In this instalment of “Great Subjects” we’re going to be working on one of nature’s most popular subjects: trees.
You might be surprised to discover that there are so many different ways to photograph trees – different times, different places, different framing and compositional styles to use. Each tree is as unique as every person, and can be used to create an equally unique photograph.
Trees are difficult subjects, though. It can be very hard to portray the sense of size and sheer majesty of a huge oak or redwood, the intricate shape of a dogwood or myrtle, or the delicate details of a cedar or eucalyptus. But, there are many techniques you can practice to bring out the beauty in either a single tree, a grove, or a whole forest.
When deciding how to set up your shot, the first thing to consider is the context of your main subject. Is the tree by itself? In a small group? Or one among many in a deep, wooded area? What are its immediate surroundings? What is the lighting like – is the tree in full sun, diffused shade, or dappled light? Which direction is the light coming from?
Second, what do you think is the most interesting part of the subject? Is it the texture of the bark, the shape of the branches, the colours of the leaves, or the elegant repetition of several trees standing together? Or maybe it’s the play of light and shadow that is created by the tree itself.
With these things in mind, the next thing to think about is, how do you want the photo to look – bright and cheerful? Gloomy and mysterious? Awesome? Dramatic? Quaint? Do you want to close in on the finer details or incorporate it into a larger composition?
These are all things that deserve some contemplation before you begin shooting. Spending some time thinking about your scene will help you decide how to approach it, what type of photograph you want to make and what you are trying to convey in the image.
For those of you who live in the desert, you might not have very many trees to work with. But these principles apply to other tree-like plants such as Joshua Trees (which are actually Yuccas) and many cacti like an Ocotillo, a Chain-Fruit Cholla, or a Saguaro Cactus like in the example below.
There are as many ways to photograph a tree as there are species, but a few themes recur time and time again because of their effectiveness in capturing the natural beauty and grandeur of our forest friends.
The Lone Sapling
Capturing a tree all by itself amid an otherwise empty landscape can give both a feeling of calm serenity and of loneliness. If it’s a small or young tree, especially, it can also suggest a sense of frailty.
This technique emphasizes the tree’s overall shape, as well as the environment in which it lives. This type of shot can be made with a wide angle lens, but if you’re far away this makes the tree appear very tiny and you risk losing the details of the tree’s form. If you’re very close, on the other hand, using a wide angle lens tends to stretch the tree’s appearance, making it seem larger in comparison to its surroundings. To really shrink the tree and emphasize its solitude while still allowing it to make up a large portion of the frame, use a long lens (50mm or more) from further away to visually compress the image.
If there is an interesting element in the distance (or foreground) that you want to use to complement, contrast, or juxtapose the tree, a smaller aperture such as f/11 or f/16 will achieve a larger depth of field and make the entire image sharp from front to back. Otherwise, using a wide aperture like f/4 or f/5.6 will blur the background and emphasize the tree itself by its sharpness.
The Landscape’s Focal Point
The same sort of technique can be used in different ways for different effects. Whether it be a single, lonely tree, a little group of trees, or even a small forest, try including trees as a focal point in a landscape photograph. This is a little different from the last point in that the surrounding scene should have more elements than just the tree itself. Like any other landscape photo, it should be well composed with an interesting foreground (a lake, field, shoreline, etc) as well as a beautiful background (mountains, a sunrise/sunset), with the tree making up a mid-ground point of focus to tie the composition together.
And, like most landscape photos, a small aperture should generally be used to ensure sharpness from front to back. Shooting from a low angle will also emphasize the texture and depth of the foreground, which will draw the viewer into the center of the photo and enhance the distant feeling of the background by contrast.
A lot of trees look a lot alike, especially when you’re dealing with a forest full of trees of the same species. And while it’s possible to find woods made of big, bushy trees, the crowded nature of a forest encourages the growth of tall, top-heavy trees with long, bare trunks. When photographed, these can end up looking like a lot of vertical poles and not much else. If done properly, though, this can be an effective use of repetition.
Of course, repetition is a little easier if you find a group of trees planted in a row! For the best effect, repetition should be combined with other compositional tools such as perspective, texture, and contrast. To make sure the trunks still end up looking like trees, it’s best to make sure there is more in the frame than just bark. Use a wide angle lens to include either elements on the ground (such as grass, the forest floor, or tree roots) or elements in the sky (such as leaves and branches), or both to provide context.
By using backlighting, you can create a silhouette that emphasizes the tree’s outlined shape. This is especially effective when the background itself is particularly interesting, as in a richly coloured sunset. To do this, simply expose your picture for the sky, either by pointing the camera upwards and locking down the exposure or by adjusting your exposure compensation (usually by underexposing slightly) to make sure that the sky is perfectly exposed while the tree itself is completely black. This can be enhanced in post-production by deepening the black tones, which both enhances the silhouette and deepens the colours in the sky.
