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Seeing the Trees for the Forest

Trees are everywhere in nature. But it's all too easy to look right past the trees, and just about everything else, as we seek out the grand vistas and scenic landmarks and national forests and parks. It's all too easy to miss seeing the trees for the forest.

The fall season here has pretty much ended, with its dazzling displays of golden and red leaves. Everyone likes taking pictures of fall color. But what about the rest of the year? Right now, those same trees are bare, now looking more like a jumbled stick figure with a trunk for a body and an array of bare branches for arms. Spring and summer bring the growth of green leaves as the cycle begins to repeat itself in preparation for the return of fall again. Trees change, throughout the year, and a broader arc, from year to year. The same tree photographed today will look different in six months, and different still six years from now.

Quite a few nature photographs contain trees, but few are about trees. This strikes me as somewhat odd, given the ubiquity of trees in nature. Mind you, it didn't always strike me this way. At some point, it just sort of dawned on me. By luck or through skill, I've taken some "tree photos" that I really like over the years, so now I actively look for trees that might make good subjects. They could be anywhere, on the side of the road or deep in the rain forest. Or in the yard of a house down the street in my neighborhood. They're there, in your life too, if you look for them. Older forests often have the best trees, their form and bark having built up character over the years, much as does the wise old faces prized by portrait photographers. You're looking for character.

"A fool sees not the same tree a wise man sees" — William Blake

You have to slow down if you want to see the individual trees. Not the forest or what lies beyond it further down the trail, but the trees. Even better, make that tree, singular. Trees are interesting. They have personality. Each one superficially the same as so many others, but at the same time distinctly unique upon closer examination. Kind of like people. Sometimes of course, specific trees will stand out — the one alone in a field perhaps, or the one with the well-balanced canopy or the gnarled trunk. But even these details might easily go unnoticed unless you slow down. Sometimes, you have the luxury of seeking out the perfect tree from a grove of contenders, other times you stumble on a great one all by its lonesome.

If you're making a portrait of a tree, you want to show it in its best light. That may be at the "golden hours" of dawn and dusk. But it may be at noon on an evenly overcast day where the light is diffuse and not harsh. It depends on what you want to say. It depends on what strikes your fancy as the photographer. If you catch it just right, you might be able to photograph beams of light from the rising sun piercing through the forest and falling lighting your chosen tree. Or if you want to make an image despite the lighting, shoot into the sun and underexpose the tree to create a silhouette.

Trying to frame order out of the randomness of a forest, composition for tree photography may seem challenging. But as with every subject, the camera sees only what you point it at. It's up to you to show what you want to show, and to leave out what you don't. Even when your framing includes more than one tree, try to compose your image with one tree playing the starring role and the rest conceived of as supporting actors. You want the viewers' attention to drawn to some central point of impact. Too many trees that appear equally weighted in the frame can leave a viewer wondering what the subject is intended to be, their eyes left with nowhere to rest. Try to include the base of the tree where it meets the ground. Or make it obvious that you have left the ground out completely and point the camera up far enough to omit the horizon line. Think of it as if you are photographing a person. You can either do a full portrait, or just a head and shoulders shot.

A tree by the side of the road on the Olympic PeninsulaAnd just as with wildlife photography, it's best to avoid the bulls-eye effect that comes from placing your subject dead center in the frame. If it's a single tree, leave some room so it doesn't feel too crowded. Start with the rule of thirds, and go from there.

Or, once you've found a good tree, forget completely what it actually is and envision it as something else. Rainforest trees always look like wizards or dragons to me at least. Whatever. Go with it. Or just look at it as an arrangement of geometric shapes and colors and let them guide your composition.

"Try to forget what objects are before you — a tree, a house, a field, or whatever. Merely think, 'Here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow,' and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape, until it gives you your own impression of the scene before you" — Claude Monet

One thing I really like about photographing trees is that they don't go wandering off while you're shooting them. These willing subjects will stand perfect still (baring a passing breeze of course) while you consider how best to photograph them. And if the light isn't quite right, you can come back later, knowing it should still be right where you left it. Or come back when the season changes to find your subject with a new look, as if it is wearing a different set of clothes.

So be on the lookout for interesting and amazing trees. Sometimes they seem to find you, but other times you may need to wander in the woods for an hour or more to find a really good one. But you'll never find one until you can see the trees for the forest.

Date posted: December 2, 2018


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