15 Tips for Capturing Fabulous Forest Scenes

Forests can be one of the hardest landscapes to shoot successfully as they are busy scenes full of contrasting light and shadows and often multiple components with trees, rocks and water, but if you have the right tools at your disposal and the right light, you can easily create captivating images. 

riwaka resurgence river forest

Fifteen Tips for Capturing Fabulous Forest Scenes

Where & When

1. Not all Forests Are Created Equal

I often see images from European photographers who have epic woodland scenes to photograph with open canopies and low grasses and flowers providing a fairly reliable repeating pattern at ground level and I am somewhat envious. By comparison, NZ native forests can be a messy affair - particularly in the North Island. If you’ve ever walked into a Waikato forest, you’ll know exactly what I mean, they’re full of vines and supplejacks and a cacophony of different varieties of plants growing, and these forests are often in a word........chaotic!

waikato north island forest

That’s why I love visiting the Redwood Forest in Rotorua, as the punga ferns create a lovely, simple lower canopy 2-3 metres high with the giant redwoods towering above in a much higher layer, it makes for a much less busy scene.

South Island forests are different again - in the far south around Queenstown and Fiordland the beech forest is more consistent in textures, more open and often has lovely ferns at ground level or mossy, soft ground and fallen logs. I generally find this type of forest easier to shoot than the typical North Island forest.

beech forest fiordland nz

2. What time of Day?

It's best to shoot when the light is low, as the shadows will be longer and it will be easier to capture a sunstar than when the sun is directly overhead. Therefore in summer go just after sunrise or just before sunset. In winter you can almost shoot all day as the sun stays so much lower in the sky and the contrasts between light and shadow are nowhere near as harsh. The image below was shot at midday, but as it's in midwinter the sun is low enough and gentle enough to incorporate in the scene.

redwood mist sunstar forest

You can position the sun to create a sunstar as well as interesting shadows on the ground from the tree trunks and to light up certain aspects of your scene like the fern in this shot above. It's not hard to angle yourself into a position where you can catch a sunstar, but bear in mind that the sun is on the move constantly so if you are trying to capture a sunstar you will need to keep moving every few seconds - this adds challenge to the scene!

3. It's all about the LIGHT!

Light will make or break a forest scene. Light in the wrong place or too much or not enough can make the scene look less than ideal. Soft side light or back light is the best lighting to aim for. The scene below incorporates a small amount of sidelighting to light up just a few areas in the scene - the spray above the waterfall, a few leaves in the trees and on the rocks below the waterfall.

mclean falls misty light catlins

Sometimes a moody day is what's needed to give a nice even light to the scene, too much light can create harsh contrasts. In the scene below, there was just enough light filtering down from above to cast a nice glow on the ferns surrounding the waterfall but no direct sunlight.

hawkes bay te ana falls

4. Mist adds atmosphere

Most other landscape scenes are a washout in thick fog but not a foggy forest, this only adds atmosphere and intrigue, one of my favourite ever forest shots was taken when I started hiking the Routeburn Track not far from the Divide as we climbed up towards Key Summit. The mossy branches and lush green ferns contrasted with the rocky path through the scene for great effect.

routeburn track middle earth forest

The How - Gear, Settings, Focus 

Gear list: Camera, wide angle 16-35mm or a mid range 24-70mm lens, tripod, filters

5. Getting the best focus

It can be hard to get the entire scene in focus with a very intimate foreground subject but with trees and forest in the distance that you also want to be relatively sharp. One way to get around this is by focus stacking, a technique that involves taking multiple shots focusing on the different focal points in your scene (a minimum of two - one for foreground and one for background). The number you need to take will depend on how many strong subjects are at different focal depths into your shot.

If you want to get the best focus in a single shot, aim about ½ to ⅔ into the depth of the scene for the most optimal sharpness.

6. What settings should I use for the best exposure?

The available light in your scene will entirely dictate your settings, but in general if you want to get a good sharp shot you should be shooting at f/8-f/11 which is the sweet spot for landscapes. Keeping your ISO low between 100-400 will keep the noise at a minimum BUT bear in mind that forests are very busy scenes and therefore a lot more forgiving noise wise because they have a lot of texture than a scene with mountains and sky would be. So if you do have to put your ISO up higher it isn’t the end of the world.

On a calm day, you can therefore operate at f/11, ISO 100 and then adjust your shutter speed to suit the light, regardless of how slow this might be (so long as you are shooting on a tripod once you get into long exposure territory). If there is a breeze in the forest, you will be forced to shoot much faster to prevent the foliage from blurring in your scene. If you find yourself in this position, you are going to need to increase your ISO and potentially widen your aperture to compensate.

7. Use a Polariser

Sometimes people forget that using a polariser in the forest is essential to creating richer tones which make it much easier to edit green tones in particular. Light reflects off leaves far more than our natural eye appreciates, but it is obvious the minute you add your polariser and rotate to remove this light reflection.

