Creating Order in Chaos: A Guide to Photographing Forests

Creating Order in Chaos: A Guide to Photographing Forests
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Recently I released my first gallery consisting solely of forest images. I spent a week in Olympic National Forest this spring, each day wandering through the trees to find scenes that could capture its fairytale-like essence. Forests have a natural tendency to be chaotic and Olympic National Park, being so full of life everywhere, was no exception. I struggled but ultimately was able to come away with a decent portfolio of images that I enjoy and feel proud enough to share.

When I shared my images, many photographers expressed in their comments on how difficult they find forest scenes are to shoot. They were surprised at how well I was able to simplify the scenes and create order amongst the chaos. The foremost issue photographers have is not knowing what to look for before they even pull out their camera.

Here are some basic tips I came up with that can help you get the creative juices flowing next time you are out shooting forest scenes.

Find Staggered Arrangements

Finding the right grove or set of trees is a critical part of photographing forests. Look for groups of trees that are nicely spread apart from front to back, so there is a natural separation between objects to dilute the chaos and have a sense of depth. Avoid shooting from angles where you have significant trees overlapping one another. You should also find trees that are not crowded with lots of twigs or fallen branches to keep the scene from feeling too messy. You still want to have one tree that is your anchor that serves as a central focus among all of the other trees in the image. Find arrangements of trees that are nicely balanced and move or zoom in and out until you have excluded anything that is throwing the weight off too much.

Focus On A Single Tree

Instead of trying to include all of the trees around you, find one unusual or interesting tree that works as a strong subject and compose around that. Use the rest of the trees as a backdrop to complement your subject and tell the story of its surroundings. Shoot your hero tree in the right lighting as well, that helps it to stand apart and jump out from the rest of the scene so the viewer has a clear, central focus to rest their eyes on.

Shoot Backlit

Backlight in the forest can be great for simplifying chaotic and messy scenes. The glowing edges help objects to be differentiated from each other and give the image nice depth again where flat light tends to compress everything and blend it all together. Different kinds of light can work well in the forest for certain scenes, but some will look best backlit. While no type of light works for every scene, backlight often tends to work well when shooting wide.

Think Small

Pull out your telephoto and focus on smaller plants, trees, and foliage that you can find in the forest. You can also find interesting abstract patterns and designs by zooming in and making it less obvious to the viewer as to what they are looking at. This will help you tell the story of the smaller plants and mosses that live in the area as well. Focusing on details will also give you a more diverse set of images to come home with and give your body of work a more complete and interesting flow.

Switch Lenses

There isn’t one single focal length that I can recommend for shooting the forest, I have shot scenes at 16mm and others at 300mm. When I find an interesting subject or set of trees that looks like it has potential, I try to compose with whatever lens I have on. If it does not work, then I pull out my telephoto and try composing at different focal lengths ranging from 70mm-300mm. Sometimes I will try stepping way back and zooming in all the way, to bring all of the trees closer together and make them more equal in scale. Often I have found scenes that didn’t work right with my telephoto lens, but once I changed to my wide angle, everything clicked perfectly into place, or vice versa. Every forest scene is different so you can’t expect to rely on the same formulas. Be open to experimenting, and you will be more productive.

The most important thing to do if you want to create compelling photographs is to have fun and connect with your subject. Do not let yourself get so caught up in trying to capture the place that you forget to experience it. Before you can hope to convey an experience for others, you must first experience the scene yourself.

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I don’t have an eye for forest/woodland photography. I definitely let the chaos overwhelm me, and totally get lost…and then just give up. I think the point that I wish I’d thought of years ago, is too just focus on one tree. I can’t wait to practice your tips and techniques while I’m out in another forest. Great article.

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Thanks Eric! I live in, and frequently shoot in heavily wooded areas. Your article is very helpful and offers some very good examples of your suggestions. Your Olympic rain forest gallery is really very beautiful work!

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Thanks for writing this up Eric. I am definitely one of those that sometimes has troubles in forests, although I really like images of them.

Like many images, light seems to play a pretty important role in the example images. Do you find a particular time of day is best for forest images? If I had to guess, I’d imagine these were taken an hour or two away from sunrise or sunset because the sun is higher from the horizon than many “regular” landscape images.

Regarding focal length, it’s reassuring that you think great forest images can be taken at any focal length. I have 16-35mm and a 70-200mm lenses, so I have a big hole right in the middle. I could be crazy but I think a lot of forest images I like are taken in that middle range so I was considering getting a 24-120mm or something. Curious if others have thoughts on forest images and favorite focal lengths.

