Thursday, June 27, 2013
As we crossed the border into California the forecast called for sun and more sun. You might assume that we would be relieved after four days of torrential rain along the southern Oregon coast and, to a certain extent, you would be right. Yet we were headed to Redwood National Park, home of the tallest trees in the world, and there are no worse conditions for shooting in a forest than a bright sunny day. Misty, foggy, cloudy—even rainy—days are all preferable.
Photographing a forest or jungle is the most challenging scenario I ever encounter in the realm of nature photography. To be clear, I’m not talking about photographing wildlife in a forest or jungle—though that has its challenges as well; I’m talking about making the forest or jungle the subject of your photograph. What looks amazing in three dimensions often becomes disorganized chaos when translated into two dimensions. Therein lies the challenge: distilling the chaos down to something with a subject or a recognizable aesthetic to it.
A foggy or misty day is ideal for forest photography. The mist hanging in the trees provides a sense of depth and dimensionality to an image, maintaining separation between the different elements. The first image illustrates this well. Notice how easy it is to distinguish what is near from what is far. Even in the upper left hand quadrant of the image it is easy to separate out the tangle of branches. The second image, taken shortly thereafter, shows the sun shining through the fog to softly illuminate the ferns beneath the giant redwoods. This image still works because of the soft, low contrast light. A minute or two later the fog had completely burned off and the soft light was gone—along with my composition.
As is often the case on a sunny day, shade is your friend. This is never more true that when you are shooting in the forest. The third photograph was taken after the fog had completely burned off but while a part of the forest floor remained in shade. This image is not about tall trees; it was too late for that. This image is about color and texture. By isolating a small section of the forest still in shade I was able to work a little longer and come up with my favorite image of the day.
The final image might seem to contradict everything I’ve written to this point. It was taken in harsh, direct sunlight. In color, it is a chaotic mess. It doesn’t work. But by removing the color, the image is simplified. It becomes easy to separate one tree from another. There is a clear foreground, middle ground, and background. Yes, it remains a complex image but one that the viewer can easily interpret. In monochrome the image works.
There is one scenario where the sun can be a very good friend in the forest. If you are fortunate enough to encounter the sun at low angle coming through the trees while there is some type of particulate matter in the air—mist, fog, dust—the rays of light streaming through the forest can be very dramatic. The light itself becomes the subject. Filmmakers (and some photographers) will bring smoke machines into the forest specifically to create this atmosphere. Unfortunately I forgot my smoke machine at home. (I don’t really have a smoke machine.)
In my next post I will talk about one final strategy for shooting in the forest, one that is a little unconventional yet capable of yielding dramatic results regardless of the conditions.
[Click on a thumbnail to view the entire image.]
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