Late summer morning

September 2020


A Symphony of Forests

Recently an article of me has been published in a Chinese magazine. Here you can find the English version of the article. Click on the photo and then 'Details' to read more about it and to see the camera settings. Happy reading and leave a comment at the end of the article to share your thoughts!

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Written by Martin Podt

Forests are called the lungs of the earth, as they extract carbon dioxide from the air and they release oxygen, which we as humans all need to breathe and live on our planet. And although forests still cover a large part of our planet, not so many people make photos of forests, compared to the amount of people that practice landscape photography. The reason might be that, although forest photography may seem related to landscape photography, it is completely different from regular landscape photography. Forest photography requires a different way of looking, different shooting techniques and different times and light conditions to shoot, compared to regular landscape photography. Moreover, not all forests are that suited for great photos. For example, forests with mostly young trees are by far not as impressive as forests with big, old trees. Old trees seem to have experienced a lot, like they can tell many stories that happened in the past, long before we were born. Old trees are basically like old, wise men that know a lot. And that is why photos of old trees can evoke certain emotions that photos of young trees cannot.

Forest photography is also a very relaxing kind of photography. First of all, it has been scientifically proven that being in forests can decrease undue stress and potential burnout. The smell of the trees and the sound of birds singing in the morning when the first sunlight in the morning awakens the forest, will help you to be more in the moment and it will help you to forget about our modern, fast-paced life and our smaller and bigger problems. Moreover, several of the most beautiful forests in the world are easily accessible and they do not require much physical effort to reach the nice spots. This quiet is in contrast to for example photography in the mountains where it might take a lot of effort and hours of climbing to reach the beautiful vantage points. Forests also allow for a lot of different photos in a small area. When you just turn around or walk for a short distance in a forest, you can often make a completely different photo. This is also what makes forest photography different from other kinds of landscape photography. Finally, as forests cover such a large part of the world, forests and trees can be found almost everywhere. And with the right light conditions, every place can turn into a magical place.

The uniqueness of forests in the Netherlands

Although there are many forests, not all forests are equally suited to make beautiful photos. Many forests are rather messy with a lot of undergrowth and also a lot of variation in age and size of the trees. Actually, in a healthy old-growth forest there should be trees of all different ages. Finding a good composition to create order in the chaos is crucial for a good forest photo, but that can be very hard in that kind of forests. Forests with not so much undergrowth and mostly trees of similar age and size are much more suited to create a clean picture. And that kind of forests can be found quite a lot in the Netherlands.

The Netherlands is a small country in Europe, with some of the most beautiful forests in the world. Old-growth forests don’t exist anymore in the Netherlands for already quite a long time and that means there are no forests that have grown without significant disturbance by mankind. Many forests in the Netherlands have been used or planted for wood production. The disturbance by mankind might sound as something negative, as it means there is no true wilderness in the Netherlands anymore. But the influence by mankind also resulted in some unique and very beautiful forests. The Speulder forest is maybe the most beautiful forest in the Netherlands. It is famous for its crooked beeches. One of the most-told explanations for the crooked beeches is that in the past the straight beeches were chopped and used for building houses, barns, ships, etcetera. The crooked beeches were not useable and were thus not chopped, so the story goes. And that resulted in a unique forest with a lot of crooked trees. When it is foggy in the forest, it seems that the trees are dancing and that is why the Speulder forest is also called the forest of the dancing trees.

In the Netherlands you can also find a lot of old tree avenues. These tree avenues are just as unique as Speulder forest and maybe even more characteristic for the Netherlands, as they are directly connected to the history of the country. Tree avenues show even clearer the connection between nature and mankind. Tree avenues are great for symmetric compositions and very clean photos. The symmetry and the leading lines of tree lined roads give a photo a lot of depth and that means the viewer is drawn into the photo.

These old tree avenues can be mostly found on estates in that have been created in the past. Many estates in the Netherlands are several hundreds of years old and so are the trees. An estate is a large piece of land with farmland, forests, gardens and buildings, such as castles, large country houses or farms. Especially in the Eastern part of the Netherlands you can find quite a lot of these old estates with many beautiful tree avenues. When you are walking in those forests, it is like you can feel the history of the estates and like those old trees can tell you stories about history and people living there in the past. The amount of old tree avenues that can be found in the relatively small area of the Eastern part of the Netherlands is unique in the world. Some estates have ten or (many) more of these old tree avenues. The forests of these estates are often maintained really well. Dead trees are often removed from the forests, trees are pruned when needed and that makes them suited for very clean and characteristics forest photos that can hardly be made at other places in the world. That is also why forest photos made on the Dutch estates can be easily recognized as taken there. In the forests of estates you can also often find a lot of flowers in springtime. On some estates many thousands of flowers bulbs have been planted and that means you can find large fields with flowers there in springtime.

