Photographing Trees and Forests: Finding Order Among One of Nature’s Most Chaotic Subjects

In winter and without leaves, the moss growing on these trees becomes more visible. Near the Oregon coast.
Seeing Beyond the Trees: Forests Are Full of Subjects Large and Small

The ability to slow down, deeply observe, engage with, and distill your surroundings is one of the most important skills you can bring to photographing forests and trees. With grand landscapes and iconic nature scenes, the subject is often obvious. You arrive at a viewpoint and some composition options immediately spring to mind. With forest photography, and other kinds of intimate landscapes, potential subjects surround us but figuring out how to arrange them into a composition can often take time. I start with the idea of “observations create opportunities” because with forest photography, observations are the key to finding order among chaos, recognizing elements of visual design, and then using those ideas to arrange subjects into a cohesive composition.

Here are some things I look for when exploring a forest for photography:

  • Elements of visual design like lines, shapes, repetition, patterns, texture, and light. Looking for these qualities can spark an idea for a photo and offer the building blocks for a composition.
  • How different perspectives might change my photographic opportunities. Forests are most chaotic when you are inside them. Some of the chaos can be tamed by retreating to the edge of a forest, like along a roadside, trail, or geographic feature like a lake or river. Likewise, being above or fully outside a forest can present trees on a landscape scale, with individual specimens fading together and the mass of a forest becoming the dominant visual element, like repeating layers of forested hillsides.
  • Individual trees or groupings with an interesting character or distinctive shape. Isolating such subjects can tame a messy scene or emphasize a particularly interesting subject.
  • Small details that when viewed up close could create a compelling subject. When I hike, I always look for bark, rocks, plants, flowers, lichen, fungus, mosses, and other tiny subjects. Even scummy pools full of floating leaves can make nice subjects for photography. If you are open to seeing these details, there is always something to photograph regardless of the light or weather since it is easy to shade smaller scenes with a reflector, a coat, or your body.

By observing and distilling your surroundings, a range of ideas will start springing to mind – often involving subjects you would never have seen had you not spent time observing in the first place. This exercise often helps me come up with more ideas than I could ever photograph and is an essential part of seeding my creative process.

This collage shows four ways to interpret the same subject – colorful red maple trees on the Colorado Plateau.
Organizing Chaos with Visual Design and Structure

With forest photography, I always start with the idea of “structure” as my guiding principle for composition. To understand how this idea can apply to nature photography, think of a house. If you strip away all the adornments, like walls, flooring, and windows, you will be left with the core structure – things like wood studs, steel beams, and concrete. With photography, we can think of a scene in the same way. If we have a forest full of trees in front of us, we can strip them of their colorful adornments, like autumnal leaves, and break the scene down into abstractions like lines, shapes, and repetition and then look for qualities like balance, spacing, and flow. Once we start seeing a forest in terms of these elements of visual design, we can think about pulling them together into a cohesive composition based around some organizing principle – a structure for our composition.

I use this idea both in the initial stages of composition and in refining a near-final photograph. In the early stages of wandering around a forest, I might look for a scene with some natural structure to it like pleasing repetition among a dense set of tree trunks, nicely balanced spacing between a grouping of dominant individual trees, or a distinctive single subject surrounded by nice supporting characters. As I work on a composition, I think about sketching it in my mind. The first lines I lay down on my mental paper are the basic structure of the composition and can help me think through whether or not my idea has a clear organizing principle. Those first lines on the paper can also suggest refinements, like moving around a bit or changing my perspective to help simplify a scene, introduce better balance, address distractions, or change my framing in a way that strengthens a composition.

If these composition ideas are new to you, you can start out with a simple exercise next time you are in a forest. Think of each tree as a type of line and then see how you can arrange those lines into a pleasing, balanced composition. The lines, their arrangement, their spacing, and the overall balance are the basic structure of your composition. You can use this idea to refine your composition and then apply the same approach to more complex scenes.

The structure for this photo is the dominant tree centered for a symmetrical composition, with careful attention to spacing for the other trees.
Finding Opportunities During Any Season and Throughout the Day

I often see references to autumn as being the “best” or “only” time to photograph trees and forests. While colorful leaves can help create interesting photographs, this mindset is very limiting. Instead, I find the mindset of “working with the landscape and light” to be particularly helpful for photographing forests and trees because these scenes present all kinds of difficulties and success often requires openness to experimentation. With forest photography, working with the landscape can mean actively embracing the chaos while seeking out just enough order to pull together a composition. It can mean leaving behind the visual perfection of a peak autumnal forest to work with differently appealing subjects like shapes, lines, and textures in bare trees. Just as forests are more than trees in terms of subjects, they are more than autumn in terms of opportunities.

I have taken some of my favorite photographs of trees and forests around lunchtime on clear days, during raging snowstorms, and in spring, summer, and winter. During winter, for example, bare trees can show off their trunks in a way that is not apparent during the rest of the year and we can use ideas like repetition and texture to find compositions among a network of trunks and limbs. A coating of snow can accentuate the erratic lines or graceful limbs of bare trees, as well. Spring presents a sea of compelling pastels, with buds and new leaves presenting an array of soft colors that in some places can rival fall colors. In summer on a clear day, the bright sun can show off the translucence of green leaves. While possibly unpleasant in terms of physical comfort, a snowy or foggy day can offer the atmospheric conditions necessary to greatly simplify an otherwise chaotic scene. These are examples of how bringing an open mind and a willingness to work with the landscape can create opportunities for forest photography – and help you develop a diverse, compelling portfolio over time.

A wild snow storm softens the atmosphere for this photo of colorful aspens and conifers, adding a more abstract feel.

Next time you are outside among trees, I hope you find some of these ideas to be helpful in organizing the chaos around you. Slow down, take some time to deeply observe your surroundings, break down what you see into elements of visual design, and use the idea of structure to create an organizing principle for your composition. Try to work with the landscape, with an orientation toward experimentation, open-mindedness, and working with whatever conditions are in front of you. With practice, these ideas can take a difficult, frustrating subject and transform it into a source of still challenging but rewarding joy.

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