Tree photography

Here are some everyday photographic tips that I use regularly, plus a summary of my own equipment and experience in photographing trees, nature and forestscapes.

Young large-leaved lime tree in early morning sunlight
Young large-leaved lime tree in early morning sunlight. I waited a long time for the morning sun to strike the farm buildings in the middle distance. It was a windy morning and the flowers in the meadow were waving, so exposure time had to be limited by using ISO400. Details: DMC-GF2, 136mm (272mm 35mm equiv) zoom, f22, 1/40 sec, ISO400.

Environment

However good your camera and equipment, you are not likely to achieve good results if you rely purely on luck to ‘come across’ a good scene to photograph.

  • Time of the day: get up and go out early!  This is one of the most important lessons that will transform your photos from the ‘nice’ to the stunning.  If you find a scene that you would like to capture but it does not look right, plan, if you can, to return when the sun is shining from a better angle or with different intensity.
    • Early in the morning, at dawn and for one hour or so afterwards, the light has a special quality.  The light is warm in tone and the sun’s low altitude in the sky helps to highlight texture and features in your subjects.
    • If you want to capture forest wildlife, you are more likely to see illusive mammals and birds early in the day before most people are in the woods.
    • However, insects and amphibians are more active when the sun is warm later in the day.
    • Dusk can also be a special time to photograph trees and woodlands.  Stay out long enough and you will witness nocturnal wildlife emerging, such as bats and badgers, although capturing these may require special equipment and plenty of patience.
  • Weather can have a dramatic effect on photographs.
    • Don’t leave your camera at home just because the sun is not shining.  Raindrops of leaves, or the sun shining behind storm clouds can produce dramatic effects.
    • The seasons bring their own special weather qualities to photographs.  Try to capture frost in winter or mist in Autumn.
    • Wind can be a nuisance as trembling leaves will look blurred.  However, try using a longer exposure (read more below) and you can turn this into a stunning effect.
Lime nail galls after a summer shower
Lime nail galls after a summer shower. Don’t leave the camera at home just because the sun isn’t shining. Weather can bring more impact to your pictures thanks to special light or shade, or even raindrops. Details: DMC-GF2, 42 mm (84 mm 35mm equiv), f5,6, 1/125 sec.

Equipment

  • Cameras
    • Compact cameras seem to be capable of better and better results in the right hands.  Go for the best model you can afford with a large megapixel rating (12 or more).  The more manual control it provides the longer it will satisfy your needs as your confidence and skills grow.  Features to look out for include the ability to use Aperture control so that you can control depth of field.
    • Digital SLRs range from professional cameras costing tens of thousands of pounds, to those aimed at keen amateurs typically costing about £500.  Their main advantage over compact cameras is the flexibility gained from being able to swap lenses.  Extra wide or telephoto lenses enable the photographer to compose and capture scenes that would otherwise be impossible. DSLRs also have large sensors and allow reproduction at large scales.
    • A recently developed format is the Micro Four Thirds system, which is designed as an open standard, allowing lenses from different manufacturers to be used on any Micro Four Thirds system camera body.  The camera bodies are small and lightweight, thanks to being mirror-less, and permit lenses to be interchanged. Makes/models to consider include Sony NEX and Panasonic G2 or GF2; the latter has a novel touch screen.
  • Lenses
    • Compact cameras use built-in zooms.  Generally the more you spend on a camera the greater the range it covers from wide-angle to telephoto.
    • If you have a DSLR or Micro compact system camera buy the best lenses that you can afford.
    • Single focal length, or ‘prime’ lenses are often of better quality than equivalent zooms.  They tend to also have large aperture settings, allowing them to be used in lower light conditions.
    • Zoom lenses allow you to carry fewer separate lenses around with you.  You may feel it is better to be able to compose and capture an image by always having two zoom lenses with you, than relying on multiple single focal length lenses, with the danger that the one you need is the one you’ve left at home.
Young ash plantation
Young ash plantation, taken using an extreme wide angle lens and tripod, allowed me to capture the woodland floor and forest canopy in one image. Details: DMC-GF2, 7mm (14mm 35mm equiv) zoom, f22, 0.8 sec, ISO100.
  • Tripod – use one!
    • You may think that a tripod is unnecessary now that so many cameras have OIS (anti-shake technology).  While OIS is a great help it is no substitute for a stable tripod.  If you want to reproduce your pictures in large formats then a tripod is essential.
    • A tripod will also allow you to use long exposures, or to capture images in low light conditions under dark forest canopies or at dawn/dusk.
    • Using a tripod will also help you create special effects, such as capturing the movement of leaves or branches in the wind, where the blurred effect can be very dramatic.  Water can also look dramatic when its movement is captured with a long exposure (e.g. several seconds).
    • If you have one use a cable shutter release to reduce camera shake when you take a picture using a tripod.  If your camera doesn’t have one, use the built-in delay timer instead.
    • If you want to capture woodland wildlife, especially fast-moving birds or butterflies, a monopod is very handy; particularly if you’re using a telephoto lens.
  • Carrying your gear

    • As a tree photographer you are likely to need to carry your equipment with you for more than a few metres from your car, so a good quality and comfortable bag is essential.  There are a massive range of bags now available to suit tiny compact cameras to complete DSLR kits with multiple lenses.  Personally I recommend the Lowepro range; many of which include raincovers and excellent padding and so are very practical for the outdoor photographer.  Make sure that your camera bag has room for other bits and pieces such as spare battery and memory card, a cleaning cloth, a notebook and so on.  Professionals now routinely carry a laptop with them, which acts as a mobile darkroom.
  • Other equipment

    • Filters: a UV or Skylight filter screwed onto the front of every lens will not only improve some of your images but protect your valuable lens optics too.  Also consider a circular polariser and a set of neutral density filters.
    • Always carry something to keep your optics clear from dust, smears and moisture.  Some of the various ‘lens pens’ now available include a handy lens brush at one end and a special glass felt pad impregnated with a cleaning fluid.

