Forests are an endless inspiration for photographers. They give us peace of mind, they can make us fearful and sometimes they leave us in awe. There is something magical about them: they make you feel small and insignificant, but they can also help you reconnect to nature. Maybe that’s why I never get tired of a walk in the woods; just think of an endless sea of trees and misty clouds creeping on the forest floor. But it can also be challenging to translate the beauty of forests into a single photo. Sometimes you can’t see the wood for the trees. But don’t let that stop you and leave your camera behind! These 10 forest photography tips will help you gain focus and quickly improve your vision and technique.
1. It’s all about the right timing
With forest photography, the timing can completely make or break your envisaged image. Sure, any time is a good time to go outdoors and relax, but don’t expect to get a phenomenal shot on an grey and dreary day. Well, it’s never impossible, but there are definitely certain times when it’s easier to hit the jackpot. Great moments to take advantage of the light and weather are just after sunrise (think about morning dew or frost), when it’s misty and the forest looks extra mysterious, or during golden hour when you can see the rays between the rows of trees.
2. Switching scales and zooming in
Drone shots have become extremely popular in recent years, and for good reason. But don’t forget the power of being right in the middle of the forest, experiencing everything first-hand. Take advantage of your eye-level position as a human and make sure to occasionally ‘zoom in’ as well. The views of endless paths and hundreds of trees are mesmerizing, but forest life can be even more interesting up close. Don’t miss out on all the weird mushrooms and fascinating insects!
3. Choose a focal point to guide the eye
Taking photos of a forest can feel a bit chaotic. There is so much to take in that it can be difficult to decide what to focus on at all. A foolproof way to ensure an interesting shot is to choose a focal point that will guide the viewer’s eye. This can be in the form of a line or vanishing point, like a path, bridge or a little stream that adds a sense of direction. Another option is to center an eye-catching ‘object’ that stands out, like a dramatic-looking tree that’s split down the middle. It’s one of the most important forest photography tips to remember: create a tiny bit of order in the chaos.
4. Play with shadows and silhouettes
The shade is an inherent factor in forest photography. Just think of the trees that cast countless shadows during the day, as well as the light that filters through the leaves in the late afternoon. These constant shifts in brightness and ever-moving shadows can be a bit frustrating in technical terms, but that’s the wonderful thing about forests: they’re always changing, never the same. Unleash your inner creativity and turn that into an advantage. Play with the shadows and silhouettes to create a more interesting visual.
5. Take advantage of the season
If there’s one thing you can’t control, it’s the weather. So before you head into the forest, don’t decide what kind of photos you want to capture way ahead of time. You can’t force a good shot. Instead, embrace the season and work with the conditions. Let the forest tell you where the magic happens. Is it a cold and rainy day in the autumn season? Then get into the spooky mood and pay attention to the creepy spiderwebs and decaying fungi. Is it a overcast day in the spring? Use the little flowers popping up from the ground as a colourful, foreground layer in your shot.
6. Embrace the lens flares
If you’re lucky enough to be in the forest while the sun is shining, try to avoid the time of day when the sun is right overhead. Instead, aim for the morning and late afternoon, when it’s easiest to ‘bend’ the light into colourful flares and prismatic rainbows. Some photographers despise them, but I personally like to incorporate them once in a while to add an extra touch. It’s possible to create really cool flares by using backlight, but sidelight usually works a little better for me.
7. Look for interesting patterns and reflections
Forests can be chaotic landscapes where nature roams free, but sometimes the right kind of chaos can create a captivating composition. Liquid or frozen water can especially create interesting patterns and reflections in every single season. Even on a rainy day, an ordinary puddle can show you a parallel, visual world that makes a photo ten times more interesting.
8. Realize the importance of patience and silence
If you’re heading to the forest to take a few shots of the animal life, there are two crucial words to remember: patience and silence. You can’t just go on a 30 minute walk and expect to see foxes, owls and deer everywhere you look. You’ll have to take the time, be very observant, choose a few spots to stay put and try to make no noise at all. Often, this means you’ll have to return several times before you achieve the perfect shot. A great way to maximize your chances is to do some research first. Don’t just focus on the technical forest photography tips, but also connect to other wildlife photographers on social media who often visit the forests you plan to explore.
9. Don’t get stuck on the beaten path
Another thing you shouldn’t be afraid of is wandering around the forest without a map. Don’t take the usual route, but take a different path or don’t follow a path at all. As long as you’re not entering protected reserves and stay safe (don’t go alone if you don’t know the area), it’s never a bad idea to just roam freely for a while. Who knows what you’ll run into! It’s also a clever strategy if you’re looking for wildlife, since animals tend to stay away from areas that are frequented by humans.
10. Don’t be afraid to bring in a human factor
If you’re trying to depict a pristine natural landscape, away from human activity, then this last tip might not work for you. But if you’re open to create any type of image, it can be fun to include a ‘human’ element. Whether it’s a figure walking between the trees in the distance, a pile of chopped wood or a pitched tent; it can instantly liven up your shot. One time, I went on a guided walk with a forest ranger and we collected all kinds of seeds and nuts from the forest floor (photo below). Forest photography doesn’t have to be all about the landscapes. It can take all kinds of forms.
Technical forest photography tips:
Besides the artistic aspects that are important to keep in mind, here are a few technical forest photography tips that will help you develop your skills:
Depth and aperture
Before you take your shot, think about depth and aperture. Are you shooting a full landscape, or are you trying to highlight on a detail? If you want to create more depth and focus on one element, use a larger aperature (so a lower f/stop number like f/2.8) to make your photo more interesting and create bokeh backgrounds, for example. Likewise, use a higher number (narrow aperature) to focus on the entire landcape.
When you’re in the forest during low-light conditions, you might have problems with getting a sharp shot while also maintaining some brightness. You could bump the ISO up to 800 or higher to make your shot less dark, but this usually causes excessive noise. Instead, try to bring a tripod and, if needed, increase the f/stop number in aperture mode. This will slow down your shutter speed, but the tripod will stop your camera from moving and ensure a focused image. If you’re still dissatisfied about the light, use the manual mode to adjust the shutter speed as well.
If you’re not just interested in landscape shots, but also want to take a few impressive photos of the local wildlife, bring a telephoto zoom lens (if you have one). It will be difficult to get close to animals without scaring them away. Bringing a tripod is again a good idea. The more you zoom in, the harder it gets to keep your camera stable and score a razor-sharp shot.