Trees invoke a sense of timelessness, of grandeur. Most species grow many centuries older than humans ever will, so let’s make trees look the part with these tips on capturing them with a wide-angle lens.
So where does my idea of capturing trees from an extremely low angle come from? Well, I’ve just finished watching The Lord of the Rings for the 12th time, so those Ents probably exerted some influence on my creative process. But joking aside, I am definitely inspired by the cinematography of the late Andrew Lesnie, responsible for many of the atmospheric imagery found in both the Peter Jackson trilogies that portray Middle-Earth so well.
Then there’s Magic: The Gathering, the collectible card game set in a fantasy world, where you have to own lands like forests and mountains to fuel your magic as a player. The artwork displayed on these cards often boasts crazy perspectives and interesting points of view. These cards occasionally come with me when I teach photography workshops in the darkest of forests. At this point, I usually tell students to get down on all fours and point the camera towards the forest canopy.
The Best Wood for the Job
Of course, there’s the challenge of actually finding trees that complement the previsualization step. I certainly prefer beeches because of their stature, potential age and often ominous-looking branches. But the latter can also be photographed well if your subject is a gnarly oak. The broadleaf woodland is the area you’ll want to explore for this type of photography, but in some parts of the world, spectacular variations on the genre can be found.
Think of the bristlecone pine in the Southwest of the US for example. On a recent exploration through Glen Feshie in Scotland, I found this silver birch to be equally fit for the job. The specimen shown below rises from the edge of a fen in a dark mixed woodland. With the sun trying hard to shine through the rainclouds, the atmosphere was set.
Finding Epic Trees Online
Everything can be found online these days. Even the girth of trees around the globe. There’s this website with a huge database of the most stunning trees that are still around, called MonumentalTrees.com. At the time of writing, there are 28,597 trees documented, ranging from anything from a couple of meters to ~30 meters in circumference. The website features an interactive map, helping you explore the area digitally before heading out to the forest prepared.
Catch the Rays
The most ethereal atmospheres can be captured under just the right conditions. But did you know that it doesn’t even have to be misty to catch those mystical rays? Godrays (which are actually called crepuscular rays) can be found in the forest occasionally, but it depends on the amount and height of the foliage blocking the sun.
At about two hours after sunrise, when the sun barely rises above the shrubbery, the slightest amount of moisture from the night before gets burned off. That results in a fleeting moment of foggy conditions when you can photograph the elusive shafts of light punching through the leaves.
There’s a whole set of challenges involved when you shoot trees with a frog’s perspective. My first advice is to get close enough to the tree so that you’re barely able to focus at minimum focus distance. This really creates a distorted view, because objects like plants, roots, and flowers in the immediate foreground can appear larger than the actual subject of the tree. The goal is to have an interesting foreground, with a bright background.
Focusing and Exposure
The first challenge is to get everything in sharp focus. The easiest option is to set the aperture on your wide-angle to f/22 while aiming for a third into the frame. But as diffraction at that aperture prevents you from getting sharp results, I want to stress that focus stacking is the best tool to get engaging images.
In aperture priority mode, dial in an aperture of about f/6.3 and turn (yeah, manually) the focus ring all the way towards the minimum focus distance. Judge the exposure (darker is better), take note of the settings and set the camera to manual mode at those settings. You can boost the ISO to counteract the swaying of leaves in the foreground.
When the image is exposed correctly, you can then turn the focus ring further away and repeat. Do this 4 to 8 times, depending on the focal length of the lens you’re using. Diagonal fisheyes are done with 4 shots at f/6.3, while 30mm lenses benefit from an additional 4 exposures.
With your camera pointed upward, you can’t judge the image unless you either dig a hole to put your head in to be able to view the screen, or omit dirty hands and get a camera with a tilting screen. I use the Nikon D750 at the moment, but this camera only makes reviewing the image accessible when shooting a horizontal orientation. Quite often in vertical orientation images, I still guestimate the composition and start the focus stack after a quick look by turning the ballhead on the tripod, but leaving the legs in position.
Here’s my best advice for ethereal-looking pictures of trees:
- A wide-angle lens works best when you get up-close and personal with your subject. Get low, close and point up for dramatic impact.
- Getting close involves challenging focusing situations. Learning to focus stack overcomes the limitations of technology and yields the sharpest results.
- The best time to photograph is shortly after sunrise when the sun climbs above the tree line and helps to dissipate moisture from the night before.
- A camera with an articulating screen makes sure you don’t alter the composition between judging the exposure and the start of a focus stack.
- Go ahead and visit MonumentalTrees.com to explore epic trees in your area.
About the author: Daniel Laan is a landscape photographer based in the Netherlands. In addition to being a full-time landscape shooter, Laan also teaches photography to students around the world. You can find more of his work on his website, Facebook, 500px, and Instagram.