If you’re like most other photographers, you almost certainly have some trees in your portfolio. You are drawn to them because they have great natural beauty and interesting shapes. They’re colorful, too. During the summer their leaves are a brilliant green, and in the autumn they turn spectacular shades of red, orange and yellow. In the springtime some of them will bear flowers. But many of us don’t ever go beyond stepping back and taking a photo of the tree in its entirety. After all, trees can be huge and imposing, and it seems natural to try and capture the whole impressive thing in a single image. But the really cool thing about trees is that they are more than just the sum of their parts.
A tree has details that are often missed—wonderfully textured bark, finely-lined leaves and entire ecosystems living in their nooks and crevices. If you get close to a tree, you can see all those little details—there many be insects and spiders, and there may be other life as well such as moss and fungus. But we’re busy people, and most of us don’t really take time to look at these things—which is why those tiny details make such great photographic subjects.
There are a few different ways to approach leaf photography. One way is to simply shoot leaves as they are growing on the tree. I like to use a larger aperture when I do this, that way I have a single leaf in sharp focus and background leaves that appear as a soft, pretty blur. If you use smaller apertures those background leaves will start to steal attention away from your subject, and the image will look chaotic.
Leaves lying on the ground in the autumn can also make great subjects—try filling the frame with a blanket of leaves to make a statement about seasonal changes. You could also shoot leaves as accents for other subjects—for example, a single orange leaf lying in a white snowdrift can communicate an early snow or a rapid transition from fall to winter.
Remember to look for perfect leaves, except in special circumstances. If your goal is to capture the natural beauty of the leaf, then you'll want to find one that is healthy and free from blemishes—versus one that might be drying up or turning brown around the edges. Leaves that have been chewed on by caterpillars or other insects should also be avoided—unless the goal of your photograph is to capture that imperfection or to comment on the damage that can be caused by insect life.
If you do decide to photograph your subject outside, while still attached to the tree, make sure you choose the right time of day. In general, you don't want to take these kinds of pictures on a bright, clear day when the sun is very high in the sky, because that direct, overhead light is harsh and may destroy all of those fine details that you're trying to capture. Hard light can burn out the highlights and deepen the shadows, but the main difficulty you’ll encounter with overhead light is that it will flatten out the fine detail. Instead, try shooting at either end of the day, during the golden hour. In the hour just after sunrise or just before sunset, the light is soft and more diffuse, so you won’t get any of those overly bright highlights or overly dark shadows. But perhaps more importantly, the light during the golden hour comes from the side, which helps create shadow in the textured parts of your subject—and shadow is what gives an object a sense of existing in three dimensions.
You can also shoot on an overcast day, but keep in mind that the light on an overcast day also tends to be a little flat, which means that you won't get as many of those important shadows, and you may need to do some post-processing in order to give your image a complete range of tones.
Finally, try backlighting your leaf. Many leaves are semi-transparent, which means that when you shine light through them they can appear to glow. Backlighting can also bring out the detail in the leaf and make those fine veins and textured surfaces really stand out.
You can also take the leaves off of the tree and shoot them indoors, where you’ll have more control over the light and the background. These sorts of images are beautiful in a different way—instead of showing the leaf in its natural environment, you are presenting it out of context—which means that you can juxtapose it with unusual elements or backgrounds that you wouldn’t find in nature. That can make for a compelling photograph, too, in a very different way.
Tree bark has beautiful texture, and different species of tree can have very different looking bark. I challenge you to spend some time examining tree bark the next time you’re out for a hike in a wooded area—I bet you’ll be really surprised by the variety and by how exquisitely beautiful tree bark can look when you see it up close.
As with leaves, you will need to photograph tree bark with the right kind of light. Again, side light is perfect for bringing out those small details. Bark isn’t transparent, of course, so you won’t be able to back light your subject, and avoid front light, too—like overhead light, front light creates shadows only behind your subject, which means that all that three dimensional detail would look mostly two-dimensional.
Consider converting to black and white, which is a great way to highlight texture and form. You might want to vary your aperture according to a few factors, but the most important factor is the curvature of the tree and how close you are to it. If you have a lot of curvature in the frame, you’ll need a very small aperture to keep it in focus from foreground to background. But remember that the closer you get to your subject, the shallower your depth of field will become even at very small apertures, so if you’re not happy with your depth of field try moving the camera until you’re focusing on a flatter surface.
You may need a tripod, especially if you’re in a darker wooded area, because when you shoot macro images with small apertures you may find that you can’t keep your shutter speed fast enough to let you hand hold your camera. That’s not the only reason why you might need a tripod, though—when you get close to your subject even a small change in camera position could be enough to completely throw off your focus point, so keeping your camera stable will ensure that your focus point will stay right where you want it to.
Insects and spiders
Seek out those bugs and spiders in the wood, and look for areas of color in the form of moss and other types of greenery. Remember that it can be easy to spook small creatures so you may need to use a longer lens to zoom in on your subject. Very tiny subjects, of course, are best shot in macro mode or with a true macro lens—that is, one that gives you 1:1 magnification. But don’t worry if you don’t have a true macro lens—you can still get an interesting photo of a relatively small insect with some additional context like bark or the leaf it’s sitting on.
Move slowly and resist the temptation to use your flash—opt instead for a slower shutter speed. Now, insects and spiders can move quickly but they also have a remarkable capacity for keeping still, especially when they’re being watched, so a slow shutter speed may not be the detriment you imagine it to be. If you do use flash it may actually scare them into motion—and it will also produce that front light that acts as more of a detail killer than a detail enhancer.
It can be easy to get so lost photographing the details that you forget to photograph the tree as a whole—so make sure that after you've finished taking all of those wonderful detail shots that you zoom out a little bit and capture the tree as an entity, too. Long shots of wooded areas can also make for great pictures, and viewed together with your detail shots they will help to provide a complete picture.
But mostly, I want to encourage you to move around the tree and look for interesting features to fill the frame with. Look up and down and try different camera angles and perspectives. A beautiful tree is a great photo opportunity no matter how many other tree photos you might have in your portfolio, so don’t squander it. Get as many shots as you can from as may perspectives as you can, and only then can you do that lovely tree the justice it deserves.
- Photographing leaves
- On the tree
- On the ground
- Photographing bark
- Insects and spiders
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