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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

Labels: Locations
This Article Features Photo Zoom

In Rojas' image "Forest of Light," the photographer employs heavy contrast between the deep shadows of the woods and the warm highlights of the setting sun to enhance the three-dimensional depth of the tree line.
Solutions exist, and the photographer can either make the most of the high contrast and use it creatively in the composition, or wait until the natural light becomes softer and nondirectional. An example of the former would be to photograph the forest against the light, partly obscuring the sun with a tree and rendering the trunks and branches as dark silhouettes, which become the main structure of the photograph while glowing leaves fill the rest of the frame. Another solution, especially if one wants to focus on the details and colors of the forest, is to wait until the light becomes soft and mostly nondirectional, such as under cloudy skies or in foggy conditions. In these situations, contrast is strongly reduced in the composition, at least as long as the inclusion of big expanses of white sky is avoided by means of a correct choice of camera position and framing.

Complexity. Not only are forests chaotic, but they're also complex. The complications come from the sheer amount of elements that compose these environments and the diversity of their visual characteristics. Roots, trunks, branches, leaves, rocks, dead leaves, streams, sky, bark textures, etc., provide a rich and diverse variety of shapes, textures, tones, colors and detail, which can very quickly overload and therefore dilute the visual message of our photographs.

In order to handle the complexity of the forest, the photographer not only can adapt the camera position and framing, but also photograph in certain seasons or weather and light conditions when the complexity of the forest is simplified. In winter, for instance, leaves are absent, therefore reducing the amount of detail in the woods and making the structure of the branches stand out clearly against the sky. Other simplifying elements include snow, which can hide the clutter of the forest floor under a white blanket where the trunks will stand out as graphical brushstrokes. Fog, too, can strongly simplify the forest, drowning the detail and visual weight of the trees in the background, eliminating the illuminated edges through the soft light and giving the illusion of distance by means of receding tonal values.

Another way to reduce the complexity is photographing in the border areas where the forest starts to thin out, where the trees have space to breathe and where we can compose them individually. Think, for instance, of those areas close to the timberline in mountains, near the perimeter of the woods or in rocky areas where trees grow isolated.

An afternoon storm sweeps over an expansive sunlit Alpine forest.
Emotional Connection
Forests aren't environments where obvious photographs and compositions wait for us around a number of iconic viewpoints. As we walk through the woods, captivating intimate scenes will be revealed to us little by little only if we're receptive and listen to the environment. When you enter the forest, leave all preconceptions, rush and worry outside, and take your time to tune in with the landscape. Don't feel obliged to photograph right from the beginning if you don't feel like you really want to. Simply enjoy the place, and after a while, photographs will start coming to you.

While you stroll under the canopy, look in all directions for particular features that draw your attention and curiosity, either due to their nature, or the story they seem to tell, or their graphical qualities. You might feel attracted by a small sapling surrounded by bigger trees, as it tells a story of renewal, or maybe a group of sun rays crossing the canopy and intersecting the vertical trunks diagonally, or a couple of trees that seem to reach out their branches to each other, as if they were dancing while the rest of the forest observes them. Try to find some emotional connection with the subject, and your photographs will be more personal and far more rewarding.

Compositionally speaking, forests can offer almost infinite possibilities. Even if plans generally should be avoided in any creative endeavor, there are some image templates you can practice in order to start your creative juices flowing. You could create photographs full of depth that will transmit to the viewer the feeling of being in the forest. An example would be a wide-angle photograph showing a strong foreground such as colorful fungi, a graphical branch or a group of flowers set against a homogeneous background filled with trunks, with eventually a leading line like a stream or pathway linking the two. On the contrary, you might want to kill the depth and focus on the visual rhythm given by the repetition of shapes and lines in the forest along with a panoramic image where a series of trunks fill the frame. Or you might want to focus on the graphical character of the canopy, aiming the lens upward so the branches are silhouetted against a washed-out winter sky or a cobalt blue polarized sky. Or, maybe, using a macro lens, you might want to photograph the texture of an old tree's bark, fungi, flowers or a group of frosted ferns rim-lit against a setting sun, for instance.


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