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Tips on photographing trees

Everyone seems to like trees and good pictures of them.


A tree must stand out from its surroundings to be clearly identified as the subject of a picture.
A tree must stand out from its surroundings to be clearly identified as the subject of a picture.

Trees are unusual photographic subjects in that many have powerful symbolism and strong emotional effect on people. Many countries and every U.S. state have specific trees as their symbols. As examples, the Black Hills Spruce is the state tree of South Dakota, and the American Elm is the state tree of Massachusetts. The Canadian flag features a leaf from the maple tree. The cedars of Lebanon are considered to be such an integral part of the history of the country that an entire cedar tree appears in the center of Lebanon’s flag.

A gnarly old apple tree photographed in silhouette against the background of a full moon can make a haunting image. An ancient, giant redwood standing proudly against a deep blue sky can stir a feeling of majesty. A sprawling banyan can evoke a sense of mystery when photographed at dusk or dawn. A chestnut providing welcome shade on a hot summer’s day can give a sense of comfort.

We all seem to love trees, and are drawn to photographs that make them look their best. Yet, for all their variety and abundance, it is often difficult to find just the right tree in just the right setting to make a great tree photograph.


FINDING A SUITABLE TREE FOR PHOTOGRAPHY

Although there is seemingly no end of trees available throughout most of the populated world, finding a suitable subject to make an interesting picture is usually not a simple matter.

A tree must stand out from its surroundings to be clearly identified as the subject of a picture. Perhaps perversely, the best candidates are found in places where the land has been cleared of most trees, like a farmer’s field that has one isolated specimen remaining, or a public park where shade trees are surrounded by lawn. But, you may come across a tree in a forest that is so distinctly different from the surrounding trees that its characteristics isolate it from the others and make it a suitable subject - for example, a brilliantly-colored maple tree in the fall that is growing among evergreens. A search through an orchard or an olive grove, where trees are uniformly spaced, may provide you with a suitable subject that is sufficiently isolated so that it will dominate your composition.

Awareness is often your best tool for locating a suitable tree subject. If you have tree photography in mind as you travel around throughout the day conducting your normal affairs, you will often come across a particular specimen that catches your attention and could make an unusual or interesting picture. Mark its location in your memory, and return with your camera when you have the time to properly photograph it.

Autumn color will often distinguish a tree from its neighbors.
Autumn color will often distinguish a tree from its neighbors.

Filling the frame while shooting with a medium telephoto lens nicely captured this lone pair of arbutus trees.
Filling the frame while shooting with a medium telephoto lens nicely captured this lone pair of arbutus trees.

BACKGROUND

As with any subject, the background can be critical to the success of a tree picture. Since a tree can be a complex subject in terms of its branching structure, the best background is usually one that is plain and allows the tree to stand out. The sky, for example, makes an excellent backdrop for many trees. A distant landscape, a lake or an open field are other possibilities. Photographing a tree against a backdrop of similar trees may cause your subject to be lost, however if the other trees are in shade while the subject tree is bathed in beautiful light, the picture can be a winner.

SEASONS

Many trees make better subjects for photography during certain seasons - a cherry tree in full blossom in the Spring, a maple tree in full Autumn splendor, an evergreen with winter snow on its branches, or a stately elm in mid-summer. (Capturing the full glory of trees in Autumn is a favorite goal for many aerial photographers.) When you find a tree that has character and will make a good picture, consider the best time of year in which to photograph it. Many photographers will study a tree subject over the course of several weeks or even months, assessing the light at certain times of day, while planning to photograph it during a particular season. The light at dawn or dusk may be ideal, dependent upon a tree’s location and surroundings. It may seem like a lot of work, planning and waiting, but when you capture an awesome picture of a beautiful tree at just the right moment in the year, it can be an award winner.


WEATHER

Weather is a big factor in shooting any large outdoors object. However, you can make it work for you in photographing trees. For example, you may have spotted a tree that would look great in a photograph if only it didn’t have that old garage, junk pile or telephone pole in the background. One answer is to wait for a foggy day, when the background is obscured by mist, then go out to capture your tree image. If you time it right and luck is on your side, you may photograph your tree in just the right light as the sun breaks through while the fog continues to conceal the unsightly background.