If you are incorporating water and rocks in your images, then the difference between an unpolarised and polarised image is even more apparent.

polariser light forest water comparison
The difference between a polarised and non-polarised shot in the forest - the light is removed from the foliage to enable lusher green tones

8. Use an ND Filter with Water Scenes

If you are shooting a scene with a river or waterfall, an ND filter is a no brainer to slow the water down enough to create a silky flow. Experiment with different shutter speeds, often forest shots that incorporate rivers look better at ¼ - 1 second than they do at 10 or more seconds as you allow the natural path of the river to still be visible in the scene.

0.4 seconds, f/8, ISO100

I choose to shoot my forest, waterfall and river scenes with the Kase Filters Armour Kit and Kase Wolverine Circular Magnetic Professional ND Kit to get the best results.

Then find a Killer Composition

9. Take a Walk Around

Forests are very busy places, how do you even find a good subject to focus on? Rather than just plonking yourself in the first spot you come across, walk around for a while assessing the scene. Sometimes just 2 steps to the left or right will improve your shot.

Also you can use your phone to frame the scene, it’s much easier to visualise how a composition will look when looking through the frame of the phone cutting out the peripheral distractions, and is a handy precursory look - especially if the composition is down low and you'll need to put your tripod down near the ground to get the shot it can give you valuable feedback without wasting precious time setting it up and finding the composition isn't what you thought it would be.

10. Look through your viewfinder

Don’t rely on what your screen is telling you, you’ll be surprised just how much better you can analyse and assess your scene when you use your camera's viewfinder. More often than not I find something distracting in my scene, whether it’s a stick, a leaf or a rock that isn’t adding to the scene. It takes no time to go and remove it - call it a bit of gardening if you will. Sure you can try and remove it in Lightroom or Photoshop later, but it’s even better if you don’t have to!

11. What's your Subject?

Forests with rivers running through make a great composition, in general you should shoot upstream so the water is running towards you if you can, it makes a much more powerful composition.

whirinaki forest river canyon

If you have a forest scene that is solely made up of trees, think about incorporating a path OR a strong foreground subject whether that’s a log, ferns, or a tree trunk etc. More often than not, it’s best to avoid sky in a forest scene (other than what is filtering through from behind the trees), as it is all too easy to blow out the highlights from a bright sky behind. 

beech forest south island paradise queenstown

12. Beware of chromatic aberration

Shooting with a strong light source from behind trees can also create chromatic aberration. Chromatic aberration is an effect that occurs when a lens is not able to properly refract all the wavelengths of colour in the same point. It's quite a common problem in photography that affects almost all lenses, though high-quality lenses will generally produce less chromatic aberration. The key is to ticking the 'remove chromatic aberration' button in the Lens Distortion Panel in Lightroom to help reduce this issue.

bridal veil falls chromatic aberration

13. Use Tried and Tested Composition Techniques

There are a number of composition techniques you can use in the forest to enhance your composition. Think about framing - you can use tree trunks or leaves and branches to frame the edges of your image.

Use Leading Lines - a path or river through a forest makes for an awesome leading line drawing you into the scene.

Shoot Vertical - forests and trees are tall! Think about changing your orientation to incorporate more height into your scene.

redwood forest vertical tree sunstars

Shoot low - this will enable you to get a more interesting foreground incorporating fallen logs, leaves or ferns, and to get better height overall in your shot.

paradise beech forest queenstown nz
1 sec, f/20, ISO100 at 31mm

Add depth to your scene by using trees at different distances or by using water flowing through diagonally from top left to bottom right to enable the eye to be lead through the whole scene.

marian river forest fiordland nz

14. Go artistic (ICM)

One technique that can work really well in a forest with a lot of similar size trunks and backlight is ICM - intentional camera movement. This is where you intentionally move your camera while the shutter is open taking the photo to create a blurred effect. In forests, moving the camera up vertically while taking the shot or zooming in or out with your lens while the camera is shooting (think Star Trek warp speed ahead!) can create some interesting results.

I find that about ¼ of a second is a good shutter speed and then it’s just a matter of practicing your technique - it can take a while to get a good result, 1 in 50 shots isn’t a bad rule of thumb! When shooting ICM, it's often better to shoot with a slightly longer zoom to avoid the barrel distortion that can occur at the edges of the scene.

redwood forest vertical pan icm
1/3 second, f2.8, ISO320 at 61mm (24-70 f2.8 GM lens)
redwood forest zoom pan ICM effect
1/3 second, f2.8, ISO 320 using 24-70 f2.8 GM zooming in while pressing the shutter

15. Lastly......enjoy the time in Nature

There is something incredibly relaxing about spending time in the forest - it's quiet, the trees will often muffle the sounds of the outside world and there can be incredible native birdsong to enjoy depending on where you are. Take the time to stop and really let the forest envelop you and slow down to be in the moment. Regardless of whether you come away with exactly the images you had in mind, it will never be wasted time just being in nature.

I hope that these tips will give you more confidence to head out into the forest and shoot great content! There are so many amazing places in New Zealand where you can get into the forest and shoot interesting compositions while enjoying the solitude and peace of these places at the same time - something that is undoubtedly good for the soul.

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