Trees are incredible subjects for beginning photographers and experienced ones alike. To begin with, trees are always willing subjects, impervious to hours of sitting still. They also come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors, and are always in the perfect mood to be in front of the camera.
In spite of all these benefits, trees can be quite challenging to photograph in a way that captures your vision. This guide provides 21 tips to help you get the best results out of your time photographing trees.
1. Find An Ideal Location
Every tree, whether standing alone in a city park or one among millions in a dense old-growth forest, has its own beauty and allure. But, in my experience, the best hunting grounds for epic trees are in the old woods.
I also prefer broadleaf forests to coniferous ones. That isn’t to say that coniferous forests and trees don’t have their allure! The bristlecone pine of the Southwest US is a genuinely stunning subject, as are the mist-shrouded laurel trees of Madeira Island.
If you need aid in finding the ideal location for tree photography, the internet is a wealth of information. Monumentaltrees.com includes an extensive list of over 34,000 trees of every kind that have captured the imagination of photographers. Some of these trees are only a few meters around, while others are a staggering 30 meters or more in circumference. The helpful map they provide is interactive and aids you in exploring the forests where these trees are found.
2. Bring A Tripod
The right gear can help you capture the best images of the trees you choose, with a tripod being among the most essential. The deeper the woods, the more varied the lighting you can expect, and being able to keep your camera still by mounting it on a tripod will prove to be essential.
In addition to this consideration, the slightest breeze can set tree leaves in motion. Once you’ve settled on a composition, a tripod will ensure that you are able to keep it for as long as you need to take the perfect shot.
If you are looking for a quality tripod that doesn’t break the bank, I recommend the Manfrotto Befree Tripod. This is a great quality and lightweight tripod that will provide exactly what you need when shooting trees.
If you’re looking for a cheaper simple alternative then the Benro SLIM is a great option. It is extremely lightweight and taller than most other tripods making it great for getting different perspectives.
3. Start Early
When you work with trees, you’re inevitably working with natural light, and the most ethereal lighting typically happens in the early mornings.
Godrays, also known as crepuscular rays, can often be seen emanating from the branches of trees in the early mornings.
With the first beams of the sun striking the dew on the forest floor in the morning, evaporation will begin. The air will become foggy, making it easier for rays of light to be captured as they shine through the canopy.
4. Find A Tree That Speaks To You
Clearly, I don’t mean this literally. Some trees are more photogenic than others, and it may take some time to find a tree that inspires you creatively. Gnarled branches, knots in the wood, old wounds, or unusual growth patterns can all serve to make trees more photogenic. The older the tree, the more likely its branches will have stories for you to capture.
Even without finding the “perfect” tree, it’s good to spend some time experimenting with composition, angle, and the various elements of different trees. Not only will it prepare you to capture that powerful image of the perfect tree, but you may also find surprises hiding in the ever-shifting nature of the tree you’re using for practice.
Remember to focus on individual parts of the tree, from the veins of the leaves to the entire tree itself. Every tree has strong points, and just like with a portrait, it pays to focus on your subject’s most captivating features.
5. Take Photos at Different Times of the Day
Getting the most out of any photography experience means experimenting with perspective, and working with trees is no different.
As the sun crosses the sky, the color palette of the surroundings will vary and provide you with different perspectives of the same scene.
A tree may have a calm and comforting shade at one part of the day or stand as a looming sentinel at another. It may be the very image of stolid reality at noon, and an ephemeral guardian of hidden secrets as the sunsets.
To discover new perspectives of the same tree, photograph it at different times of the day.
When taking pictures, remember to change angles and views. Spend time with the stems, flowers, and leaves. Explore the textures of the bark on the slender limbs, and the cavernous shadows you find on the trunk.
Keep exploring the tree until you find a way to bring its hidden secrets to light in your images.
6. Use The Right Settings
In aperture priority mode you can explore different aperture and ISO settings while your camera takes care of your shutter speed.
This is a great setting for working with still subjects like trees. The lack of motion means you won’t have to worry about motion blur when using slow shutter speeds, provided you have the camera mounted on a tripod.
Instead, you get to focus on playing with depth-of-field while taking your photos. There’s nothing like letting your camera handle one aspect of your images to let you truly explore the possibilities present in another.r
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Setting the ISO as low as possible will produce images with minimal amounts of noise. Increasing the ISO can help produce brighter images but at the cost of greater noise in your photos.
Only raise your ISO when you’re not able to boost your exposure by adjusting aperture and shutter speed without compromising your image.
Using high f-stops keeps most of your image in sharp focus, which is usually advantageous when you’re photographing trees.
This is especially true when photographing distant trees, or when you want to juxtapose an intriguing background with a closer tree. For these types of compositions use f-stops ranging from f/11 to f/16.
