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See Through The Chaos

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

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.

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.

Rojas used a telephoto zoom to compress these trees into a pattern of autumnal colors. The combination of colors and flattened perspective and framing without the horizon all help simplify the image.

Some other less orthodox compositional ideas could be to make use of movement in your photographs. Long exposures on a windy day can produce surprising results as the trunks and branches appear sharp surrounded by blurred colorful patches of moving leaves. In the same way, panning the camera or using the zoom while exposing for a half to 1 second can create surprising pictorial effects in our photographs after a few attempts. As always, use the techniques so they add to the message and not just for the sake of their novelty or surprising results alone.

Seasons, Light & Weather
One of the particularities of forests is the diversity of moods and ambiances they provide as they’re transformed completely with the change of the seasons and weather. However, it’s often during autumn that most photographers feel compelled to visit the forest, and for good reason. During the peak of the autumn hues, it’s always a good idea to photograph areas where there’s a strong contrast of colors, for instance, between evergreens and deciduous trees or between the colorful leaves and a complementary blue sky. The colors are particularly strong when the light is soft and the leaves are wet, especially when using a polarizing filter to kill the reflections of their waxy surfaces, so don’t be repelled by cloudy and rainy skies. Go and photograph in the early morning, too, when you’re more likely to experience mist and the absence of wind. Mist fills the forest with mystery and mood, brings lots of depth to compositions and simplifies the complexity. But don’t limit yourself to autumn, as every season has something special to offer.

In winter, particularly right after a snowfall, the forest becomes a winter wonderland full of graphical and tonal simplicity. This is the moment to play with the trunks and their shadows on the virgin snow, focus on the structure of snow-laden branches or look for subjects like frosted fallen leaves or frozen puddles. You can even try to photograph as the flurries fall, using your flash to lighten them up and make them appear as graphical dots of different sizes filling the photograph, or look for isolated trees where the wind has plastered only one side of their trunks, with snow creating interesting vertical bands of white.

When you enter the forest, leave all preconceptions, rush and worry outside, and take your time to tune in with the landscape.

In spring, a raw fresh green covers it all, flowers carpet the forest floor and mists linger in the early morning. In this season, there’s a particular time that’s quite interesting for photographers: when the new leaves start to bud, but are small enough to still allow us to see the structure of the branches. These fresh leaves can glow with wonderful colors when backlit, so spring can be a good time to try photographing the trees against a rising or setting sun or even under a blank cloudy sky when the soft light of the sky illuminates the leaves from behind.

Maybe summer is the season when most photographers stay at home, but even then, when the colors aren’t so enticing and the canopy is dense, it’s still possible to create wonderful photographs. Think, for instance, of photographing close to the edge of the forest when the sun rises or sets, sidelighting the trunks and the undergrowth with a golden glow that can turn the forest into a dream of long shadows, or photograph against the sun in the morning mist as the rays diffract through the canopy.

Forests are magical environments and a wonderful playground for the outdoor photographer. Whenever you go, many very personal photographs will be waiting for you under any kind of light, season and weather.

You can see more of Rafael Rojas‘ work and download his ebooks at A regular contributor to the OP blog, you can find his articles at