Camera settings

  • If have manual control use the lowest film speed (ISO) possible, ideally ISO100 to avoid grain.
  • Shutter speed: use no less than 1/60th if possible when hand-holding a camera.  A good rule of thumb is that shutter speed should equal the focal length used (i.e. 1/100 sec or 100mm lens, 1/500 sec for 500mm).
  • Bracket exposures if you can: this means that you deliberately under- and over-expose the same scene, taking three or more images of it.  When you get home you can then look at the image and select the best one, or perhaps improve it further with software (read more below).
  • Shoot RAW.  I’m a recent convert to RAW.  Essentially RAW files are minimally processed images, rather than the compressed and altered jpeg format common from most compact cameras.  You will need some specialist software to be able process RAW files as they are unreadable in standard computer image programs; although most cameras that are capable of capturing RAW images are supplied with some basic software that is capable of processing them.  Read more below.
  • Did I mention … use a tripod!

You – the artist

“Without mathematics there is no art.”  –Luca Pacioli

  • Consider the ‘Rule of two thirds’, the Golden Section and the Fibonacci spiral.  The human eye is drawn naturally to a point about two-thirds up an image.  If your landscape subject is land or water, the horizon line will usually be two-thirds up from the bottom.  Alternately, if the sky is the main feature, the horizon line may be one-third up from the bottom, leaving the sky to take up the top two-thirds of the picture.
  • Take time to compose every image.  I started my interest in photography with film, where every shot had to be carefully considered because of the high cost of developing the film.  Even in the digital age I think that there is a benefit to keeping this frame of mind; slowing down and taking care to compose every shot.  Using a tripod somehow helps with this as it takes longer to get everything into place.
  • Try different positions and heights.  Don’t always take a shot from eye height but try holding the camera above your head, or lie down.

Post production

  • In the ‘old days’ (a decade ago!) the photographer would take a roll of film into a lab for processing and hope for the best.  Only if they were very keen, and had invested in considerable outlay of materials, would they be able to hand process the images to bring the best out of every image.  Now in the digital era it is possible for everyone to improve on various aspects of an image using software on their computer.
  • Programs such as Photoshop Elements (under £100), or the more powerful and complete Photoshop, allow fantastic creative and effective control over images.  Many cameras are shipped with software that provide some useful editing features but they are usually limited in capability.
  • Storage and organisation become increasingly important as your collection grows.  Personally I use Adobe Lightroom which is a very powerful cataloging tool, allowing hundreds of photos to be sorted, filtered and tagged in seconds.  It also includes developing tools for editing images, especially RAW files.
  • Google Picasa provides some clever and free tools for organising and tagging images, and for sharing them with friends and family.
  • Finally, if you shoot in RAW, you can try capturing a scene that contains difficult lighting conditions by combining several images taken with different exposures (see Bracketing above), and then combining them with a technique known as HDR.  See some examples and read more.  Below is an example of one of my own attempts at HDR – note tripod essential!
pre HDR images
Two shots of the same scene. The left shot is two stops under-exposed, the right two stops over-exposed. In this scene of an elder tree in flower with abandoned farm machinery, the tricky light conditions made it difficult to capture the foreground that was in shade, as well as the bright blue sky and sunlit middle distance. However, by combining these two with three other images taken at different exposures, and then combining the five images in a technique known as HDR, all the best exposed elements could be combined in one image – see result below.
Elder and farm machinery HDR image
The final HDR image made of five photos of different exposures were combined to form an image that allowed the shaded foreground to be shown clearly, plus the sunlit middle distance and the sky in full colour. Details: DMC-GF2, 14mm (28mm 35mm equiv) zoom, f22, 1/50 sec, ISO400.  Processed in Lightroom 3 with the Enfuse plugin.

Inspiration

There are many truly inspiring tree and forestscape photographers.  I have to mention the legend Ansel Adams.  Contemporary British tree photographers include:

UPDATE: since writing this post in 2011 I have launched my own photo blog for trees:

My photography

It doesn’t matter how good you are, or think you are, as long as you enjoy your photography. Browse some of my recent tree photographs.  Here’s my essential photography equipment:

  • Panasonic Lumix micro four thirds cameras.  Also a compact Lumix DMC-TZ8.
  • Lenses (35mm equivalent in brackets): 7-14mm (14-28mm),  14mm (28mm), 14-42mm (28-84mm), 45-200mm (90-400mm).
  • Tripod: Benbo trekker or Benro Travel Angel.
  • Software: Photoshop and Lightroom.

Gabriel Hemery

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