7 Critical tips to master forest photography

Oct 27, 2020

Ole Henrik Skjelstad

Ole Henrik Skjelstad is a Norwegian math teacher and landscape photographer. He fell in love with photography in 2013 when he got a camera as a birthday present.

7 Critical tips to master forest photography

Oct 27, 2020

Ole Henrik Skjelstad

Ole Henrik Skjelstad is a Norwegian math teacher and landscape photographer. He fell in love with photography in 2013 when he got a camera as a birthday present.

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Dag Ole Nordhaug is a Norwegian landscape photographer who shoots outstanding grand landscape images. He is also considered a very talented forest photographer. Dag Ole skillfully combines mood, visual interest, and life to forest scenes. Many years of exploring the woodlands around his hometown of Trondheim, Norway, has honed his skills and provided him with plenty of experience.

Shooting intimate landscapes, forests included calls for thinking outside the box. Though the resulting images are well worth the effort, and you may learn a thing or two about composition. You will also probably improve your technical camera know-how. Forests offer a multitude of compositions that are new and fresh. While it’s hard to innovate with the grand landscapes’ classics, you can still create unique and personal images.

Social media can be lukewarm in its response to intimate landscapes, but they are well suited for printing and can yield stunning and calming prints.

Finding order in a chaotic forest can be very challenging. What should you look for that offers some rest for the eye? How important is light when attempting to photograph trees? Dag Ole will share some of his insights and images with DIYP.

Fallen grace. Søderåsen National Park, Sweden. The combination of fog and backlight made this scene, giving both nice beams and a wonderful glow to the autumn foliage.

1. Light is everything

As with a grand landscape, the light may make or break the scene. I believe that it is important to evaluate the intensity, color, quality and direction of light properly when you are out in the forest, and to some degree let that dictate what and how you are photographing. That being said, the forests can be somewhat forgiving when it comes to light.

While the grand landscapes often benefit from photographing during the golden hour and with a spectacular sky, you may find that the forests sometimes look best in flatter light and when you totally exclude the sky from the composition. Grey overcast skies, or even a rain shower, softens the light and simplifies an often chaotic scene. Back light illuminates the foliage beautifully and can yield extremely vibrant scenes, especially during spring and autumn. A visible sunstar may give a nice focal point and add depth to the composition. Soft side-light that makes the tree-trunks look more three-dimensional often adds a nice element. The most important point is that you are aware of the light and use it to your advantage.

Forest rain. Speulderbos, Netherlands. Photographing during a rain shower may give a soft, ethereal feeling to the scene. Just remember to protect your gear.

2. Timing

Direct sunlight or hard midday light may create too much chaos with burnt-out reflexes in foliage and a cluster of black shadows. An overcast day may be ideal for venturing into the woods, but I’m not saying that a clear day is totally unsuited. Just be sure to visit very early or very late, in the hours where the sun is low in the sky and the light not too hard. Few things are more beautiful than trees in the soft, warm light of the morning sun.

If you are lucky enough to find yourself in fog, this adds an ethereal atmosphere, simplifies an otherwise chaotic scene, and enhances the depth in the composition, an element I find very important in forest-photography.

Ideally, ideal conditions for capturing forest scenes are early morning fog that slowly clears out as the sun appears. Such conditions may result in spectacular light, including light beams, and may lift an otherwise average location to divine levels.

3. Composition guidelines

Whole books could be written about composing forest images! As with other landscapes, a focal point or special point of interest may benefit. That can be anything from a small pond or stream, a tree that stands out from the rest, or some vibrant foreground ferns. The composition should try to underline that main element if there is one. I always ask myself, “what are you photographing now?” and the answer should be something more specific than “the forest”!

When composing forest scenes, I believe that taking care of the edges of the frame is important. Always take an extra look through your viewfinder towards these areas to make sure that they contribute to the composition and don’t work against it. Beware of highlights that draw attention from the main subject and what you want to convey. Unless there is a specific point to it, I try to avoid including anything of the sky in the forest scenes. Finally, I often try to emphasize the three-dimensionality of a woodland and create as much depth as possible.

Emerald calm. Trondheim, Norway. Elements that serve as focal points may make the composition easier. That could be everything from a fern to a small stream. Or both!

4. Creating Depth

I find Depth to be an essential element in the forest images that I like. Finding a composition where you somehow see further into the forest creates the impression that the forest goes on and on and what you are photographing is just a tiny element in a bigger whole.

