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In The Woods
We are coming up on fall color season here in Minnesota, which is a great time for photographers. In fact, I'm leading a Fall Color Photo Walk through the Minneapolis Photo Center on October 11. If you're interested in signing up head on over to their website and get registered. This blog post could be considered a "backgrounder" for those coming on the walk, but it also applies to anyone who likes traipsing around in the woods and making photographs.
Being In The Woods
When I photograph in the woods, I am in the woods in an intimate and personal way. I am not observing the woods from the outside, I am right in the thick of it. This lends itself to an inside out perspective rather than the more traditional style of landscape where you are looking at a forest from some distance away. In fact, I don't really consider my photographs in the Big Woods to be landscapes at all. To me they are more intimate portraits. When the trees turn golden and orange and red in the fall and you are deep in the forest, you become part of the color, it is everywhere around you, you feel it and it creates a sense of wonder and awe. Take a deep breath, drink it up, this is a gift from God.
Seeing In The Woods
This can be difficult. When you first enter into the woods, it can be overwhelming. All around seems to be nothing but chaos, a jumbled up mess of fallen logs, new growth and established trees. Making sense out of it can be challenging. The first thing I find important is to allow yourself to see the forest as layers, colors, tones, textures and lines, not as individual trees or even as a mass of trees. If you can abstract yourself away from focusing on discrete objects and instead take in the broad sweep of all these elements, you will have found a new canvas for your photography. I often use the anchoring provided by trees to be the visual structure off of which the rest of the image hangs. I can't be concerned about capturing and containing all the elements in an image within the frame. When you are in the woods, the trees are so large and the tops so high above you, there is really little you can do to capture the entire tree, so you just have to give up on that. Once you do you are free to see in the woods in a new way.
Shooting In The Woods
Okay, this is where I get a little technical. When you are shooting in the woods, the dynamic range of the scenes presented to you will overwhelm even the most advanced cameras. I shoot a Nikon D800, which is renowned for having an incredible dynamic range, but the scenes I shoot in the Big Woods are beyond even what it can handle. So what you must do is decide what's most important to you and make sure you get it. When I'm shooting backlit leaves, I want to make sure that the leaves do not get blown out, so I will give up on the tree trunks, letting them go to black. After all, they're really there to provide structure more than anything. But if I lose the amazing colors in the leaf canopy, I've lost the photograph.
Another issue with shooting in the woods is field of view. With a chaotic scene, being able to rein in your field of view is essential in tightening your message. I tend to shoot only with a 28mm f/1.8 prime lens when photographing in the woods. I can then zoom with my feet to get the exact composition I am seeking. Zooms are fine too, but I can't work with the super wide zooms. I had a 14-24mm f/2.8 Nikkor lens and just couldn't make it work for me in the woods, so I sold it. I'm happy to take my 24-70mm f/2.8 Nikkor lens into the woods, but these days I prefer to go lighter with the 28mm f/1.8 prime lens.
It is critically important when photographing in the woods to check every edge of the frame to make sure that what is within the frame should be within the frame, and that what isn't within the frame shouldn't be within the frame. I find it helps to shift the frame ever so slightly left, right, up and down to see if doing so helps or hurts the composition. Also pay attention to the contours of the land, as it can be easy to overlook, but those contours are a critical structural element of the image.
I used to use a fairly wide aperture when photographing in the Big Woods, but eventually I learned that for the structure of an image to hang together, I needed to stop down the lens. The layers in a composition are vitally important to me. If I use a wide aperture I lose those layers and the image falls apart. Through trial and error, I have found f/8 to be the sweet spot for my compositions in the Big Woods.
The Big Woods are not a tree farm, so with trees scattered all over the place, collisions are a real challenge. As I am framing up an image, I look deep into the image to see if I am minimizing collisions of trees. Sometimes a slight shift in perspective can make all the difference. I can't completely eliminate collisions, but I've found that through paying careful attention I can minimize them. Certainly I seek to avoid collisions with the most prominent trees in my structure.
Finally there is the issue of white balance. When you are shooting in the woods, the light is colored by the forest canopy. In the fall, the light is an amazing golden hue. All around you, everything you look at is colored golden. If you let your camera try to figure this out by using auto white balance it will likely make a hash of it. I have found that setting my white balance to cloudy or shadows is the best approach. I prefer to get the white balance right in camera rather than relying on post processing to fix it. Besides, having the right color balance set in camera can have a significant impact on your ability to avoid blown highlights on each channel of the RGB histogram. The red channel is particularly an issue when photographing fall color.
Very interesting and I can understand almost everything. You're a good teacher, Tom. The pictures are stunning!
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