Trail leading to Kennedy Creek at Lackawanna State Park on the morning of 25 July 2012.

Shooting in the woods is difficult.  I was reading an article a couple of weeks back, about a photographer who specializes in less-common landscapes, and he commented on forest photography a little, which got me thinking.  My experience with forest photography is really summed up like this: I either end up with an image that’s too wide and cluttered to work, or end up losing the forest for the trees.  There isn’t a lot of space in between, for images that maintain the overall forest feeling while still focusing in on a specific subject enough to have an anchor.

With all this in mind, and with a bit of inspiration from some successful forest work I’ve seen lately, I’ve been playing with it more myself.  Part of my work has been in black & white, a related project that I’ll be talking about more in the near future.  Until then, I’d like to share a few forest images, in color, that I feel have been at least mostly successful in capturing something.

The top image highlights the difficulty in forest scenes.  There are a lot of trees, a lot of clutter, so it’s pretty essential to have something – some specific thing – that serves as a central subject, supported by the surrounding elements.  This is Photographic Composition 101, but rules don’t stand very firm in this art most of the time, which is why I’m emphasizing this one.  It has to stand in this case.  So the subject in the photo at top?  The trail, which winds through the trees.  It’s the focal point that draws the eye and leads it, blah blah blah art school babble.

Pine grove on Lackawanna State Park's east shore, near sunset on 25 July 2012.

Back to the pine grove – where did you expect me to go for forest scenes?  Shooting here is a good place to start; it’s easily accessible and fairly open.  Actually, it’s just an easy place to start.  The rows of planted pines don’t have much clutter, so it’s easier to isolate a subject and work with it.  Baby steps, after all.  Although in this case, the image became as much about light and shadow as about the trees themselves.  I’m not sure if that’s a success or not.  But the image stands.  There’s a flow, there’s interesting texture, there’s a play of light.

If this all sounds like nonsense, well, it probably is.  I’m not writing a definitive “how to” book here, I’m just walking you through my own process.  It doesn’t always make sense and it doesn’t always work.  But sometimes even the failures look good, and they are always instructional.

Here’s the single thing I have figured out for sure: it is damn hard to take an image that puts you right in the middle of the forest, instead of just looking in at it.  What’s that mean?  Well, imagine you’re in the forest with your camera, framing up shots.  The problem I keep encountering is a feeling that I’m not engaging with my subjects enough.  It’s like there’s a giant pane of plexiglass that you lower into the woods.  This pane of glass represents the front edge of your image, in a way; everything behind it is the subject and everything in front of it is separate.  The separate part is near you and may even be important, but it’s like it’s not really there, and the image doesn’t start until that defined point, that plane that remains separate.

Anyone following me?  What I’m trying to do is step through that pane of glass, so that the woods is all around me (and obviously it really is), and so that it feels like it’s around me in the resulting image.  I don’t want to shoot into the woods at a single plane, I want to capture the whole experience in three dimensions.  And it’s hard.  The image above has depth, but I still feel like that pane of glass runs from the front of the tree at right at an angle into the rear left.

The forest near the Lower Lake boat launch turns a deep red during late sunset, Promised Land State Park on the evening of 06 August 2012.

This shot, from the Promised Land post last week, overcomes that feeling.  There is no pane of glass in this one.  But I’m not entirely sure why.  Is it the tree right up close on the ridge edge of the frame?  Or maybe the way the root system gives some depth to the forest floor, a sense of distance?  Or maybe it’s the directionality of the side-lighting.  I haven’t quite honed in on the answer yet.  It’ll require more shooting.  Thank goodness this is digital.

Pine grove on Lackawanna State Park's east shore, near sunset on 25 July 2012.

This last shot is a “just because” photo.  While I usually abhor unnatural blur in my images, I do really love the effect of moving the camera vertically during a shot when shooting trees.  It only works under darker conditions, since the exposure speed needs to be pretty slow.  Evening, in a shadowed area; the lens stopped down and a polarizer, ND, or both in place.  This is the kind of shooting where it’s all by feel.  Pick an exposure, shoot it, look at it, then make changes and do it again until you’ve got the right amount of light, the right amount of blur.  It’s the forest as abstract art, smears of colored light that are still recognizable as trees.

I’ve done this before and will keep on doing it from time to time.  But even here, my nemesis the pane of glass exists.  It’s midway into the scene; the tree on the far right is in front of it, but everything else is in a single plane running from slightly front, left to slightly back, right.  Like most glass barriers, this one needs to be broken.  The trick will be figuring out how.

More to come.

Brent Pennington is a freelance photographer and the driving force behind The Roving Photographer. When he\’s not working with portraiture or promotional clients, he’s usually in the field, hiking, or kayaking in pursuit of nature and wildlife shots.

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