6 tips for photographing coniferous forests

A painter starts with simplicity and adds.

A photographer starts with chaos and takes away.

Sometimes I envy the artist. With the blank canvas in front of you, you have the freedom of imagination to liberate you. Where you place the compositional elements of your work is entirely your choice.

Not so the poor landscape photographer. Try as you might, you are not going to be able to move that massive boulder in the foreground that is not quite in the right place. You have to work with what you’re given, play the hand that is dealt to you. And that hand often includes that rogue card, the element of your composition that is just not quite co-operating and ruining the whole thing.

I say envy. In actual fact, the challenge of finding simplicity in complexity, order from chaos, is  one of the things that makes landscape photography so much fun.

Sometimes, it’s actually quite easy. When the scene in front of you is simple to begin with, you simply have to position yourself right to get the elements aligned the way you want.

Often, it’s more challenging. With the crazy busyness of the scene before you, there may be far too many elements that it is hard to find patterns, lines, order. But it’s usually possible to find such order. It may take subtle tweaks, moving your camera just a centimetre or two this way or that, but you can find them.

Whether it’s in the Mourne Mountains, where you have to arrange the ubiquitous granite boulders. Or on the rocks at the Atlantic Ocean at the Causeway Coast, where the large rounded basalt boulders are strewn haphazardly all around. You can find order, if you pay enough attention and look carefully enough.


Finding order in the forest

But one place where I still find that whole process the hardest is in one of the most crazy of locations. That place where chaos reigns supreme, where the art of removing the superfluous is at its most challenging: the forest.

The ground is busy. Moss, stumps, fallen trees, branches all conspire to tangle you up, metaphorically as well as literally. Up higher, it’s not much better. The tall trunks may exhibit a degree of uniformity. But that only serves to make picking out a focal point harder. When they all look the same, to where is your eye drawn?

And so, it was with an eye for a challenge, that I thought I would try my hand at finding compositions that worked in my local forest. I’m often there walking my dogs, and it seemed to me that it would be worth seeing what I could come up with.

I’m still in early days of the challenge, but so far, I’m enjoying it. I have far more misses than hits in my shots, but some are coming out that I think have potential.

So, what have I learnt so far? Here are a few tips.

1. Shoot with an ultra wide lens to magnify the sweep of the long, straight lines of the trees.

Finding leading lines is always one of the best ways to introduce patterns into your compositions. And, in a forest, you have plenty of those! An ultra wide lens will really emphasise their dimensions, creating a real sense of scale in your shot.

2. Look for how the lines intersect with one another, especially if you have fallen trees

But it’s not just vertical lines you will have to play with. You will have fallen trees, many of which are at quirky angles. This creates the potential for all sorts of geometric shapes that you can identify and isolate in the forest. Look for these and place them well in your shots.

3. Get in close to your foreground interest to make it dominate your composition

It may be possible for you to find something low down that makes for a strong compositional element. A tree stump, perhaps, or a fallen tree. Get in close to it with your ultra wide lens. That way it will appear very large in your composition, and the trees nearby will be pushed further back, creating a sense of separation and depth.

4. When shooting into the light source, look for how the light can pick out the edges of the trunks.

Backlighting of the trees can really help to make them feel three dimensional. And you don’t necessarily need sunlight to do this with. If the trunks have moss on them, then the sides of the trunks can be picked out as highlights, as the light passes through the moss, whilst the rest of the trunk facing you will be darker. This also will help the nearby trunks stand out from the background more.

5. Crouch down to change your perspective - it helps emphasise the height and scale of the shot.

Shooting from somewhere other than head height is one of the best pieces of advice for landscape photography in general. We see the world from head height, so any photo taken from there looks and feel familiar. Change that perspective, however, and you immediately have a different feel to the shot. Even if people are only experiencing this on a subconscious level, you immediately will introduce a degree of mistique to your photo. In a forest, this can work to your advantage, as a lower perspective again will help draw out the height and strong linear aspects of the trees.

6. Look out for those misty days to help create a sense of depth in your photos

Finding ways of creating depth, when your shot is made up of largely similar elements of tree after tree, can be a challenge. But the photographer’s friend - mist - can be a great ally here. As the trees naturally fade away into the background, it can increase the sense of space between your foreground element and the background.


Grand vistas verses intimate views

I love big views. Whether it's standing on top of a Mourne's summit, gazing at the mountainscape all around. Or standing at the Giant's Causeway in the darkest of night, staring up at the vast array of stars above me head.

There is something about getting lost in the sheer scale of places like this that is so good for my soul. These are times and places that bring perspective.

But, sometimes it's good to notice the details all around. To find beauty not only in the grandest of vistas, but in the moments of tranquil intimacy too.

Surrounded by trees, with your view constrained, you cannot see far. But what you can see is the way the tree trunks intersect with each other. You can notice the moss that wraps itself around them. You can observe the way the light falls gently, softened by the mist as the background fades away.

That's also part of what I've been trying to do. To train my eye to see the kind of photo I wouldn't normally take. I will always love the grand vista, for all that it represents for me as I stand there taking those views in. But I’ve been enjoying looking more for these little details in the forest, where simplicity meets intimacy..