In some cases, small f-stops may produce more desirable results. When you’re trying to keep the viewer’s attention on a small area of the image, an f/4 or f/5.6 can keep your subject in sharp focus while leaving the rest of the image blurry or out of focus.
Slower shutter speeds are perfect for still subjects like trees. Just make sure to mount your camera on a tripod.
If you must shoot handheld, aim not to use shutter speeds slower than 1 divided by your focal length. As an example, avoid setting your shutter speed below 1/50 if you’re using a 50mm lens.
Resource: Camera Basics: Shutter Speed Explained (With Video)
7. Shoot Isolated Subjects
There is a quiet serenity to a tree standing alone in a field or other empty landscape. This effect is often best achieved with short telephoto lenses with a range of 70-200mm. For a zen-appeal try capturing the lone tree with an empty sky.
8. Shoot Close Up
Trees are defined as much by their bark, leaves, branches, and flowers as they are by their overall shape. Take advantage of this by photographing them up close.
The texture of tree bark varies widely depending on the species of tree. Some trees, like birch, have relatively smooth bark with contrasting black stripes on a white surface.
Some trees have bark with deep valleys where insects can hide. Still, others have bark that peels away like paper. All of these can be intriguing subjects for the intrepid photographer.
How you capture the interesting elements of bark will depend on these characteristics, as well as the overall width of the tree. Small apertures will help you keep curved bark in perspective throughout the image, for instance.
As you get closer to your subject tree, your depth of field will continue to become shallower even when using smaller apertures. If you find yourself unhappy with your depth of field, find a different angle that provides a flatter surface for you to use for your focus.
The next time you’re out among the trees, whether on a hike or at the city park, take some time to explore the tree bark. The beauty and variety of bark can surprise you when you take the time to look closely at it.
Leaves require taking advantage of lighting to get the best results.
Sidelight can produce the best results when you’re trying to bring out fine detail. Backlighting is also possible with leaves, something that you can’t accomplish with other features like bark. Do take care of front lighting as it can result in an image that appears two-dimensional since the shadows will only fall behind your subject.
When you’re in a densely wooded area, canopy shots are particularly enticing. Playing with the denseness of the foliage, the brightness of the sky, and your camera settings, you can create images that are ominous to inspiring in their feel. It’s all about playing with light.
9. Shoot Vertical
One technique that works particularly well with trees is a vertical, wide-angle shot.
Your first step is to find an interesting foreground, highlighting the tree with a bright background to make it pop. This may require walking around the tree a few times and firing off some test shots before you settle into trying something more advanced.
Once you’ve found an ideal composition, mount your camera on a tripod. Then adjust your tripod until it’s very low and aim your camera upwards.
Pulling off this perspective is difficult as we’re close to our foreground, and focusing on both it and the tree isn’t possible in a single shot.
To get around this, consider focus stacking. Focus stacking is an editing technique combines two images with different focal points-one for the foreground and another for the background.
A tripod plays a vital role in this technique, as it will allow you to blend these images together in photoshop seamlessly.
10. Find Repetition
From a distance, one tree looks very much like another, especially in a forest made of the same species.
Utilize repetition to guide the viewer to your focal point. Alternatively, you can use repetition to create interesting compositions by disrupting its continuity with an object.
By playing with contrast, texture, and perspective, you can produce a remarkable pattern in your images. Identify patterns in your scene and utilize them to achieve unity and rhythm in your images.
11. Photograph Silhouettes
Photographing silhouettes is a great way to convey emotion and infuse drama in your images.
Every tree is unique in its shape and design making them perfect for creating beautiful silhouettes.
To do this, position the tree in between your camera and your light source. This will transform it into a dark object with a subtle glow outlining it.
When creating silhouettes, pay attention to the shape of the tree. Aim to choose a tree with a recognizable shape.
Since you can’t rely on color, contrast, or texture, to hold your viewer’s attention, you’ll have to choose something that has a distinct shape.
If you are photographing multiple trees, make sure they don’t overlap. Otherwise, they will combine into one shape, and the outline may be unrecognizable to your viewers.
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12. Take Pictures of Dead Trees
Some trees have only greater and very characteristic features emphasized once the tree is dead. The Live Oak that grows in places like Louisiana is one such example with its twisting branches and iconic shape.
When you’re taking your image, make sure that only the dead branches you want to capture are in the photo, and do your best to eliminate unwanted stragglers from your photo. The ones you can’t eliminate from your image can be removed using the Cloning Tool in post-processing.
13. Experiment with Reflections
Trees near the waterside can produce striking reflections, especially in the early morning. During this time, the water tends to be calm as the heat of the sun has yet to stir the wind.