The Squirrel’s Eye View
Most trees are taller than most people, so accentuating their height is an effective way to portray the awe-inspiring feeling they can give. This is best done by taking a low point of view and looking upwards toward the top of the tree.
In a densely wooded area, you can also lay flat on the ground and shoot straight upwards, making a photo in which the tops of the surrounding trees all seem to converge together. Depending on the brightness of the sky and the thickness of the leaves, this may cause the picture to be under or over exposed. In this case, use your exposure compensation to adjust the brightness of the image to make sure there is detail in both the highlight and shadow areas.
The Detail Shot
Trees aren’t only defined by their overall shape, but by the smaller pieces of them such as their leaves, flowers, fruits, branches, and bark. Contrary to taking a wide shot that includes the entire tree, try using a long lens (particularly a macro lens, if you have one) to zoom in on the finer details of the tree. When highlighting smaller parts, a wide aperture like f/2.8 gives a small depth of field that blurs the background and foreground and directs focus towards your central focal point.
Using such a narrow plane of focus makes it very important to get the focus point spot on, however – when composing your shot, give some thought to exactly what point you want to be perfectly sharp and use either spot auto focus mode or manual focus to make sure your camera hones in on just the right point. Setting your camera up on a tripod will ensure that camera movement doesn’t throw the focus off once it’s set.
Warning! Dead trees rarely make good subjects.
The only exception to this is when they make a very strong graphic design and have a clean background, like this dead live-oak (I know, that sounds contradictory, but the tree is called a live-oak and this one is dead).
Be particularly aware of any dead branches sticking in from the edges of the frame and eliminate them. It’s best to eliminate them in your composition, but if you can’t, then clone them out in post-processing.
Most trees look drastically different from one season to the next, so I’d like to add a few climate-specific tips.
In autumn, the leaves on the trees begin to die. During this process they change colour, from their normal, healthy green to a wide array of yellows, oranges, and reds, depending on the type of tree. This is easily the most popular season to photograph trees, as shooters from all over flock to places like New England, in the north, and New Zealand, in the south, to see their magnificent displays of changing leaves.
Photographing fall foliage is often all about the colours. Sometimes you can just fill the frame with the colours to create an interesting abstract image. Or, you can use colour as just one element of your composition.
The changing colours don’t last the whole season, though – in some places, the shift from green to brown can last as little as a week. When planning your shooting session, do some research into your area – not only when the colours tend to change and how long they take, but also where might be some ideal locations to capture the best fall colour scenes.
Even after the leaves have changed and fallen from the branches, though, the opportunity is not quite over. You can still get some fabulous low-angle shots of the leaves littering the ground, or of piles raked up high from the front yard. Of course, the leaves don’t look their best after a heavy rain and a lot of feet trampling them, so these shots are best taken in low-traffic areas, relatively soon after they fall. Forested areas away from popular pathways are the most likely places to find fresh fallen leaves.
As is always the case when colour is a major part of your composition, pay special attention not only to the colours of the leaves, but of other colours found in your scene that can provide a contrast to the warm reds and yellows in order to make them stand out even more. Including some green grasses and evergreen plants or a bright blue sky does an excellent job of complementing the warm tones of the changing leaves of autumn.
Aside from the evergreen trees of the northern boreal forests and equatorial tropics, most trees will eventually lose all their leaves and become bare during the late fall and winter.
Photographing trees after this has happened can produce very stark images with strong shapes and high contrast. That’s what you’re aiming for. As I mentioned in the discussion about dead trees above, photographs of bare branches must form a strong graphic design or they’ll just look like a bunch of sticks.
Photographs of trees in winter are often seen as sombre or gloomy, especially when paired with the type of weather that is common in the colder months. Rain, snow, fog, and frost, while they may seem unpleasant at first, can offer some of the most unique and beautiful photo opportunities.
Frost lends beautiful texture to close-up detail shots, for example, while fog can transform your scene into a whole different world. When dealing with this type of weather, though, remember to turn your exposure compensation up to brighten the picture if white-out conditions throw your camera’s light meter off.
The intricate shapes of the trees are what really stand out when they become bare – the twisting branches that are usually hidden by leaves become visible, and the self-similar nature of trees becomes apparent. By this, I mean the way that a tree’s branch, when looked at by itself, has a remarkably similar form to the full tree itself, as does each twig that grows off of each branch, and so on. This can be used as a form of repetition in a photographic composition, and tend to make fantastic silhouettes.
Because of the strong forms and relatively little colour in many late-year scenes, these types of photos often look really good in black and white. Making your photo monochrome further emphasizes the shape, form, and contrast of the composition.
If you’re shooting in a really cold area, remember that temperature can affect the way your camera operates. Cold weather can cause rechargeable batteries to die extremely quickly, so it’s a good idea to have a spare or two. Make sure they’re fully charged before going out, and if it’s near or below freezing keep them in your pocket or wrapped up warmly in your camera bag while you get your camera set up. Take them out only when you’re ready to take the shot, and wrap them up again when they’re not in use. When you are shooting, conserve the battery life you do have by using the viewfinder instead of live view, and don’t spend too much time looking through your shots on the LCD screen.