Factors that may help you increase the sense of depth may be placing the “it”-element in the foreground or using leading lines created by branches or fallen trees towards a backdrop. Light and atmosphere is also a major contributor to the sense of depth. I have already mentioned how fog gives a wonderful blurring of more distant subjects, but even if you don’t have fog, light can be used.

Small clearings in dense forests are always brighter, and when I have found an area I like to capture, I try to compose towards a lighter area. So, shooting towards a lighter backdrop to create depth is a technique I often use. I have rarely found the opposite to work out well, shooting from a bright foreground towards a darker backdrop. But I’m sure some scenes may benefit from it, so there’s no wrong in trying. In my opinion, there are no rules in photography, just different compositional techniques that sometimes may help a scene stand out.

Total silence. Trondheim, Norway. Photographing towards a brighter area of the scene may contribute to the depth of the composition. Here, nice sidelight also brought out the three-dimensionality of the trunks.

5. Focus stacking

I sometimes use focus stacking, at least for compositions, with extreme depth where the foreground is just a few centimeters from my lens. However, in my experience, it must be used with caution in the forest. First of all, the blending process is not always perfect and may render branches and foliage weird. There are, of course, workarounds for that, but my second point is that uniform, tack sharpness all the way through the scene may steal some of the composition’s depth. I find that a sharp foreground and main elements suffice and that the compositions actually may benefit from a very slight blurring of the distant elements.

6. talking gear

As with most photography types, gear is not the most important factor in making a successful image. Any modern digital camera with a range of lenses from moderately wide to moderately long should do the job. Good weather sealing or a rain cover could be a point if you want to take advantage of the ethereal feeling a rain shower may add. I always use a tripod. Forests are often dim places, and exposures could be into the minutes. No in-lens or in-camera stabilization can handle that.

I often use a polarizer when photographing in the woods. This removes unwanted reflections and desaturation of foliage and makes the colors stand out better. If there is a river or stream in the scene, a polarizer may also help it look better by removing distracting reflections. However, as with all techniques, a polarizer must be used with caution. Sometimes it may be, e.g., the spectacular highlights of reflecting water-droplets on the leaves that make the scene! So I often make exposures with different degrees of polarization, thus having the possibility to choose the best later on. Also, the polarizer steals some light, and you need to be aware of that if you want shorter shutter speeds, e.g., freeze the foliage in the wind.

Never forget to have an open eye for the smaller details. Sometimes, the best composition could be under your feet. Literally!

7. Camera settings

Ideally, you would want a very low iso to avoid noise, a small aperture to have large depth-of-field, and a fast shutter speed to freeze the movement of branches, ferns, and foliage. That can be a challenging combination! As mentioned, light is often dim in the woods, and you may end up with a very high iso and very long exposures or an aperture that would give you too shallow depth-of-field. There are, however, workarounds for most of this.

My go-to aperture is often in the f11-f18 range to have a decent sharpness throughout. The ISO then needs to be high enough to give an adequate shutter speed to freeze those details. With modern sensors, I have no problem using an iso up to around 800 or even 1600. I have found that the chaotic and heterogeneous forest scenes are rather forgiving to noise.

I often take one exposure on very low iso to use for most of the scene and then a second exposure at a much higher iso to get a shutter speed fast enough to freeze mobile elements’ movement. I then blend those two exposures manually afterward. Of course, you could also photograph with a larger aperture and avoid the shallow depth of field by focus-stacking afterward. Although I put much work into metering the scene, I often end up bracketing up to +/- 2 steps. The light is difficult in the forest with bright highlights and dark shadows, and although the histogram is of much help, you will not really know how you want your exposure before you look at it on a larger, calibrated screen.

Søderåsen fall. Søderåsen National Park, Sweden. Sometimes you are lucky enough to find yourself in a beautiful forest with fog. That contributes substantially to the depth of the scene.

You can find more of Dag Ole Nordhaug’s images on his website, and follow him on 500px and Instagram. All images are shared with permission.

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Ole Henrik Skjelstad

Ole Henrik Skjelstad

Ole Henrik Skjelstad is a Norwegian math teacher and landscape photographer. He fell in love with photography in 2013 when he got a camera as a birthday present.

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2 responses to “7 Critical tips to master forest photography”

  1. Mike Downey Avatar
    Mike Downey

    Please proofread before posting.

  2. John Beatty Avatar
    John Beatty

    Absolutely stunning work and very inspiring article.