The first time I took a walk along my local river, I noticed a cluster of awfully messy and ragged trees clinging to the riverbank. To most people, it was a scene you wouldn’t stop to look at twice. Being Winter, the trees were bare, colourless and a little menacing. However, I saw shapes, interaction and stories. Unfortunately, at the time the river had flooded and although I was able to pass by the trees themselves, they had become a part of the river. It was a few weeks later, when the storms had ceased somewhat that I was able to go and explore properly to see whether there was a picture or two inside the blair witch project like place.
And there was, to my surprise. It is no woodland or forest. The trees there are not beautiful in any way, however, I did think I could use this location to practice a type of photography I have been itching to get into for a while; Woodland photography.
Now, here’s the thing about woodland photography, it’s known to be very difficult. It’s not the simplest subject to photograph. When it has come to taking images of trees in the past, I have noticed how analysing the scene to find compositions is the main challenge. This is probably one of the messiest group of trees I have ever seen, so why not challenge myself to capture some interesting images while learning to compose woodland photographs at the same time, through trial and error.
…Also we are still in lockdown so…this is one of the few local places I haven’t exhausted yet.
You can watch the vlog of this project below, otherwise, let’s get to it!
5 THINGS I'VE LEARNED PRACTISING WOODLAND PHOTOGRAPHY:
1: Slow Down.
I’m terrible for being impatient when it comes to composition searching, especially if I have multiple locations lined up.
I like being able to spot potential scenes quickly and then spend more time taking the image itself. If I can’t see a composition at a location then I’m not likely to hang around too long and waste my time. That means I’ve probably walked past a lot of potential images in the past, by not allowing myself to explore properly. Slowing down is a tip that can be applied to various types of photography and is something I realise I need to apply in general to my work flow.
In woodland and forest photography there is a huge amount to look at and process. Trees, branches, leaves, shapes, space, light, the sky, growth on the ground, depth, colour, pathways…..
I don’t think it’s realistic to think you can wander into some woods and be able to grab award winning shots within minutes, unless you have scouted that location multiple times before and know it well in various weather conditions. If you’re new to this type of photography, like myself, it will take longer to process all of these factors and learn how to separate everything from the chaos of nature.
There is a lot of walking around, back and forth…in circles…pondering angles, focal lengths and perspectives. Although it can feel time consuming, it’s actually very relaxing too. A stroll among the trees…what else would you want to do with your morning?
2: Light Changes Everything.
You always hear how you should do specific types of photography at certain times of the day or the year. I think images are possible regardless as a location is whatever you make of it. The weather or time of year shouldn’t, always, restrict you. When it comes to woodland photography, I think about full, green trees with golden light, or foggy mornings with impressive shaped trunks and green moss clinging to everything. This location had none of that. I received no fog over that week and everything was bare, dull and dead.
Although I haven’t visited this location in every weather type possible, or throughout a whole year of seasons, I was still able to see how the weather and light would change how I perceived my surroundings.
Bright and sunny days give you an extremely harsh and contrasted scene. Early morning or evening sunlight offers a softer golden glow, while rain or an overcast day gives off a more moodier and flatter feel. On a dull day without harsh contrast, I found it much easier to pick out tones, shapes, and colours.
Of course, if you have a specific style of image in mind then going to a forest at a certain time of day, in specific weather may be a part of your vision. But arriving with no expectations allowed for flexibility in creativity, to make something of what was available.
Personally, I didn’t really like the result of images in this location on sunny days. I don’t know how to describe my photography style exactly, however, I would definitely say that I don’t like excessively contrasted images. I prefer softer tones and vibrant colours. This was more achievable on dull, overcast days where the clouds act like a softbox for even exposure.
I mentioned above about having a vision of what kind of images you want to come away with. Planning a shoot and determining those things beforehand can be helpful, but if the location or weather doesn't fit your goal then it can also set you up for a troubled day. It’s a whole other kind of balance, trying not to over-plan your images but to also have some idea of what you are doing.
While researching tips on woodland photography by other photographers, a common concern people seem to have is figuring out how one is able to see compositions and know what to shoot. It's as though there is some special secret in getting those stunning forest images that no one is sharing, and we all desperately want a detailed blueprint of it. I think this reflects the hastiness of photographers, in wanting to skip the learning process and the desire to be able to saunter into a place with automatic skill and knowledge. You can’t really research what trees to take a photo of.
My own technique so far has been to simply take my time to explore, and when something grabs my eye to ask myself why it has. I know I want to take an image here….but why?
It could be as simple as a colour, a shape, an isolated subject or the way a subject interacts with something else. That is then going to help me decide how I will take the image, depending what aspect of that scene I want to highlight and be the main subject or theme of the photograph. This will then determine whether I position my camera high off the ground, close to the ground, go wide or zoom in close. Do I was everything to be in focus and completely still?
The images I captured in this post portray the brokenness of these trees. They are leaning all over each other, pointing in ‘wrong’ directions and scattered around. It makes you wonder why. Did someone purposefully place them in such a way, have they been destroyed by storms or have they simply weathered down over time?
I once heard a quote (I can’t remember where, unfortunately) where a photographer said that you shouldn’t expect beautiful images from a place that isn’t beautiful. Woods and forests can be quite beautiful, relaxing and majestic, but other times more frightening or….as this one is…ugly. The trees in this location were not pretty or elegant, so it would have been unrealistic in thinking that I could come away with images that were. Of course beauty is subjective. I didn’t come away from this location feeling disappointed because I was realistic about my surroundings and what I could create from it.
5: Managing the sky and your exposure.
This may differ from photographer to photographer and location to location, however, I found the sky to be a pain in the trunk.
Perhaps this location wasn’t dense enough and there were too many gaps between the tree tops. While composing, I did my best to erase the sky from my composition as much as possible as it had no relation to my subject. It didn't feel necessary to include but it also created exposure issues.
The sky, regardless of the weather, was quite a lot brighter than the trees and ground. The light didn’t seem to reach the floor. Generally, you should expose an image for the brightest part to avoid blowing out the highlights. It is not as fixable in post processing, unlike being able to raise shadows to pull detail back in from underexposure. However, exposing for the sky made the rest of the image unbelievably dark. To compensate, I either had to accept an underexposed image or exposure bracket to cover a range of shutter speeds, which I would then have to merge together in post processing. I mean…this happens in landscape, nature...wildlife photography too but….look I’m just moaning about have to spend more time editing okay…let me have this one.
So those are 5 things I have learned so far! I can’t wait to be able to go and travel to actual forests and woods to really get stuck in the world of woodland photography. Make sure to check back to my website or follow my social media to keep up to date with my photography journey, and thank you for reading!