Springtime is the season of birth and growth, so photos that focus on the details of the first leaves, buds, and flowers work very well this time of year.
Soft focus and a shallow depth of field are effective in creating compositions that feel gentle, hopeful, and full of joy. Because the growth is still so small in the spring, you’ll need a macro lens to be able to get a good, detailed close-up image.
Compared to the other seasons, the colours of spring are very light, with a soft pastel-like palette, which often makes a low-contrast image. This can be lovely if you want to create a gentle sort of atmosphere, but if you want a more lively look with popping colours, you can bring up these colours in post-production. When adjusting the overall colours, you’ll probably see two options: saturation and vibrance. These seem to have the same effect, but have an important difference: while saturation boosts the colour intensity of all pixels equally, vibrance will bring up the less saturated colours more than those that are already bright. Especially when trying to emphasize lighter colours – such as those found in the leaves and buds of spring – increasing vibrance instead of saturation will keep other parts of the photo from becoming over-saturated and looking cartoonish.
Of course, trees’ natural colours do become much more saturated after a rainfall, which happens to be the main cornerstone of springtime weather in most parts of the world. Don’t let a rainy day keep you from shooting – some of the most interesting photos can be made in bad weather. The weight of the water makes trees’ boughs droop slightly, and the leaves, branches, and flowers are covered in little droplets that give fantastic detail to a close-up shot.
If you’re not too close to the equator this is also the time of year that many creatures come out from hibernation, so you’re likely to find many birds, bugs, and other animals in among the branches. This gives many wonderful opportunities to capture the tree not only as its own object, but to show it as its own little world full of all sorts of inhabitants.
While most trees sprout their leaves before they grow flowers, some such as the dogwood, cherry, and wisteria get their buds first. When they bloom, the juxtaposition between bare wooden branches and bright full flowers can be very powerful. It’s important to know what types of trees grow in your area and when they bloom, so do a little research about your local flora and plan your shooting adventures to catch the trees at the perfect time.
Photographing trees in summertime can be a mixed bag, depending on where you live. If you’re in a place with a wet climate, you’ll probably find trees thriving with lush vegetation. Shooting in this time can be deceptively difficult, though – mainly because of the lack of contrast that happens when everything is green, and the leaves are so full and thick that they hide almost everything else. To overcome this obstacle, scan your scene for various colours and tones. When making wide landscape shots, try to include differing shades of green that are found in different species of trees and other plants, or other background elements such as rocks, mountains, and the sky. You could even incorporate features like buildings and people to create a contrast to the sea of green of a mid-summer forest.
The best contrast, though, is to be found in the fully-formed flowers and fruits of summer. These evolved specifically to be not only visible, but to attract birds, insects, and other pollinators that allow the plants to spread their seeds, so the variety of shapes and colours found in any wood, garden, or grove is staggering. You can incorporate these into a wide shot or zoom in for a closer look, but remember that this theme focuses on trees, not flowers, so make sure they are only a complementary element, and that the tree itself is still your main subject.
In some areas, though, summer is not so green and vibrant. In more arid climates, summer can mean parched landscapes and yellow-brown foliage due to the hot, dry weather. Trees in this state can be shot in the same way as any other, but their dehydration means that their strongest points of focus may be a little different.
In these situations, texture is everywhere, so highlighting that is a good place to start. The yellowish colours can be very bright and even cheerful, even if the land is under a drought. And because blue and yellow complement each other so well, including a bright, clear sky in your composition lends beautiful colour contrast to both landscape and detail shots.
If you are shooting in delicate, dehydrated lands, be sure to take care of nature and not to damage any of the vegetation that does exist, as it helps retain what little moisture the ground has.
- One thing that is especially important when photographing trees is to try to ensure the image has a strong graphic design. This is true for all photographs, but with trees it is very easy to end up with a jumble of branches that go every which way and look like a clump of bramble bush. Try to find subjects with a clean graphic design to them.
- Use the trees in creative ways to play with new styles of composition. For instance, you can try peering through the branches of one tree while photographing another, using the leaves in the foreground to frame your shot and direct focus inwards.
- In wide shots, pay attention to where the tree’s shadow is falling and consider using this to create a leading line that draws the viewer’s eye towards the main subject. Composing the image so that the shadow is reaching towards the edge of your frame is a great way to do this.
- Separate the tree from its background, either by using a shallow depth of field or by your perspective. Set up your shot with elements in the foreground and background to add a sense of depth, and remove unwanted background elements by either cropping them out of the frame or moving your camera until they are hidden from view, either behind the tree or another object.
Trees make excellent photography subjects at any time of year, although they can be challenging! I hope these tips help you get out there and experiment and enjoy the beauty of nature.
For more tutorials in this series, check out “Great Subjects”.
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