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Never underestimate the power of human stupidity.
Robert A. Heinlein

Aspects of Tree Photography

How to take pictures of an unfamiliar complicated camouflaged object-- a tree

I find taking pictures of trees is HARD. I have to try many times in different light to find a way that captures the essence of the plant.

It's hard for several reasons:


  1. Write a note on a pad with a sharpie: "Fording willow #1" Add the location if you aren't at home. This is your first pic. This tells you what the rest of the series is until you come to another note. This stage isn't necessary for garden shots, but for an archive it will help. If the tree is one of a clump, it's a good idea to label the tree too, so that if you come back you get the same tree for your other shots.

  2. Your first pic is the context. So the picture should have the entire tree in it, but shouldn't occupy more than half the frame. You want to see things around it, so set the environment, give size. This pic will also help you to remember where you took it later.

  3. Isolate the subject from the background.. For a tree shooting low, and putting it against a dark sky with the sun behind and over a shoulder. For a twig, seed cluster, flower, or leaf, pick one, and place on a dark table, or dark towel. You don't want black. That tends to make for too much contrast, and the highlights in the sample will be washed out. But a dark blue or dark green avoids confusing shadows.

  4. Take MANY shots. If your camera has bracketing capability, bracket by on either side of the correct exposure. A frame dominatated by one color misleads the stupid little light meters in our cameras.

  5. Shoot raw. Makes things easier to fix later.

  6. Include a piece of white or grey cardstock in the picture if colour is important. Camera’s think the word is grey. Have a chunk of genuine grey or white means you can correct the picture to match the card at home.

  7. Get close. Fill the frame with your subject. If you do this seriously, get a dedicated macro lens, or a zoom with close focusing ability. Most lenses are not great performers at their closest distance.

  8. For arty stuff, get up early. Intersting silhouettes before dawn. This can separate structure from distracting details. The hour after dawn has magical light, and often dew adds sparkle to closeups.

  9. Take winter shots to show the branch structure.

  10. Put something familiar in the shot for relative size. I use my pen for medium shots, a paper clip (You can clip it to a twig or leaf) for closeups. I took a 4' x 1' strip of tenplast (coreboard) scored it twice, folded into a triangular tube, and tape a tape measure to one side of it. Couple chunks of coat hanger wire in the bottom, and I can stand it beside a tree for comparision.

  11. Experiment with light. When I'm taking pix of my trees for the catlog I find that I prefer a day that shutterbugs call 'cloudy bright' A high overcast that makes for a large bright patch of sky. This reduces shadows sharp edges. This is especially important for course textured subjects. Noon sun is very high contrast, and tends to flatten detail -- unless you are shooting something in the shade. Overcast has the opposite problem. Shadows have no definition, and you can’t tell what’s in front, and what’s behind.

  12. Use fill in flash. Since anything close is better lit than something further away, flash tends to separate the subject from the background. But...(There's always a but.) On camera flash tends to make cardboard cutouts. This is why fill in flash. (If I'm losing you here, you're going to need to go to a photo web site.)

  13. Texture. I don't use it the way landscapers do here. Texture is this: How far away can I see it as a feature. E.g. With a ground cover such as thyme being 20 feet away turns it into carpet. Very fine texture. Pine trees have courser texture than spruce trees -- you can identify branches and needle clumps from farther away. Ponderosa bark is in large plates. Compare to young birch twigs which are dark brown with tiny white dots. For a full grown tree, by the time you step back enough to see the whole tree, the leaves are small, and blend together. Most of the branches and twigs are hidden behind leaves.

Texture at two levels is confusing

List of complete pix for a hope of ID'ing by photos

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Sherwood's Forests is located about 75 km southwest of Edmonton, Alberta. Please refer to the map on our Contact page for directions.