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Seeing the Trees for the Forest

Ok, so I know that the title may seem backwards, but when photographing inside the deep woods, this version makes more sense. I was reminded of this during a recent trip to the Redwoods in California. It is amazing how difficult it can be to shoot in the forest.

The first challenge comes from the fact that the trees and brush all want to overlap thereby reducing any sense of depth or separation among the elements in the frame. Indeed, if we look at the following image taken in Olympic National Park several years ago we see what is basically a mess.

This may be an extreme situation since it was taken in a rain forest. In fact, my thought when I took this photo was that I wanted to convey the denseness and overwhelming "green-ness" of the rain forest.

The path does provide an element of depth, but then we hit a wall. What seemed to be a good idea didn't quite work out. That's fine, because this is just the sort of thing that we can use to learn new approaches to composition.

The other issue in the forest is that the forest is very dark. This results in some issues with both shutter speed and iso. I generally start with figuring out my shutter speed first. There was a decent amount of movement among the moss, so I knew that I needed to have a relatively fast shutter speed. In this case 1/320 seemed to give the desired sharpness. I tried 1/250 with the hopes of being able to use a smaller aperture.

Next I set my aperture to the most open I could get and still maintain my depth of field. I settled on f/5.6 because that gave me a hyperfocal point of roughly 11 feet with a focal length of 24mm. This means that everything from 6 feet all the way to infinity will be relatively sharp. I just needed to make sure I had the angle set properly to ensure that the first 6 feet from the camera's sensor in to the scene was out of the frame.

Now all that is left is to figure out the iso. There are a lot of ways to meter a scene, and today's cameras with their matrix/evaluative metering modes do quite a nice job. I prefer to do things a little more old school and spot meter on the bright and dark areas of the image. This allows me to make the decision as to what can be blown out or blocked. I wasn't too worried about the sky, I knew that would blow out, so I made a point of minimizing it. What I was concerned about was the highlights on the trail and the detail in the shadows of the moss and the trees. This led me to an iso of 640.

While it is fantastic that I managed to get an exposure that I liked, there is still the issue that the composition is a little too messy. For me personally, it comes down to management of the negative space. Let's look at another image:

Notice how much cleaner this scene is from the first one. Even though the forest is dense, I am using strong visual elements to help set the scene.

Again, I am using the path to lead the viewer into the photo. In this case, I have added another element, the two hikers. They were initially behind me waiting for me to take the photo. When I realized they were there, I told them it was ok for them to go. They became important because they not only show the scale of the trees, but their placement implies that there is a separation between the two trees. I would have liked to move over to the left a little more to get some separation between the two trees in the center, but that caused even more overlap with the thin tree in the front and the root ball. The lighting helped as there is a sliver of light also between the two trees adding a little bit of separation and keeping the one tree from blending into the other.

Just as with the first image, we have a photo taken with the sun pretty high in the sky, but very little light actually reaching the forest floor. My focal length was slightly longer at 31mm, so I needed to be careful about depth of field. In this case, I was able to bring my shutter down to 1/100. Here again I used an aperture of f/5.6. That pushes the hyperfocal point out to almost 20 feet. Now I needed to eliminate the first 10 feet of the scene. To do this I shot from a slightly elevated position.

At this point, you are thinking that I had a pretty low iso setting given settings for the first photo. In fact, I ended up going even higher to 1250. The darkness of the forest really caused issues with the areas where the sun was making it down to the forest floor. The result was that I did end up with a few blown out ferns. By minimizing the blown out areas, and having strong subject elements I was able to end up with what I think of as a successful image.

To summarize, when I shoot in forested areas I go through the following steps:

  1. Figure out my composition through placement of key elements and management of negative space.

  2. Determine the shutter speed needed to freeze any movement.

  3. Set the aperture based on desired depth of field, trying to be as open as possible.

  4. Use spot metering to determine the iso setting to get the correct exposure.

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