As the day goes by, wind blurs the water’s surface and causes ripples that can ruin an otherwise perfect mirror image.
Early mornings also provide ideal lighting for reflections. During mid-day, the bright sunlight produces glares and shadows that are often unattractive in pictures.
If you happen to go on a windy day, bring an ND filter with you. Although it won’t help you create a perfect reflection, these filters smoothen the water, making it possible to capture textured and colorful reflections.
Also, remember to carry a polarizing filter with you. A polarizing filter helps eliminate glare on water and can be a handy tool when photographing reflections.
Pay attention to the angle from which you are shooting. How you position your camera can have an enormous impact on the reflection of the tree.
For instance, an image from a camera positioned above a reflection will be entirely different from that of one positioned to the side of it. Before pressing your shutter, make sure to play with a variety of angles.
Finally, remember to use a tripod. This will enable you to easily angle your camera and keep it in place once you’ve found an ideal composition.
14. Shoot in Black & White
Shooting trees in monochrome can produce striking results, though it comes with its own set of challenges. Contrast, texture, and shape are essential elements of these compositions.
Without the benefit of color to draw your eye and differentiate between different areas, you’re going to have to emphasize contrast in tones to avoid making your images flat and dull.
Identify potential compositions by examining the differences between the darkest and brightest areas in your scene. The degree of difference between the brightness of silver birch bark can serve as a powerful contrast against a darker woodland scene, for instance.
Besides shapes and contrasts, remember to pay attention to the different textures and patterns present in your scene. All of these visual elements, when combined, can help you to produce great results in black and white photography.
Dodge and Burn
Dodge and Burn is another tool that finds its roots in traditional darkrooms and is still used in digital post-production to brighten shadows or darken highlights.
The Dodge and Burn tool found in Photoshop gives you control over your mid-tones, shadows, and highlights. This allows you to darken bright elements in your image (burning), or brighten dark areas (dodging).
You can use the dodge and burn to produce greater texture and sharpness in your images. The tool also provides you with the ability to alter the opacity for greater control over hard edges.
15. Shoot in Different Seasons
The changing seasons will result in striking differences in the appearance of your tree. During the winter, you’ll be able to contrast the grey sky with the stark bare branches of the trees. During the spring, you’ll be able to capture the rebirth of life from dormancy in the dawning light.
Throughout Summer, you’ll be able to explore trees in their full glory as they’re heavy with leaves, fruits, and flowers. As autumn arrives, you’ll be gifted with a display of colors and fallen leaves that can produce deeply emotional imagery.
The lighting of the seasons also has dramatic effects on the appearance of the tree. Whether you’re capturing shadows cast by the tree or focusing on the sunlight as it filters through the leaves, you’ll discover that every season brings its own character. Snows, floods, droughts, even ice storms can turn trees into magical features of the landscape that can be the subject of breathtaking photos.
Tree Photography during Autumn
During the autumn months, green leaves transform into the striking reds, oranges, and yellows commonly associated with autumn. New England draws photographers from all over seeking to capture this change, as does New Zealand.
It’s important to know that the colors won’t be there for the whole season, however. In some cases, the shift from bright green to brittle brown can happen in just a week. Be sure to research the area you want to shoot so you can determine how long it takes for the color to change, and where you can best capture them.
Resource: 20 Tips For Amazing Fall Photography
Tree Photography During Winter
Winter brings many unique elements for photography, and frost is considered by some to be chief among them. The exquisite, ephemeral patterns traced on surfaces by frost can utterly transform their character.
This time of year brings wonderful opportunities to focus on black and white photography. The lack of leaves highlights the intricate twisting shapes of bare branches. By eliminating color from your images, you can emphasize the unique shapes and textures of bare trees.
Resource: Landscape Photography Tips For The Winter Season
Tree Photography During Spring
During spring, the world is bursting forth with growth and life. The trees will be producing dazzling flowers and leave you can use as the focus of your images.
Unlike other seasons you’ll discover that the colors you’ll find in spring are soft, with a predominantly pastel palette. This can be a great opportunity to create a gentle atmosphere in your images.
To create a gentle atmosphere consider focusing on the flowers using a shallow depth of field. A macro lens can also be a great tool to create this effect. Using a macro lens will enable you to capture leaves and budding flowers in great detail.
If you’re looking for something more vibrant, consider enhancing the colors in post-production. You can use sliders such as vibrancy and saturation to accomplish this.
Producing great photos requires three essential things: a subject, attention to detail, and experimenting with numerous compositions. Don’t be averse to spending an entire day focusing on photographing a single tree or even just a single element of a tree. The time you spend will pay out ample rewards in terms of stunning compositions.