7 Simple Guidelines to Capture Beautiful Images of Woods and Forests
Woods and forests are challenging scenes to photograph as it’s often hard to spot solid compositions and there’s overwhelmingly much information. Unlike photographing grand landscapes, it’s rare that you find obvious compositions in the forest and you won’t be able to simply set up the camera and shoot something.
This type of photography requires a significantly higher amount of scouting, visualization, and trial and error.
That being said, you should not be demotivated from photographing forests. Just because it’s harder to find good compositions doesn’t mean they don’t exist. In fact, the woods are full of possibilities and once you’re able to navigate yourself through it and understand how to work with the elements – you can create incredible images.
Leave the Ultra Wide-Angle; Zoom In
One of the main differences between photographing grand vistas and forest scenes is that it’s much harder to just place the camera, point it in some direction and get a decent image.
With grand landscapes you can often get away with this as the landscape itself is stunning but in the woods, you need a better composition and more thought-out image in order to convince the viewer.
A good way to practice this is by leaving the ultra wide-angle lens at home and instead choose something with a more narrow focal length, such as 50mm, 85mm or 100mm. By limiting your field of view, you’re forced to spend more time analyzing the scene and adjusting your frame until you’ve removed all distracting elements; if you’re not able to remove all those elements, reconsider if the shot will work or not.
By limiting yourself to a narrow focal length you’re also more likely to notice details which you wouldn’t have seen otherwise. Perhaps one of the trees bend in a certain way, perhaps there’s some moss on one of the trees or perhaps there’s a squirrel eating breakfast.
The second tip blends in with the previous as using a narrow focal length forces you to slow down and spend more time analyzing your frame. You can’t just point the camera in any direction and capture something ok; using a narrow focal length requires a more thought-out composition in order to be convincing.
When finding an interesting subject, use some extra time looking around and searching for a composition.
Look through your viewfinder from different perspectives and then choose the one that works best. First then should you place the camera on the tripod and start fine-tuning the composition.
Are there still distracting elements? Try to get rid of them. (Remember, don’t break living plants etc. to get them out of your frame – reposition yourself or clone them out in Lightroom or Photoshop.)
Slowing down is one of the hardest tasks you’ll have when photographing in the woods, especially if the conditions are good. It’s so easy to run from one place to another and hope that you stumble upon a better composition but you’ll end up regretting this.
Even if you miss a shot (which happens to everyone from time to time), you’ve still worked on your compositions and you’ve committed to making a shot work.
Trial and error is the key to photographing woods and forests.
Look for paths and leading lines
Leading lines are amongst the most powerful compositional techniques in landscape photography. These elements can be found everywhere and your job is to make them cooperate with the subject you’re photographing. Look for the lines who guide the viewer’s eyes from one place to another, from the bottom of the frame to the main subject.
Paths are the most obvious leading lines in the woods. Just because there’s a path doesn’t mean you’ll find a good image but it surely can help you tell a story.
Where is the path leading? Is it leading towards something interesting? Do you want the viewer to focus on the end of the path? Or is the path distracting and leading away from the subject you want to focus on?
These are questions you should ask yourself when not only photographing paths but leading lines in general.
Dag Ole Nordhaug is the photographer behind some of my favorite forest images that incorporate a path. In our article How to Photograph trees and forests, he shares his best advice on how you can find and benefit from leading lines and paths.
Use a shallow depth of field
“Landscape photographers should always use f/11” is something I often hear both novice and experienced photographers say.
While it’s true that an aperture of f/11 will for most lenses result in a sharp image from foreground to background, that’s not always what you want. Adjusting the aperture will also affect the depth of field.
By using an open aperture such as f/4, the depth of fields become more shallow which means that if you focus on something in the foreground, the background becomes blurry.
The larger aperture you choose (lower f/stop number), the more out of focus the objects in front of and behind your focal point become.
Taking advantage of a shallow depth of field is something which often leads to good results when photographing in woods and forests, especially when only photographing the trees.
The shallow depth of field, combined with a narrow focal length, helps separate the trees in focus from the background and make them more obvious subjects in the image.
Try photographing with different apertures the next time you’re out photographing in the woods; set the camera on a tripod and use the same composition as you go from a small aperture (large f/number) to a large aperture (small f/number) and see how the image changes.
Remember that you need to adjust the shutter speed or ISO as well. If you’re not comfortable with using full manual mode yet, I recommend using the camera’s Aperture Priority Mode for this exercise.
Bad Weather is Good!
Are you feeling down because the weather is rainy, foggy and chilly? Don’t! This is the perfect opportunity for you to get into the woods and go photographing. Sunny days are not ideal for photographing woods (nor landscapes in general) so take advantage of the days with moody weather.
Fog is an element that most photographers hope for each time they’re visiting the woods. The Golden Hour combined with fog is a winning combination and the perfect opportunity to capture stunning images. The fog helps diffuse the background and even takes attention away from distracting elements. Remember the second tip when this happens, though: slow down! It’s going to be hard not to run around being excited but try to keep cool.
Be Creative – Be Abstract
The woods are the perfect playground for you to expand your creativity and try something you otherwise wouldn’t. Since it’s a place that requires a lot of trial and error, why not try something completely different? Step out of your comfort zone and just do something.
Playing with the shutter speed is something I’ve found to be rewarding when I’m in the woods and use a narrow focal length. It’s also been a way I’ve been able to help students understand how the shutter speed works and how it impacts the image.
Have a look at our article A Creative Exercise With a Slow Shutter Speed if you want to learn more about how this can help you expand your creativity and help you understand the basic settings of your camera.
Another exercise I recommend you do when photographing woods and forests is to bring only one lens – ideally even a prime lens if you own one (a prime lens is a lens with a fixed focal length – i.e. you can’t zoom in or out).
This forces you to slow down even more and pay attention to details you normally wouldn’t notice. I regularly do this exercise and even though I don’t always return with a good image, I’ve stepped out of the comfort zone and tried coming up with something new.
The biggest mistake we can make as creatives is to become comfortable. Once you become too comfortable, our creativity stagnates and we stop noticing details and images that could have been great images.
Reach New Perspectives by Using a Drone
This last tip might not relate to everyone but using a drone to photograph woods and forests can result in unique and new images that few have seen before. Keep all the other tips in mind as well when you bring out the drone, as they all apply. Just make sure you fly safely.
Personally, I love facing the camera straight down when I’m using a drone to photograph woods and forests. The view from above is completely different than what we see from below and you’ll notice that there are more patterns you can take advantage of.
Spend some time exploring with different altitudes and see what creates the best images. Sometimes you want to be close to the treetops while other times you’ll want to hang high above.
Share Your Best Images
Do you have an image from the forests or woods that you’re particularly proud of? Then I would love to see it in a comment below!