You don't always need to rely on the weather for photo camouflage. You can also often obscure a background by throwing it out of focus when using a long lens and a wide aperture.

In mid-summer, you may come across the perfect evergreen tree for a Christmas picture, and simply need to wait for winter and a snowfall to capture it on film. Make sure you get there first thing in the morning after a night of snowing, before the snow has dropped from its branches or others have trampled the snow around it.

Strong wind can sometimes contribute to a tree picture, bending branches or, in the case of palm trees, fronds and providing a sense of action not normally evident in tree photographs. Trees that grow in areas that are subject to fairly constant wind from one direction can be shaped by the wind, adding a sense of strength or "character" to their picture.

An image of a solitary tree surviving in an unlikely, seemingly-inhospitable place like this bare rock can evoke an emotional reaction.
An image of a solitary tree surviving in an unlikely, seemingly-inhospitable place like this bare rock can evoke an emotional reaction.

This tree appears to be peering triumphantly over the cliff face, making an interesting composition.
This tree appears to be peering triumphantly over the cliff face, making an interesting composition.

CAPTURING IMAGES OF TREES

Although both are plants, there are few similarities between photographing an entire tree and photographing a flower. For example, since flowers are mostly smaller, flower pictures benefit from using a close-up lens, especially if you wish to emphasize the blossom without showing the entire stem, whereas a telephoto lens is generally best for tree photography. If you are photographing a tree's blossoms, though, rather than the entire tree, you will use similar procedures as when photographing any flower.

It’s a matter of scale. If you use a wide-angle or normal lens from ground level to photograph an entire tree, you have to be close to fill the frame, requiring an upward camera angle that gives an unnatural distorted perspective to the image. For a more natural look, you must move some distance away and use a telephoto lens to fill the frame. A medium telephoto lens (105 mm to 200 mm) is ideal for most trees, providing a more natural-looking perspective. Many nature photographers will tell you their most-used lens for plant life is the 105 mm.

A wide aperture will separate the tree from a distant background by reducing depth of field, throwing the background out of focus to make your subject tree stand out sharply.

Full frontal sunlight tends to flatten out the image, whereas side lighting provides a range of highlights and shadows. Backlighting can rim the tree’s outline with light, making it look very attractive, providing your exposure is made based on the light striking the front of the tree, not the brighter light from behind. The exception occurs with silhouetted trees. Trees without leaves in winter, older windblown evergreens and rangy, branchy trees with sparse foliage make excellent subjects for silhouettes. Expose for the light behind the tree, not the light striking the tree.


Since even the slightest breeze can cause much movement in a tree, use a fast shutter speed (1/250 sec or faster) to stop motion and render the tree’s details at their sharpest. Fortunately, fast shutter speeds coincide with wide apertures, permitting the use of film speeds or digital camera sensitivity settings in the ISO 100 range and slower. However, don't be too concerned if you can't use a fairly fast shutter speed when photographing a tree from a distance in a light breeze. The amount of movement of a distant leaf will hardly be noticed. A slow shutter speed could be disastrous in a close-up though, blurring the leaves, but the movement is probably not even going to register on film or your digital camera's sensor when it is so far away. But, if there is a strong wind that causes the branches to move or the very tree itself to sway, a fast shutter speed is the only answer to stopping action.

Blur from camera movement, however, is another story. If the light is minimal and your fastest possible shutter speed is less than the reciprocal of your lens’ focal length - that is, if you are using a 120 mm focal length lens, but can’t use a shutter speed in the range of 1/125 sec or faster - you will need a tripod or other sturdy camera support to ensure that camera movement doesn’t create blur in the overall scene.

Isolated from their background by fog, trees take on a mystical aura. Backlighting intensifies the effect of the fog and makes silhouettes of the trees.
Isolated from their background by fog, trees take on a mystical aura. Backlighting intensifies the effect of the fog and makes silhouettes of the trees.
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