Capturing Compelling Forest Photos :: Digital Photo Secrets

Capturing Compelling Forest Photos

by David Peterson 1 comment

Line is one of those compositional elements that can really make a photograph. That's why it's one of the six classic design elements - line can create emotion and a sense of depth. It can be the difference between a good photo and a great one.

That's why a well-composed shot of a forest is almost always going to be a great photo. There are lines everywhere in a forest, particularly vertical lines. Vertical lines convey as sense of power and strength. They can give your viewer a sense of spirituality, majesty, wonder and infinite height. If you're looking for a subject that can convey emotion even without the presence of human beings, this is the one.

  • Olympus E-M5
  • 800
  • f/0.0
  • 0.02 sec (1/50)
  • 0 mm

In the woods... by Flickr user hern42


Forests can make for tricky lighting situations. They can be dark - so dark that you won't be able to handhold your camera at lower ISOs or smaller apertures. Bright sunlight coming down through the trees combined with dark, unlit areas can create high contrast lighting that can be very difficult to expose for. You'll need to be prepared when you trek into that forest with your camera.
First, make sure you bring a tripod. The light in a forest constantly changes, and sometimes it can be very dark. If you want to capture that depth of field - which can be helpful for giving the forest a sense of vastness - you will need to keep the aperture small. A tripod is almost a necessity for this type of photography.

The Slit by Flickr user tuis

Another piece of equipment you might find helpful is a circular polarizer. Your polarizer will help bring out those colors in the forest - the green pine needles will become greener and the autumn colors in deciduous trees will become more orange or red. A polarizer can also remove unwanted reflections from water and take the shine out of the leaves. Of course a polarizer, as you know, also reduces the amount of light that will reach your camera's sensor. So that makes that tripod even more necessary.

  • Canon EOS 350D Digital
  • 400
  • f/5.6
  • 0.025 sec (1/40)
  • 45 mm

Sin título by Flickr user Chatarra

A macro lens isn't an essential piece of equipment, but it can be a good one to bring along with you in case you get an itch to experiment. The forest is full of wonderful textures that can make for great macro shots: tree bark, dew drops and crawling insects are only a few of the possibilities. If you have a macro lens, try mixing up a few macro shots with those majestic images of trees and forest paths. The variety will keep you thinking, which will in turn prevent your images from looking samey.

  • Canon EOS 5D Mark II
  • 100
  • f/8.0
  • 0.5
  • 16 mm

Mighty Coastal Redwoods - Muir Woods, CA by Flickr user Daniel Peckham

Line, line, line

As I've already mentioned, line is often going to be the most powerful compositional element in your forest photographs. You can get a vastly different feeling from your forest images by composing vertically than you will when you compose horizontally. A horizontal composition can give your viewer a sense of the vastness of the forest, while a vertical composition will give the viewer a sense of the great height of the trees themselves.

    A Little Hazy by Flickr user Andrew Birch Photography

    Don't forget those horizontal or diagonal lines, either, or the curved ones. A meandering dirt path can lead the viewer's eye through your image, while a diagonal one will create additional depth.

    • Nikon D40X
    • 400
    • f/5.0
    • 0.003 sec (1/400)
    • 135 mm

    St. Forest by Flickr user Vainsang

    A focal point can help increase that feeling of height and vastness. A deer in the foreground, or even a person, can really give your viewer a sense of how huge the forest is, and how tall the trees are.

    The Weather

    It can be tempting to stay indoors when wet weather threatens, but rain can be your friend. The moisture will help saturate the colors in the forest, while overcast conditions will soften those hotspots that can be a problem when the sun breaks through the trees in places.

    Comme des sentinelles sculptées... fourrure de lumière... fantômes dressés dans ma forêt d'hiver...!!! by Flickr user Denis Collette...!!!

    If you live close to a forest, try visiting during different seasons. Mist in the cooler months can make for beautiful photos, so don't stay home on a foggy morning. The forest has a very different feel in the winter, summer, spring and fall so try visiting in all four seasons and take shots of the same or similar locations. You'll end up with a great series of photos.

      The Forest Glows by Flickr user Andrew Birch Photography

      The Light

      If you can, arrive in the early morning or stay until sunset - the golden light that is characteristic of that "magic hour" can really enhance your forest photos. The forest itself can be a magical place, and the soft, warm light will increase that feeling of magic and majesty.

      Light in the forest can be a challenge but it can also provide you with wonderful opportunities. Light that is filtering through the branches of trees can make beautiful patterns on the forest floors. When there is dust in the air, the light can filter through in beams, which will give your photos an ethereal quality. Be on the look for spotlight beams that might fall upon an interesting subject. Most importantly, be aware of light at all times, or you might miss a great photographic opportunity.

      • Canon EOS 30D
      • 320
      • f/8.0
      • 0.008 sec (1/125)
      • 400 mm

      winter-forest by Flickr user JeremyOK

      Unusual Elements

      As is true in so many other types of photography, photographs of forests can begin to look a little redundant after a while. Try to find something unusual or interesting in your scene to help distinguish it from being just-another-picture-of-trees. This could be a single flower growing amidst the greenery, a spider perched on a twig or a set of deer tracks leading up a trail. Find a tree that is distinctly different from the ones around it, and place that in your foreground.

      Finally, it can be tempting to compose all those tree shots from the ground up, where the tree's trunk rises from the soil. Don't forget, though, that those trees might actually be more interesting about midway up, where the branches begin to appear. Or even closer to the top, where you can see where the tree meets the sky.

      Whatever you choose to photograph, don't forget those lines. Think about every potential image before you press the shutter release. What theme are you trying to convey to your viewer? What mood are you trying to capture? And what emotions are you hoping to inspire? Your answers to those questions will affect everything from composition to your camera's settings, so choose wisely. And tread carefully, too--close attention to your surroundings will not only help improve your photographs, but your appreciation for the beauty of the forest as well.

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      1. Julie Lancaster says:

        Hi David, I bought a Canon DSLR 60D a couple of years ago and have been very happy with the results. Your tips have opened new doors for my photographic experience. I've done a bit traveling around Australia over the past couple of years - Cairns to Melbourne and Central Australia as well as an astronomy tour around NSW.
        I've also spent some time in New Zealand's north island. So I've managed to gather some very diverse images along the way. I love the concept of photography - capturing moments in time, many of which will never be repeated.

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      About David Peterson
      David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.