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Wow! @Eric_Bennett. Not sure if you read minds , or saw my FB post. Lol. But a few days ago, I just posted a question about this very subject!! I got a few responses, mostly about using a sturdy tripod, which I have! What I was looking for, was exactly what you have posted! I find it very difficult to make sense of the chaos I find in forest scenes. Your article really helps. I even considered going to the rain forest for a few days, forcing myself to do nothing but look at it… in hopes of training my eye! Thank you so much for your post!!

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Excellent article that speaks to a lot of the issues I face when photographing in the undeveloped areas of Florida.

I often struggle to convey the way I see a forest scene into an image.

You’ve given me some things to try. Thanks!

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Interesting article. One thing I believe is important in forest imagery and that’s to preserve the chaos of forestry. Since that’s one of its salient features I feel it’s often good to show it. Forests are by nature chaotic and some of my favorite images display that aspect of it. The challenge is to show it without the image being a snarly mess.

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Stunning photographs. Do you mind sharing what F stop you used for the “SunraysWeb.jpg”?

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Eric,

Thanks so much for this guide! It’s really amazing timing as I’ve been searching for tips on how to make better forest/tree compositions. This will really help me.

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Sure! f16. Glad you enjoy the images!

It’s definitely a great starting point when you are photographing any kind of place. Instead of worrying about getting everything in one photo just find 1 interesting thing and then see what else you should include around it.

So happy to hear that this was helpful! I appreciate the kind compliment on my images as well.

@Brent_Clark I’m glad to hear this was a helpful article, Brent! Honestly, any time of day works, especially if you have some clouds. A lot of these images were shot right in the middle of the day. I would say usually late morning/ early afternoon works best but in a really dense forest you can find interesting light all day long, you just need to be looking for the right kinds of scenes. For lenses, I usually travel with my 16-35 and my 70-300 and that covers everything I need. So you should be good with your setup for forest scenes. I tend to shoot in there mainly just with my telephoto. Wide angle very rarely for tree scenes.

@Candee_Watson Hey Candee! Great to hear from you, so glad you enjoyed the article and it was what you were looking for. I hope it can give you some ideas next time you are out!

@Dan_McCarthy That is definitely the struggle, since our eyes see in 3D and the camera only in 2D a lot of times it is difficult to translate into an image. You mainly need the right kind of lighting to help with separation.

@Igor_Doncov Yes, exactly! It’s not about escaping the chaos, but embracing it! By creating some kind of order to it that can make a sound image.

@Susan_Porter Glad to hear that, Susan! Thank you for reading, my friend!

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I really enjoyed your article, @Eric_Bennett! I am actually working on a similar piece, spurred by a question @Candee_Watson posted on FB about photographing trees. You’ve provided some very good pointers, and I’m not sure what else I can add to the conversation. Order From Chaos is certainly in my regular vocabulary, as a fan of Eliot Porter. Photographing trees is challenging, which is why I find it particularly enjoyable and satisfying when I can finally create an image I like.

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Such kind words, Charlotte! I’m sure you would have a lot more wisdom to offer than just what I have shared here since you have some awesome forest scenes. These were just some basics to get people started out there, but a lot of times the basics are what we need to be reminded of the most, since without them, we can completely fail. I also enjoy shooting trees because they are probably the most difficult subject for me. It is always a mind game and I seem to lose all track of time while I am trying to make it all work. Take care my friend.

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Great tips @Eric_Bennett!

Yo @Brent_Clark, I’m right there with you on the FL hole and I’ll tell you, at least for me… that the 70-300 is on my camera 98.74& of the time when shooting forests. And yes like Eric said… you can shoot any time of the day but you might have to get creative with the light. Especially during the harsher light the longer FL’s help simplify the scene since you aren’t including so much contrast that can cause a mess. In this same forest that Eric shot, I shot all day long but did also make sure I got out for the last evening light that filtered through the thick canopy and was more spotlighting elements which I could pick off with my 70-300.

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Thanks @Eric_Bennett and @TJ_Thorne. I’ll keep rockin’ my FL hole then :slight_smile: I am tentatively planning a trip to Olympic next spring and will give it a go.

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@Eric_Bennett Thanks for the helpful tips, and nice images! There’s been plenty of times I’ve walked around forests exploring and responding to the light without consciously considering all of the potential options. Cheers!

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Great article. Forests are something I do not do much of. Though they are some around the area, as well as jungle. I always make a noise when I do go in, so many things around here that can bite you.

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