How to shoot woodland images - a step-by-step guide

How to shoot woodland images - a step-by-step guide

All images from James Abbott

Find calm with your camera in the chaos of the forest while avoiding the problem of converging verticals with these top tips on how to photograph woodlands

Woodland photography is considered to be one of the most rewarding subgenres of landscape photography. But, it’s surprisingly also one of the most difficult.

"Woodland photography is considered to be one of the most rewarding subgenres of landscape photography. But, it’s surprisingly also one of the most difficult."

This is simply because finding a sense of calm in the often visually chaotic environment takes practice and skill. So, in this guide, the aim is to give you a head start towards achieving success when you’re out on location.

Location knowledge itself is always important because you need to know exactly where the trees that interest you are situated. What’s more, knowing when and where the sun will rise or fall is important because it allows you to judge where you can shoot from at any given time of the day. And although you can shoot woodland at any time of day and in any weather conditions, some are almost certainly better than others.

The key to a successful forest shot is to find a sense of calm within the chaos of the woodland - f/11 | 0.8s | ISO 100 | 117mm
Editor's note:

Apps like PhotoPills are ideal for checking when the sun will rise and set at specific locations. Read more about PhotoPills and other essential apps for photographers with our dedicated guides.

The best conditions

Woodland images shot in mist and fog have become another landscape photography cliché, but there’s no denying that these are the best conditions for this type of photography. Why? Because they create an ethereal quality and help to hide the mess of the forest. Mist and fog are more common in the morning before sunrise, so you have to keep an eye on weather conditions at your desired woodland location and be prepared for an early alarm.

"Woodland images shot in mist and fog have become another landscape photography cliché, but there’s no denying that these are the best conditions for this type of photography."

Aim to be on location 45-60 minutes before sunrise so you can take advantage of the changing conditions as the sun rises higher in the sky. On some days, the sky will be cloudy so the sun won’t be bright, and these mornings provide soft light and pastel colours. But on the days when the sun does break through, backlighting can create some seriously eye-catching scenes. Spring and autumn mornings are the most likely to be misty, but summer and winter have their fair share, too.

While woodland images can look sublime when shot at the right time of day and in the best conditions, get these and the technical elements wrong and your woodland shots may look mediocre at best. Lens choice is an important factor like any other subject, and for woodland a telephoto will often be the best option.

Backlighting (where light shines through the trees from behind) can create spectacular conditions for woodland photography - f/11 | 1/200s | ISO 200 | 200mm

Make the right lens choice

The best lens to use for woodland photography is a telephoto like a 70-200mm, 100-400mm or even a superzoom such as a 28-300mm.

"The best lens to use for woodland photography is a telephoto like a 70-200mm, 100-400mm or even a superzoom such as a 28-300mm."

Shooting with a longer focal length means that you’ll need to stand further away from the subject, which results in the camera and lens being completely level rather than having to be tilted back to fit in the trees and avoid capturing too much of the ground, which is often the case with wide-angle lenses.

If you don’t have a telephoto lens the best option is to shoot with a kit lens, which will typically be 18-55mm for APS-C cameras, or a medium zoom such as 24-70mm or 24-105mm for full-frame. With one of these lenses, zoom into the longest focal length and shoot from as far back as you can. Success here will depend on the overall size of the tree and how much you need to tilt the camera back, but converging verticals will be minimised compared to shooting at wider focal lengths.

Shooting with a longer focal length means that you’ll need to stand further away from the subject, which results in the camera and lens being completely level rather than having to be tilted back to fit in the trees and avoid capturing too much of the ground, which is often the case with wide-angle lenses

The problem with converging verticals

The result of tilting the camera back/upwards, is that it creates converging verticals; this is where straight objects such as trees and buildings appear to lean inwards towards the middle of the frame. Converging verticals rarely look good in woodland photography and are best avoided at the point of shooting if possible.

Tip:

If you can’t shoot with a telephoto lens, you can use Lens Corrections in software such as Lightroom to correct the problem.

This shot was taken at 35mm so the photographer needed to be closer to the trees with the camera tilted back to fit them into the frame. Converging verticals are visible and present an unnatural viewpoint that ultimately ruins the shot - f/6.3 | 1/60s | ISO 50 | 35mm

The image on the bottom is of the same trees and was taken from a hill at 90mm, so the camera was completely level on the vertical axis. The trees are completely straight and the shot is much more successful overall thanks to the more natural perspective - f/11 | 1/30s | ISO 100 | 89mm

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How to shoot woodland with a telephoto lens - step-by-step

Follow the steps below to create beautiful woodland shots like this bluebell scene - f/8 | 0.6s | ISO 100 | 157mm

1 Camera settings

Light levels in woodland are often low, and when combined with shooting around sunset, shutter speeds will be too slow for hand holding the camera so a tripod is essential. Shoot in aperture priority with the aperture set to f/11-16 for full-frame, or f/8-11 for APS-C. Set ISO to 100 and ideally use a shutter remote. But if you don’t have one, set the camera self-timer to a 10-second delay.

2 Use filters

A polarising filter is a great filter to use for woodland photography because it can be rotated to remove the glare on foliage. In many situations, this will be the only filter you need. But if you’re shooting in woodland with tall trees, you may find that these are much brighter at the top than lower down, so in this situation a soft ND grad can be used to balance the exposure.

3 Fine-tune composition (& exposure)

Compose your shots with Live View and turn on the Virtual Horizon to make sure the camera is level on both the vertical and horizontal axis. Next, use the live histogram to make sure that you’re not blowing highlights and apply exposure compensation to lighten or darken the image if required. If your camera doesn’t have a live histogram, take a test shot and view the histogram during playback.

Tip:

When shooting with a telephoto, even when stopped down, the depth-of-field is shallower than when shooting with as wide-angle lens. So, when focusing, decide which part of the scene needs to be pin-sharp and focus there. But if you require pin-sharpness throughout, you’ll need to shoot 5-6 focus stacked images to merge in Photoshop or Affinity Photo. To learn more, see our video tutorial on how to focus stack landscape images in Photoshop.