Just about everyone loves trees. For many photographers, though, trees are sort of an incidental part of their photos. Landscape photographers include them in those big, sweeping landscapes, but they are supporting characters, not main players. If you’ve never really considered shooting trees for their own sake, it’s time to rethink the way you see them.
[ Top image The Old Tree by Flickr user Giovanni 'jjjohn' Orlando]
Landscape rules still apply
Trees are large subjects—an old tree can be towering, taller than a building and much wider than a person. Its canopy can be larger still. So unless you are shooting the details of a tree’s bark or its leaves, you need a lot of depth of field to do it justice.
Use a small aperture to photograph a tree, especially if your intention is to include all or most of it in the frame. f/16 is a great place to start (or use landscape mode if your camera doesn’t have aperture priority/manual mode). Like any landscape, keep your ISO low so that you can capture a noise-free image with good detail and tone. If you’re shooting your subject in low light, this may mean you’ll need to use a tripod to keep your camera stable during the longer exposures that are necessary in these conditions.
path to the kingdom of light by Flickr user maz hewitt
Trees come in all sizes, and sometimes when your subject is particularly large it can be difficult to convey that size to your viewer. In these cases it can really help to put something in the foreground, such as some mossy rocks or a patch of flowers. Having an object in the near foreground gives the viewer something to compare to the tree, which can help create a sense of scale. This can often mean the simple difference between an image that looks flat and dimensionless and one that appears to exist in three dimensions. People also make great additions to tree scenes, especially huge trees—when a tree dwarfs a person, that can really give your viewer a sense of scale. Other objects can work too, such as buildings or benches—just make sure they aren’t going to overwhelm the rest of the scene. As a general rule, make those additional elements a relatively small part of the frame.
The rule of thirds is one of those oft-repeated compositional suggestions, but that’s for a good reason. Many subjects benefit from a rule of thirds composition, and trees are a particularly good fit, especially trees that are somewhat irregular in shape. Try placing your subject along the left or right vertical rule of thirds line (some cameras let you turn on a rule of thirds grid in your viewfinder, which can help you to precisely line up your subject).
Cloud Forest by Flickr user Bernd Thaller
When you can’t see the tree for the forest
Simplicity is always an excellent goal to strive for, so if there are a lot of trees in the frame competing for your viewer’s attention it might be a good idea to move towards the edge of the forest and seek out a lone tree, or one that is at least separated from the rest of the forest. Besides simplifying your composition, a lone tree can help break up a large open space, such as a meadow. A lone tree in the distance can make a landscape seem really vast—when something we know is large appears in small scale in a photo, it is a very strong visual indicator of the size of a scene. And to make your image seem even larger, include a lot of sky. Clouds add interest and drama, and if they are storm clouds they can also make your subject seem isolated and lonely.
When you’re shooting a single tree, try to keep clutter out of the image—shrubs and rocks in larger numbers can complicate an image rather than improve it. Keep color in mind, too—bright colors such as green grass or flowers will give your image a very different feeling than a snowy or barren landscape will.
A tree is more than just what’s above ground
Many photographers shoot trees in exactly the same way they shoot people—from a vantage point of roughly five to six feet off the ground. That’s the height of an average person—it’s the point of view we see everything from, so it’s the point of view that we also tend to shoot photographs from. There’s nothing inherently wrong with shooting a tree from that perspective, but there are a lot of different angles you can use to add interest. One of the most neglected parts of any tree is its roots.
The roots of life by Flickr user deep shot
The roots of some trees are completely underground—if that’s the case then this obviously isn’t a perspective you can use. But other trees may grow with their root system partially above ground, and that can make for an especially interesting point of view, particularly if you shoot from a low perspective.
Use a wide angle lens so you can capture both the roots and the tree itself—place the roots in the foreground and focus about 1/3rd of the way into the frame (use a small aperture) to get as much clarity throughout the shot as you can. Look for patterns in the roots and particularly for roots that are long and can draw your viewer’s eye into the scene.
Shooting multiple trees
Of course a tree is often a part of a forest, so it isn’t always necessary or even appropriate to go with the lone tree approach. Forests are vast and can seem impenetrable, so try to capture some of that feeling when you capture those long shots of the forest.
A longer focal-length lens is great for shooting multiple trees because when you shoot at longer focal lengths you compress the perceived space between objects. That can make the forest look a lot denser than it might actually be in real life, which can make for a very dramatic image.
trunks-pano by Flickr user JeremyOK
Don’t forget to look up—the forest’s canopy makes for a wonderful shot, and your viewer isn’t going to be able to help feeling a sense of scale while her eyes follow those trunks up into the sky. Think about the way you’re orienting the frame, too—a horizontal orientation can make the forest look big, while a vertical orientation will make the trees look tall. And if you can shoot from a hilltop or a scenic overlook, try to capture the forest in its entirety. Use a small aperture to keep everything from foreground to background in tack-sharp focus.
The weather and the time of day
Golden hour is typically the best time to shoot an outdoor scene, but depending on your location it may not matter so much when you’re shooting trees. Old growth forests have a lot of shade, and in some places the sun doesn’t really penetrate the branches. This is both a plus and a minus, depending on your perspective. In dark forests you may need a tripod to get a good, small-aperture image of the forest because there’s just not going to be enough light penetrating the canopy to let you hand-hold your camera at small apertures and low ISOs. But on the plus side, you can take pictures at really any time of day, and you don’t have to worry about blown out highlights or too-dark shadows, because the light is going to be pretty even.
DSCF2631 by Flickr user K Leigh D
Overcast days may compound the low-light problem because there is already limited light when the clouds are heavy, and the trees are going to block out even more light. If you’re shooting on an overcast day, definitely bring a tripod.
Misty and foggy mornings are really great times for shooting in the trees, so don’t discount them because they aren’t an otherwise ideal day. If your goal is to make a forest look magical or even a little bit creepy, some fog can really do the trick. Again, that fog is going to cut back on the amount of available light, so a tripod will be essential equipment.
Getting close to your subject is another great way to give your viewer a complete sense of the tree. A tree can be its own ecosystem, complete with other plants, insects and even small mammals. Look for interesting things hiding in the bark, or seek out patterns and textures. Fill the frame with detail to create an abstract image or a macro shot of a world that most people never think to look at. Remember that when you get close to your subject you’ll need to use smaller apertures to keep everything in focus—this is especially true for trees, since the trunk is a cylinder shape and your depth of field will fall off pretty rapidly as the trunk curves away from you.
Texture-Rrific Tree Bark by Flickr user Odalaigh
Don’t forget to photograph the leaves and branches, too. You can get close to an individual leaf and shoot its veins and edges (hint: try backlighting to make it seem like it’s glowing) or you can zoom out and get some shots of a group of leaves or the whole canopy. Shoot the fruit hanging from the branches of fruit trees and capture the pinecones in conifers. In short, look at the tree as a whole but don’t fail to notice any of its individual parts.
Forests and individual trees provide an almost endless source of inspiration—you really could spend an hour or two shooting trees in a very small area, and you’d still end up with a huge variety of unique and interesting shots. Just remember to look at those trees with your photographer’s eye, and not with the eye you use to see the everyday world. If you think about everything from the details to the big picture, you’re going to end up with a truly inspiring set of photographs.
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