From gnarled veterans to soaring giants, trees are majestic subjects to experience and photograph. As the seasons change, wild weather and fleeting light can make the pursuit a highly rewarding – yet painfully frustrating – one.
How often have you seen a nice tree, taken a few pictures, and returned home only to find the result a poor copy of what your eyes saw?
Trees, it comes as no surprise, tend to grow in forests. This means that even the most photogenic are competing with distractions like leaf litter, dead branches, bright spots of sky and other trees creeping into the frame – how rude.
But in photography, overcoming these challenges is often half the fun. So I’ve prepared seven tips to help you capture the beauty that drew you to the tree in the first place.
1. Become curious about capturing defining details
Forests are complex environments, often filled with distractions. These chaotic elements—like dead trunks or wayward branches—can combine to undermine the sense of harmony in your images.
So when you find tree scenes too overwhelming, focus on key details instead. Try to isolate defining features while hiding others.
When you approach scenes with open eyes and a curious mind, you can:
- Focus on tribal patterns – experiment with swirls, lines and shapes.
- Switch to a telephoto lens to fill the frame with a few shapely branches.
- Look for exposed bark with fresh colors and textures.
- Try a shallow depth of field to separate the tree from the background.
- Shoot from a distance – show the forest as an abstract group of tribes.
As you try (and sometimes fail) to capture these details, remember that not every photo will be a portfolio-worthy shot.
The point is not to create perfection with every single frame. But experimenting with new angles and focusing on fresh features. To see what works and what doesn’t. And then refine the composition until it’s as convincing as you can make it.
2. Return under better conditions
This second tip may be the most straightforward – just show up again. Still, it will drastically improve the quality of your photography.
Say you saw a nice tree that caught your eye. Great! Go ahead and take a few pictures.
But if you’ve just arrived somewhere new, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll take the best possible photo on your first visit. (If you can, I’d love to hear your secrets.) It could be the wrong season and there’s too much dead foliage. Or it can be windy and blur all the branches.
So do what all professional nature photographers do – note the location, be patient and return under better light. I say ‘better’ light as what constitutes this will depend on the scene. You can return when:
- Direct sunlight is reflected from a nearby cliff shelf.
- A sky full of wispy clouds produces softer sidelights to add shape and depth to the scene.
- The exposed hillside ignites in a golden glow after dawn.
- Fog softens the background and draws attention to your subject tree.
- Harsh backlighting illuminates the branches in a glowing halo.
3. Explore and gain altitude
Sometimes it’s not until we reach the base of a tree that we see its true photographic potential. But looking up this way tends to increase the number of distracting canopy gaps — patches of bright white sky between the leaves — at the top of the frame.
To help minimize these, look for features in the landscape that can give you a higher elevation to take the shot. A boulder, a fallen log or a hill.
You’ll be better positioned to shoot across the stage instead of up onto it. Sometimes even an extra foot or two in height can significantly reduce the number of canopy gaps.
Plus, when you’re on a worn course, you’ll likely only see a fraction of the potential frames on offer. So leave the path occasionally to explore the scene from other angles and vantage points. See how the tree looks from the back or the side.
But above all: Be careful – and considerate – when you go off track. Leave the vegetation undisturbed. If the area looks pristine or delicate, leave it that way. No picture is worth ruining the scene in which it was taken.
4. It’s okay to exclude parts of the tree
When you notice a nice tree, you don’t need to photograph the whole tree. By trying to include every branch and leaf, we often zoom out too far from the key features that caught our attention.
Ending the frame early and cutting off stray branches serves two purposes.
First, you want to place more visual emphasis on the most appealing elements. Don’t just include pretty features – like fractal branches or bold autumn colors – in the image. Instead, make the whole picture about these features.
And secondly, dense crops add a sense of mystery to the scene. Viewers will be left to ponder ‘what could be’ just outside the frame.
Another technique is to use a suitcase to frame one side of the scene. This acts as a natural anchor, blocking the edge and directing the viewer’s eye to your main subject.
And by pruning the frame just before the trunk ends, you’ll give the impression that the tree could be much wider than it is—turning an ordinary tree into a giant.
5. Make subtle processing improvements
So far, each tip has covered what to do in the field. Still, skillful finishing is just as important. Here are two simple but powerful techniques.
First, soften (lighten) the shadow areas to reduce harsh distractions. Why? A viewer’s eye is drawn to areas of strong contrast. So to minimize distractions—like the deep shadows found between roots or on the darker side of trunks—you can selectively lighten the harsher dark areas of your frame.
In Photoshop, you can use a brightness mask to isolate the darker pixels and add a brightness adjustment layer. Then increase the brightness of these areas by +20 to +40 depending on the intensity of the shadows in your scene. This will help to ease the transition between light and dark.
Second, reduce the contrast throughout your scene to improve depth. Because of the natural effects of air particles scattering light—think how mountain ridges appear hazy at lookouts—our minds associate low contrast with greater distance.
So to enhance the appearance of depth in your two-dimensional image, selectively soften the contrast in distant trees. But so subtle. Even a slight drop in contrast in distant trees and a slight boost in dense trees will combine to convey greater dimensionality in your image.
6. Introduce context to tell a richer story
While you want to eliminate distractions and keep your image from feeling crowded, including supporting elements in the image can enhance the overall story of your scene.
Perhaps you could include a fallen trunk to symbolize the life cycle of the forest. Or you can place a sweeping stream to guide the viewer’s eye. Or you can frame the foreground with live ferns to showcase the lushness of the forest.
But when you include additional features, do so intentionally. Don’t just introduce elements to ‘add foreground interest’.
Add these elements to frame your subject better. Add elements that allude to the surrounding ecosystem. Add elements to tell a richer story.
7. Fine tune your frame for a cleaner view
When you spot a great tree, resist the urge to plant your stand there and then.
As an artist, your goal should be to find the best possible setting and work with the limitations of the landscape. So don’t get stuck in the place where you first noticed the scene.
Instead, bend down, shift sideways and explore every angle as you try to:
- Prevent trunks from overlapping to establish subject separation.
- Avoid branches creeping into the corners of your frame.
- Create breathing space between the trees by stepping back and forth.
Sometimes moving your camera a few inches can create a much more pleasant sense of order in your scene.
Granted, distant trees will block each other no matter where you place your camera. But in the immediate zone of interest – e.g. 2-10 meters away – give your subjects room to breathe so they can stand on their own.
At first glance, forests can be overwhelming environments to capture in a single image.
But as photographers, that’s the challenge we face every time we shoot new, complex scenes. We must work within the constraints of the natural world to experiment, innovate and solve problems.
This is how we can showcase trees in their best light – to move beyond taking snapshots and start creating art. Happy shooting!
About the author: Mitch Green is an Australian landscape photographer. He can be found via his website, on Instagram or down by the beach at 5am waiting for sunrise.