 32-mile backpacking trip through New Hampshire’s Pemigewasset Wilderness, I was immediately struck by this scene. What caught my eye was the way the early-morning light played across the moss-covered forest floor and the moodiness created by a slight morning mist. The dappled sunlight on the vibrant, green moss combined with the subdued light filtering through the spruce forest had me reaching for my camera.

Can’t you almost see the fairies peeking out from behind the trees?

2. Work the shadows

Bare trees cast their shadows on the snow covered forest floor

This is one of my favorite techniques particularly when photographing in the winter. Without leaves on branches, a lot of light can filter through the trees and cast wonderful shadows on the snow. To make the most of this, I suggest getting out early in the morning and soon after a fresh snow. If you wait too long after the snow, there will likely be wind-blown debris (like leaves and twigs) that give the snow a dingy appearance. 

Pro tip: Work the scene from a distance. Slowly work your way in while searching for your composition. By doing this, you avoid leaving footprints in the snow (or mud), leaving you with an untracked and pristine scene. 

3. Seek contrast and color

Brilliant white birch trees and bright red bunchberry.

The brilliant white of the birch trees stands out in stark contrast to the dark green of the surrounding vegetation. The bright red of the bunchberry adds a great splash of color to the scene. But this doesn’t only apply to the green scenery: The bright white birch could easily be replaced with the deep gray-brown of evergreen trees; a light, tawny-brown pine-needle covered ground could stand in for the green ground cover.

4. Follow the path

A path leads through the golden forest of autumn

Finding good compositions of a section of a forest by itself can be tough. Sometimes, no matter what I try, I’m not happy with the composition. Add a path or trail, however, and your job as a photographer has just been made easier — especially because pathways and hiking trails make excellent leading lines when photographing forests. 

5. Use a telephoto lens

The mountains and forests appear as layers iin the distance.

Telephoto lenses have the effect of both compressing a scene and providing the ability to isolate small snippets of an otherwise big landscape. In the photo above, I used a telephoto lens. Had I used a wide angle lens, the forest and trees would have been just a few more elements in the larger picture. By using a telephoto lens, I was able to focus more on the forest itself.

Below is another example of using a telephoto lens to isolate key elements of a forest scene. I looked for a composition that included as many beautiful fall colors as I could, experimenting with focal length until I had a photo I was happy with. 

The red, gold and orange of the fall foliage

6. If the light isn’t right, try black and white

Black and white photo of a stream flowing through the winter woods.

Forests can make excellent black and white photos, especially when the colors are subdued. In the photo above, taken across the street from my house, the light wasn’t all that great. There were only a few beech leaves left clinging to the trees to give the scene even a hint of color. Still thinking the composition had promise, I converted it to black and white and found the results much more pleasing.

Pro tip: If you want to teach yourself how to recognize scenes that will make for good black and white photos, set your camera to the monochrome shooting mode. This sets the LCD preview to display in black and white, allowing you to judge right away whether or not you have a keeper. As long as you’re shooting in the RAW format, you’ll still have the full-color file when you upload it to your computer.   

7. Use a circular polarizer

Lastly, when photographing forest scenes, I quite often use a circular polarizer, often referred to as a CPL, on my lens. A polarizer will reduce or eliminate reflections from the shiny surface of leaves, but it can also increase color saturation to add a bit of pop to your photo.

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