“The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.”
When contemplating writing about forest photography, I couldn’t help myself but think about these two unforgettable lines by Robert Frost. Throughout history forests have always been a magical and enchanting place for humans. Sitting here in the early 21st century that magic and enchantment may have given away, but the endearing love and affection for Mother Nature hasn’t. Forests always give that unmistakable feeling of being one with the nature. The Nature that cocoons us. For nature lovers and photographers alike, forests have always remained an endearing place.
The reason for my emotional attachment to forests, and everything mysterious that these might still hold, comes from an overdose of myths and tales that I have been bred on. The images that swirl inside my mind inspire me to make the kind of images that I evidently seek out to make.
Forest photography warrants an approach that is slightly different to shooting in an urban environment. You have time in your hand, provided you start early. You have less hindrance in terms of unwanted obstructions. No overzealous member of the community will dial 911 to report you (a creep), pointing a camera towards their homes and windows. Having said that, you have a completely different set of challenges to deal with.
But let’s start with a list of gear first; things that you need in order to shoot in this environment. Mother Nature is temperamental. She tends to have her mood swings from time to time. You need gear which are capable of withstanding the vagaries of her swinging mood. One of the first things that you should pick up at the preparation stage are some fabric made out of canvas or some such material which is weather resistant. A small bivouac that can accommodate you, your gear and an assistant is definitely a great idea too. This is a real life saver in situations where you need to stay dry and warm while shooting for long duration.
Shooting outdoors means your camera and lens will be exposed to the inclement weather. Dirt, rain, fog, hail, these are not compatible with ordinary entry level cameras and lenses. You need professional grade equipment if you want to work with a little bit of confidence at all times and not having to worry about destroying your gear. I am not suggesting that you can’t shoot pictures with entry level gear. But you will need to keep a constant eye on the changing weather. You will also need to do meticulous research to prevent getting caught up in bad weather.
So which cameras and lenses are right for bad weather? Those which have weather sealing in them. Not just weather resistance. There is a difference. Cameras like the Nikon D4 has excellent weather sealing. They can handle rain and dust quite easily. But you need special lenses to make the whole setup weather-sealed. Thus to pair with the D4 you would need something like the 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II lens. This lens has a rubber mounted seal that prevents water and dirt from reaching inside.
Sometimes the lens you need may not have weather sealing. One of my favorite choices is the Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G ED. It does not have weather sealing. Nikon rates it as weather resistant only. But I like it, regardless, because it gives a very wide perspective of the scene without getting into the distorted fish-eye territory. With lenses such as these (and entry level cameras), you have to be extra careful when heading outdoors. They perform superbly but they wouldn’t be as good if you expose them to extreme weather.
The type of lens you need is determined by the kind of photography that you intend to do. I will always have a wide angle and a macro lens on me when heading out to the woods. Macro lenses allow me to capture certain images that are impossible to make with traditional lenses. You can get right down to the forest floor and capture images of small ferns, insects, flowers from a very close distance with the vast sky-reaching growth dominating the background.
I mentioned the 14-24mm wide angle lens above. Wide angle lenses allow me to capture a larger view of the scene. Forest photography uses many of the same techniques and approaches that are applicable for landscape photography. A lot of photographers shoot with wide angle lenses, using a tripod, when the sun’s lower on the horizon. This creates a mesmerizing image of the sun’s rays breaking through the trees.
Forest Photography in Bad Weather
I love bad weather. They bring out the best in Mother Nature. The colors are naturally saturated and if you nail the white balance and the composition, you can have a lot more keepers. Getting it right in the camera is the ideal way to shoot. You expose for the highlights and then process for the shadows.
Cameras with a greater dynamic range are naturally suitable for shooting in the kind of dimly lit environments that you find inside forests. Fog, e.g. is another great time to do forest photography. Fog add that element of mysteriousness to forests, something that I was referring to at the beginning of this article. Tip – There are professional smoke machines available for interested photographers looking to add value to their forest photography pursuits. Use a circular polarizer to remove reflections from wet leaves and grass and water bodies.
There’s not much of an option to shoot except use natural light. Advanced photographers do also mix artificial light with that of the ambient light. But that is mostly when they use forests as a backdrop for portrait shoots. That basically limits your creativity to proper use of the available light. One of my favorite shooting techniques is to use the backlighting scenario. The sun’s rays streaking through the thick foliage of the forest and dispersing across the frame.
Shooting from a slightly elevated position especially in backlighting situations give you a completely unique perspective too. In places where they offer tourists early morning balloon rides or my personal favorite – a spin in a microlight aircraft, you can shoot from a height and get those streaks of light and shadow across the frame. Another option would be to take one of those skywalks. Those can be really scary, especially when you several pounds of expensive gear strapped to your body. Some of these adventures are costly. A more pocket-friendly method would be to hike to an altitude which gives you an advantageous position to shoot from.
I don’t shy away from using flashes when photographing in the forest. As already pointed out, this works when you want to use the forests as a background for portrait photos. For this, the trick is in balancing the ambient exposure with the flash. Dragging the shutter speed allows you to collect more ambient light. The power on the flash controls the amount of light that falls on the subject’s face and therefore controls the exposure on your subject.