There is definitely something magical about forests. They are full of all kinds of life. Plants range from ancient trees that have stood for hundreds or thousands of years to delicate flowers that will fade in a week. Animal life can range from huge mammals to the smallest of insects. It is therefore not surprising that forest photography can produce such beautiful images.
From tropical rainforests to high alpine forests, the diversity offers a lifetime of forest photography opportunities. The challenge, of course, is finding the best way to photograph a forest.
In this article, I’ll provide my seven favorite tips, ideas, and examples on how to capture the beauty of a forest in your photos. These tips will be a balance between good technical mastery and creative inspiration. That said, let’s dive into it.
1. The right white balance for forest photography
I’ll be honest, it’s not even the most important tip, but we should delete it first. Why? Because having the “correct” white balance for your forest photography will help you optimize everything else in your images.
Here’s the problem: if you’re deep in a forest, the light you use to capture your images will usually have a very strong color cast. Often Auto WB just won’t do the trick. Or, should I say, AWB will give you fair/neutral balance, but that’s actually not what we want.
The most impactful ethereal images generally embrace the greenish color cast that the light will have. Additionally, the light can drastically change color from minute to minute, depending on whether it is sunny or overcast, and whether the light is filtering through tree leaves, bouncing off a nearby rock face, etc. .
So instead of using AWB, or even setting your camera’s WB to daylight or shade, I highly recommend using Kelvin WB. Kelvin temperature control lets you easily warm or cool the color balance of your images. It’s very intuitive once you get the hang of it; it’s basically the manual mode for your white balance!
What are my favorite Kelvin WB settings for forest photos? I usually start somewhere around 5500K for Temp, and often dial in +1 in the magenta direction for Hue. However, I can turn this down to 5000 or 4500K, or as low as 6000 or 6500K, depending on the ambient light in the sky above the forest, or the types of leaves the light is filtering through.
2. Use a polarizer
Most photographers think that a polarizer (a circular polarizer, to be exact) is only used to turn a blue sky into a darker shade of blue. Not true! Polarization is actually incredibly useful in the forest.
Indeed, a polarizer not only polarizes a clear blue sky, it also cuts reflections from foliage and water. That’s why the pictures above have such a lush, rich green color, and also, that’s why the waterfall water and the rocks behind the water have a bit more color and a bit less “shine”. .”
Without a polarizer, the low brightness in the image above would almost completely overpower the color of the green leaves.
3. Bring your tripod
You might not think about it if you are walking through the forest in the middle of the day, however, forest photography can involve very slow shutter speeds. This is especially true if you are using a polarizing filter, as it also darkens your exposure by 1-2 EV.
You don’t need a giant, heavy, rock-solid tripod, unless, of course, you like to do a lot of very long exposures with a very dark ND filter. In general, for most forest photos, you’ll do just fine with a lightweight travel tripod so you can work more easily at medium to slow shutter speeds like ½s or 1s.
Bonus Tip: Don’t be afraid to increase your ISO, if it means getting the “right” shutter speed. Obviously this is useful in astro landscape photography conditions but even during the day the forest leaves can flutter in the wind and cause annoying blurring even if your shutter speed is only one second .
4. Look for the light
This creative tip may not be your favorite, but I’m going to encourage you to get up for sunrise or be in the forest at sunset, rather than in the middle of the day.
In the two images above, the first was captured in flat lighting (the sun was behind me) in the middle of the morning, while the second image was captured in the late afternoon with the sun backlit a very similar topic. The art is subjective, of course, but I hope you prefer the second image as much as I do.
Aside from the light itself – in my experience – forests are the most alive of life, and yet a calm and relaxing aura, early in the morning. Light filters through the trees, or if you’re out in the open, warm light gently illuminates a lovely clearing. It’s just a more peaceful and zen environment to unleash your creativity.
Of course, even in the middle of the day you can create spectacular images using light. Just keep an eye on how light and shadow play together, creating contrast. Often times I find the side lighting to be just stunning any time of the day. The image above was captured at noon in the middle of a hot summer day.
Finally, soft light on an overcast or foggy day can also be a wonderful opportunity, so don’t make the mistake of sitting in your (admittedly warm and cozy) hotel room on a dull winter day.
5. Look up!
Frankly? I hope this tip is just a reminder, because as soon as you enter a forest, looking up in wonder is one of the first things you probably already do.
However, for photography reasons, photographers sometimes limit themselves to certain angles, assuming that they must always include the ground or a horizon in their shots. Honestly, some of my favorite images are simple compositions with my camera pointed skyward…
6. Know the seasons
Next time you’re planning a trip, keep in mind that even a single week can make a huge, jaw-dropping difference in what you see. Whether it’s flowers in a meadow with spring or fall colors, it’s very important to do some research to find out when a season is at its peak for a certain region.
Here’s the thing, though. The seasons come and go at different times depending on your altitude! In the fall, for example, the colors begin to turn at higher elevations earlier and at lower elevations later. In the spring, the reverse happens: flowers and other fresh green shoots start at lower elevations and progress higher throughout the summer.
7. Keep conservation forest photography in mind
On a darker note, especially if you live in the American West, chances are you visited a particular forest years ago, and revisited it more recently, to witness a charred wasteland.
Is it the most beautiful and attractive subject? No. However, I strongly believe that as outdoor/landscape/nature photographers, capturing the significant changes in the landscape is extremely important. This is neither the time nor the place to talk about climate change, however, I can tell you from experience that the forests I visit are changing drastically and will never be the same in my lifetime. The four images above show the same portion of the same forest over just four years in California’s Sierra Nevada.
Closing | Forest Photography Inspiration
I hope this article has actually inspired you to go out and create pictures in a forest. Not only is it a healthy experience for you as a human being, but it’s also a diverse creative opportunity as a photographer. Moreover, there is always a chance that our images can help encourage others not only to go and discover the forest, but also to respect and conserve the forest.