Welcome to my first tips and tricks blog! This is something I've been meaning to do for quite some time now and it feels good to finally get the ball rolling. Today's focus is going to be five shooting and composition tips for the forest, but future blogs will follow different formats. For example, a future blog might cover one post-processing technique that I'm a big fan of or something like that.
Please keep in mind that these are not intended to be rules, rather they are simply suggestions that could help you look at things in a different or more efficient way. The only rule of art is that there are no rules. My guidelines are meant to assist with my personal approach to forest photography: making things as simple as possible.
Let's get started!
Tip 1: Don't be a pixel peeper -- use a versatile zoom lens
I'll be the first to admit that this first piece of advice is rather boring, however my gear selection is an extremely important part of my approach in the field. Many people obsess over image quality but in my opinion the most important part of gear is how it can complement your creative approach. The last thing you want is your gear becoming a hindrance or causing you to miss out on potential photographs.
When I head into a location I try to limit my expectations. I'm not a photo planner, rather I keep my mind open to possibilities and try my best to work with the light at hand. Zoom lenses complement this approach because they are incredibly flexible, which is why Nikon's 24-200 is one of my favorite lenses I've ever used, both on F-mount and Z-mount! One moment you can be shooting a wide angle landscape, the next moment something more intimate. The forest is a messy place and having instant access to that extra reach can be very useful for wrangling the chaos and simplifying the scene. The decision to change a lens can be paralyzing and if conditions are evolving quickly you might miss a photo, or worse, interrupt a rare flow state. Plus there are practical reasons - I regularly shoot in conditions that aren't exactly ideal for lens changes, such as the pouring rain. The rainforest is a rainy place, after all. A very large portion of my portfolio would not exist without the sheer versatility of this lens.
An alternative to this approach is to shoot with two bodies simultaneously, which is what I used to do until I accidentally killed the second body! When budget permits I will likely return to this approach while also using the 24-200 for maximum flexibility.
The following are a few additional example photos that I've taken with my 24-200:
Something I'd also like to note is that I basically always prefer the 24-200 when shooting forests that aren't your typical lush, green rainforest. Longer focal lengths are perfect for removing ugly ground from a scene, isolating an interesting tree or grouping of trees. So don't fret if you don't live near a rainforest! Put on the longer lens and experiment.
Tip 2: Shoot towards the sun
Shooting into the sun or towards the sun is something I enjoy in every landscape, but in forests I find it's much more important, regardless of what the weather conditions are like. The problem with shooting away from the sun in the forest is that it removes a lot of contrast, which can make it more difficult to find order in the chaos. Shooting into the sun makes it much easier to find depth in pretty much any scene.
There are many ways you can approach this, because it doesn't always mean you need to shoot directly into the sun! Simply shooting in its general direction for a backlit scene is enough to create that extra depth and contrast. Even when it's foggy it can be good to do this, otherwise you may find the light feeling too flat.
On a sunny day you can take it even farther and use a sunstar to help anchor your composition and create a destination for the viewer's eye in a place where it might otherwise become lost, such as in the first photograph above.
Tip 3: Horizontal tends to work better than vertical
With the sheer popularity of social media and how often we consume media on our phones, many people default to searching for vertical compositions without even realizing it. In fact, some people only shoot vertical compositions these days. However, the portrait orientation often don't work very well in the forest, particularly with wide angle lenses.
But why is this?
Well to start, you could also call this piece of advice the following: remove the sky. Vertical compositions tend to bring in sky (through canopy gaps) more often and this can decrease the feeling of immersion. Those bright canopy gaps are often quite distracting, pulling the eye to unwanted areas and ruining the flow of the composition.
When shooting horizontally it's easier to remove all or most of the sky. Not only does this help build compositional depth, but it also helps replicate the literal feeling of immersion one experiences while walking through a forest.
Distracting canopy gaps aren't the only reason though! The way forests are structured and organized also lends them very well to horizontal compositions -- in any given forest, chances are there's a lot more interesting things going on from side to side rather than in a narrow slice from down to up. Crafting a compelling and well balanced vertical photograph in this sort of environment can be extremely difficult!
Below is a comparison of horizontal and vertical compositions taken in the same spot that helps demonstrate my points above. Neither of these are portfolio photographs and neither have any editing applied, other than the default Adobe landscape profile, a temperature of 4576 and tint of +6.
The vertical photo feels cramped and claustrophobic, plus my eye continually gets stuck in the canopy gaps. I find the horizontal photo much more interesting, allowing my eye to naturally flow through the composition from front to back while appreciating all the small details.
Stop allowing social media to influence your creative decisions and give the horizontal orientation a try!
Tip 4: Background first, then foreground
Nobody ever taught me this when I was learning how to make photographs in the forest, but I sure wish someone had! It would have saved me many headaches. When using a wide angle lens in the forest it can be easy to default to searching for foregrounds first. This can become problematic in a complex forest environment because there is endless foreground potential. All you need to do is shift the position of your lens by a few inches and it completely changes! To greatly simplify the process, try looking for interesting backgrounds first. For me a good background sets the mood and creates a sense of depth. It also tends to contain the subject of the photograph, although I also enjoy creating photographs that don't have a distinct subject. Rules are just guidelines, after all. Once you've found a background you like, look for a foreground that balances it in some way. If the background is bright, look for something shaded. Is the background smooth and foggy? Find a foreground that has lots of nice texture. Take the elements of your background and find their opposite in the foreground, then link them together with compositional elements like leading lines, layers, et cetera.
Tip 5: Ditch the polarizer
Seriously, try it!
In my opinion, polarizers are best used sparingly rather than all the time. They are not required for nice greens, and in fact a lot of the nice greens simply come from your camera being able to determine a more accurate auto white balance + tint with a polarizer on. Things like moss, lichen and ferns have tons of micro glare, which results in the auto WB picking temperatures that are too warm and tints that are too magenta. Many cameras also default to a flat color profile, which leaves everything looking unsaturated, especially when unpolarized. I highly recommend setting your camera's color profile to landscape, and you may even want to change your white balance to something that looks more green!
The aforementioned glare is also the very reason I prefer not to use polarizers, as its presence helps create more depth. When you use a polarizer, especially at maximum polarization, it can result in a scene that feels too flat (and too saturated). Sure it looks nice on the back of the camera, but I prefer to save polarizers for situations with extreme glare. Direct sun in a forest that just had a ton of rain, for example.
I unfortunately do not have any comparison photos with a polarizer on and off. Every single photograph in this blog was created without one, with the exception of the photo in Tip 4 where I used it to bring out the nice colors in the rocks, which were frustratingly hidden by the heavy glare. For good measure, here are two more examples of photographs with nice greens made without polarizers:
Look mom, no polarizer!
Hopefully you found this blog helpful, even if you're among the hundreds of people who have purchased my tutorials and ebook. If you liked what you read and want to learn even more you may want to check out my 60 page ebook on forest photography. But if not that's totally okay and I will be doing more blogs like this in the future! Thanks for reading and have a great week!