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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

See Through The Chaos

OP blogger Rafael Rojas shows how to dig through the visual clutter to make dramatic photos in the forest

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This composition with repeating shapes and contrasted warm and cool colors helps to bring out the dynamic drama of this early-morning sunrise in the Jura Mountains in Switzerland. "Things like structure, balance, harmony or visual relationships," explains Rafael Rojas about his approach to capturing an image, "frequently don't exist except in the head of the photographer
and aren't inherent to the places we photograph."

Forests are some of the most rewarding environments to photograph in the outdoors. These cathedrals of nature offer us magical moments of quietness, mystery, intimacy and connection with the natural world. Under the canopy, an ever-changing visual feast of lines, shapes, textures, colors and moods is revealed to the photographer as the light, weather and seasons transform the place. Once at home, the initial excitement is frequently followed by a certain frustration when the photographer discovers that none of the images taken has successfully captured the magic initially felt. Instead, they resemble more of a chaotic jumble of blotchy shadows and lights where trunks and canopy have merged into a flat, heterogeneous expanse. This is no surprise, as although forests are wonderful environments to photograph, they're also some of the most challenging ones.

The Three C's
Some of the main reasons why forest photography is particularly difficult can be summed up by the three C's: chaos, contrast and complexity.

Chaos. In order to photograph the natural landscape so our final image will convey a certain message or encapsulate the essence of a certain place, we need to make order out of the chaos we find in nature. Things like structure, balance, harmony or visual relationships frequently don't exist except in the head of the photographer, and aren't inherent to the places we photograph. One of the environments where this is particularly true is forests. Even if most trees grow vertically and display a similar visual pattern, chaos reigns in the forest—trees vary in size, shape and color, grow in random places, tilt or break, grow branches in different dispositions, grow among rocks, boulders or other features, adapt to irregular land profiles, etc. Unless there's a conscious effort from the photographer, the resulting image will only capture a chaotic mixture of leaves, trunks and branches where no structure is apparent and where, consequently, the eye of the viewer randomly moves around the photograph without making any sense of it.

Lively fall colors compete with the hard, craggy lines of this cold mountain backdrop.
The only way to control the natural chaos of the forest is through the correct choice of camera position and composition. By setting up the tripod in a certain place, we define perspective and, therefore, the visual relationship of the trees with each other as well as with the camera. As we move laterally, for instance, certain trunks or branches merge while others are revealed. As we move forward or backward, the trees or features in the foreground get bigger or smaller as opposed to the other trees in the background. In the same way, as we crouch or climb a hill, the vertical perspective changes, too, unveiling more of the forest floor or allowing us to focus on the trunks without the confusion added by an intersecting horizon. Once the camera position is chosen, framing will allow us to isolate those particular elements that caused us to take the camera out of the bag in the first place, such as a graphical isolated tree, a stump, a group of roots around a boulder, etc., leaving out of the frame all those objects that don't contribute to the message and that would only dilute the force of the photograph.

Some other ways to find order and structure in the forest can be to photograph from "visual highways" like leading paths or streams, which become the backbone of the image and lead the eye through it, especially if the line is a diagonal or a curve leading to a focal point like a specific tree in the distance. You can also try photographing from the edges of the forest where some trees stand isolated from the rest or from around a pond or lake and where the visual echo given by the reflection injects a lot of structure into the photograph.

Contrast. Anybody who has gone for a stroll in the woods at noon on a sunny day knows about the effect of high-contrast light in the forest. When the sun is up and the sky is clear, rays of direct light dapple through the canopy, leaves, branches and trunks, leading to a jumble of glaring highlights and dark shadows that fill the forest. The effect of this high-contrast light is twofold. First of all, chaos increases as the reflected edges combine with the illuminated edges. Secondly, the dynamic range of the scene increases dramatically, thereby making the camera unable to properly capture detail in both the lightest and darkest areas of our photograph.


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