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Landscape Photography - Photographing Trees

Updated on May 17, 2010

Trees offer unlimited scope to the pictorialist, not only as part of a landscape but as studies in themselves. To be successful, tree photography calls for the ability to make a suitable choice of type or species of tree, lighting, setting, and treatment.

Apart from their intrinsic beauty trees are useful in landscape composition. The foreground use of branches (with or without the trunk) will often mask a bald sky, and will also assist in preserving the impression of space by throwing back a distant hill outline, a valley seen from a ridge, or other open landscape.

A single tree, or group of trees, stunted or weird in shape, will often convey the character or mood of a particular place, as, for example, along the Atlantic coast of Britain, where the south-west wind bends the trees inland at an acute angle, causing the branches all to grow in the one direction.

Type of Tree

Because the composition relies chiefly on balancing masses, the shape of the tree and the distribution of its branches are important. Spreading trees like cedar, oak and chestnut lend themselves to horizontal picture shapes, whilst tall elms, poplars, etc, need the upright format.

The base of the tree is always included in the picture, otherwise the result looks unnatural and top-heavy. Any branches that project towards the camera must be in focus as well as the main trunk, so the taking distance and aperture must be chosen to provide the necessary extra depth of field. Ugly limbs and foliage-shapes are avoided as far as possible by experimenting with different viewpoints.

Lighting

Frontal or flat lighting is rarely used because a tree is a round object and must have modelling. This point is not as serious in mist or fog, where the separation of the picture into planes is more important. Low-angle lighting with its long shadows gives a much more pleasing effect than overhead lighting, and for this reason the best tree pictures are unlikely to be made during June, July and August, between the hours of 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., when the sun is high in the sky.

Backlighting is seldom successful with sparse or small-leafed trees like ash and hawthorn, but it can be very effective with large-leafed trees like chestnut, sycamore, lime, etc. There is little to be said for photographing "open" or bare trees in backlighting conditions because the results are almost bound to be hard and spoiled by halation, caused by spreading of the light into the image of the branches.

Setting

The setting of the subject includes the sky behind it, the other trees around it and the physical features of the landscape. The greatest difficulty usually lies in isolating the one chosen tree or group of trees from its neighbours.

The photographer should always look beyond his subject to ensure that the background is free from unwanted objects like buildings, telegraph poles, etc., and he should move his viewpoint if necessary to get rid of them. He should also avoid mixing trees of various kinds; firs do not blend well with oaks, limes, etc., and tall trees should not be surrounded by low, scrubby specimens. The sky generally makes the best background, provided that the area is interesting and not simply blank white paper.

Treatment

Unless the camera is fitted with a rising front, trees will present the same sort of perspective problems as high buildings. If the photographer tries to include the whole of the subject from a close viewpoint, he is forced to tilt the camera up. But if he tilts the camera, the subject will look as though it is toppling backwards because its vertical lines will lean in towards the top.

The answer is to move away to a more distant viewpoint where the camera can be held level and still include the whole subject. This inevitably gives a top-heavy picture in which the lower half consists of empty foreground and all the subject matter is crowded into the top half. But the problem is easily solved by leaving out the unnecessary foreground when the negative is enlarged, or trimming it off the print.

The selected branch or group of branches should be focused sharply at a wide aperture to keep the background out of focus. A sky background of cloudless blue is often better than one covered with patchy cloud. A yellow, or green filter prevents the green foliage from being reproduced in unnaturally dark tones and gives depth to the blue sky.

A long focus lens is a great help in capturing detail in blossom, and avoids the distortion produced by using a short focus lens at close range.

Trees in Winter

Trees in winter generally call for semi-close or close-up viewpoints which stress the characteristic signs of the season- i.e: snow, rain or mist. Sunshine, no matter how feeble, is necessary for snow and rain effects and the feeling of mist is heightened when there are trees at varying distances from the camera to divide the picture into close, medium and distant planes.

Gaunt, angular trees against an angry sky convey a better impression of the mood of winter than trees with graceful flowing branches, even when they are laden with snow.

Trees in Spring

Spring studies call for close-up viewpoints to show the opening leaves, young buds and blossom. As in so many other branches of photography, the part is generally more effective than the whole.

Often a single branch or spray photographed with care so as to show plenty of crisp detail makes the best picture of all. This demands careful arrangement and viewpoint to make the branch fill the picture area in a pleasing fashion. Fairly strong, oblique daylight improves the rendering of detail and helps to keep exposures short. Shutter-speeds of 1/100 second or faster are usually required to counteract the movement of the branch in the wind.

Trees in Summer

During the summer months, trees are better handled in terms of their masses and shadow effects than as detailed studies. The full, dusty foliage and harsher lighting, characteristic of this season, make it the least interesting to the photographer.

Trees in Autumn

Autumn, on the other hand, with its varied tints and the sparser, lighter-toned foliage of the fall, offers splendid opportunities for photography in both colour and monochrome. Back lighting turns close and semi-close golden leaves into delightful picture material. An orange filter can be used to good effect in this type of picture as it lightens the golden tones.

Large-leafed trees generally provide the best pictures when they are photographed with the sun behind them hi this way.

Woodlands

Woodland studies are more difficult, because of their extreme lighting contrasts. The very wide range of tones demands a fast, panchromatic film to give sufficient exposure in the deep shadows without "burning out" the highlights. Slower, more contrasty emulsions are quite unsuitable.

The photographer who is not prepared to take extra trouble in processing to deal with the extreme contrasts of this type of scene should avoid the interior of the wood and make bis pictures in clearings or on the outskirts of the wood.

Avenues of limes, elms, horse-chestnut, etc, make natural subjects at almost any time of the year.

Light patches between branch formations should be avoided as far as possible because they tend to irritate the eye.

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    • ivanchong profile image

      ivanchong 5 years ago from Malaysia

      I've never actually thought of taking photos of trees as it is. Now that you've shared it, I might go out tomorrow & try a few shots.

    • WannaB Writer profile image

      Barbara Radisavljevic 5 years ago from Templeton, CA

      Thank you for the hints. I will keep them in mind next time I'm out with my camera on a photo walk.