Forests can be challenging to photograph. They’re beautiful, but cluttered, and often visually chaotic.
Creating order out of that chaos requires finding ways to simplify things. That’s one of the reasons fog is so helpful for these scenes: it obscures the background, reducing the clutter. (It also lends a wonderful atmosphere to the photographs.)
During our recent workshop in the redwoods we did get some fog, and even sunbeams. I’m sure I’ll post some of those photos down the road.
But there were also many occasions before, during, and after the workshop when we didn’t have fog, and I was photographing forests in soft light, or with sunlight filtering through the trees. What then?
Under those conditions I tend to narrow my view, and focus on smaller parts of the forest in order to simplify the compositions. I look for small, interesting vignettes instead of trying to show a big swath of trees.
Sunlight in a forest creates random, splotchy patterns of light and dark that often add to the visual complexity of a scene. But sometimes you can make those spots of light work for you. In those conditions, I look for places where a spot of sunlight is hitting something interesting, and then try to build a composition around that visual focal point.
You can’t fight the light. If you find an interesting subject, but it’s in the shade, and there’s something brighter next to it or behind it, the viewer’s eye will get drawn to that brighter spot, rather than your subject. You’re setting up a visual tug of war, and your photograph will be the loser.
Instead, I try to find an eye-catching object lit by the sun, and make that the visual focal point of the image. If I can create a light-against-dark juxtaposition, with that sunlit spot surrounded by darker, shaded areas, then the viewer’s eye is drawn right to where I want it to go, and I can make that splotchy light work for me, rather than against me.
You could find an interesting subject, then wait and hope the sun will hit it. But you could wait a long time. Maybe all day. I find it more productive to wander down a trail, find a spot where the light is striking something interesting, then move quickly to compose and capture the photograph before the light changes. Sometimes I’m too late, but I definitely have more success with that approach than with waiting.
With soft light (shade or overcast), the even lighting is actually freeing, allowing me to build a composition around almost anything that catches my eye, knowing that it won’t be competing with a brighter, sunlit spot. But under those conditions the sky is much brighter than the trees or forest understory, so including the sky sets up another visual tug of war.
The challenge then becomes finding compositions that don’t include any sky. That often means featuring only the bases of the trees, or using a solid background filled with trunks or leaves. It also helps to find elevated vantage points where you can look down toward the ground, or across a swale toward another hillside, rather than up toward the sky.
In either situation – with soft light or spots of sunlight – I’m often using telephoto lenses to isolate small, interesting parts of the forest. A long lens narrows the angle of view, and makes it easier to keep the sky out of the frame, or zero in on a spot of sunlight striking one particular trunk, or cluster of leaves, or patch of ferns. Again, it’s about keeping the compositions as clean and simple as possible, and narrowing the angle of view helps to accomplish that.
Here’s a small portfolio of forest images I made during our recent trip to the redwoods. None of them include fog, so I worked with either soft light or patches of sunlight. I’ve included extended captions to help explain my thought process behind each photo.
— Michael Frye
Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.