On estates you can also often find brooks, ditches or moats around the castle or country house, which means that estates can be perfect places for making photos of trees reflected in the water. Reflections always add another dimension to a photo and can make a photo way more attractive. Some trees next to the brooks and moats are growing so close to the water that they got bent. The bent trees that can be found on an estate in the Eastern part of the Netherlands might be some of the most famous trees in the world.

Forests in other places in the world

As a Dutch photographer I can be often found in the forests of the Netherlands. And although the Dutch forests are unique in the world, of course there are also certain types of forests and trees that cannot be found in the Netherlands, such as the swamps of southern USA with magnificent bald cypress trees and ancient laurel trees forests that can be found in, for example, Spain and Portugal. And although those kinds of forests are quite different from the Dutch forests, the experience of being in those forests is quite similar: all forests provide a relaxing experience that makes you recover from a fast-paced, constantly-connected life. For example, floating in a canoe through the cypress tree of the swamps at sunrise while hearing the sound of crickets and seeing birds such as the great egret, the great blue heron and the southern bald eagle makes you feel connected to nature again and it makes you feel recharged.

The right conditions for shooting forest photos

Every experienced landscape photographer knows that during the day the light is generally too harsh for making nice photos. The best moments of the day for shooting landscape photos are known to be around sunrise and sunset. For forest photos, the best time of the day to shoot is about half an hour after sunrise. In the morning the humidity is larger than around sunset and that makes the light in the morning softer than around sunset.

But forests can be messy and a lot of trees in the frame can make a photo too chaotic and therefore not appealing to the eye. The best light conditions for shooting in forests can be found when there is fog. That also means that not every morning is suited to make those famous moody forest photos. When there is fog and the sun shines through the branches and leaves, you may be able to witness beautiful sunrays. Being in a forest with fog or sunrays is a magical experience. When you see bright sunrays for the first time of your life, you will surely be blown away. Fog also means that the trees further from the camera are less or not visible. In that way, you can reduce the chaos in the photo. You can say that when it too foggy for landscape photography, the conditions are great for forest photography.

In terms of mood, shooting photos in a forest with fog allows you to make pictures with a mood that resembles that of movies like Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Walking in a forest filled with fog is a fantastic experience. Fog makes forests feel like magical places and the fog also gives you the feeling that you are walking in a small world, which helps you to be more in the moment. Some people try to resemble the mood of a foggy forest by adding fog in postprocessing. But adding fog in the editing looks fake, at least to the experienced eye. And a photo that looks fake, will destroy all the mood in a photo. Therefore, when you did not get the light conditions to create the mood that you hoped for, the best is to come back later and hope for better conditions next time you visit a forest. Carefully checking the weather forecasts will help you to decide when to go to the forest to shoot.

The best season for forest photography

Try to think for a moment that you are walking in a forest with trees with yellow, golden and red leaves. There is some slight fog and while walking through the forest you can smell the fresh air. In the distance you see bright sunrays penetrating the tree tops. And then suddenly you see a deer. When it sees you, it freezes for a moment and then runs away, hiding between the trees. It’s autumn, the best season for forest photography. The colors in the forests are the best during autumn. But the chance of fog is also the largest during fall. That is why autumn is the best season for forest photography.

Spring is the second-best season for forest photography. That is the season with many flowers blooming. Some forests are completely undergrown with bluebells, anemones or wild garlic. These white or colorful carpets of flowers you will only experience during springtime. And the smell of these spring flowers can be overwhelming. It adds a whole new dimension to the experience when walking in a forest. In springtime you will also hear a lot of birds singing in the early morning. The singing birds are yet another reason to visit the forests during spring. The main disadvantage of spring is that you need to wake up early to catch the sunrise, as sunrise is much earlier during the nicest weeks of spring than in autumn. The mood of spring photos is also quite different from autumn photos. The fresh green colors of the new leaves in springtime result in photos that will evoke feelings of happiness. Photos made during fall are much moodier and therefore also evoke other emotions.

Winter is in my opinion the third best season for forest photography. But when all leaves have fallen down from the trees, the right light conditions are even more important than during autumn or spring. Without thick fog, the forests are often not that interesting to shoot. Although when you or lucky or when you are at the right place, you can get some snow, which can turn a forest into a truly magical place. In case of snow, pine trees are great to photograph, as pines can hold more snow on their branches and trunks than deciduous trees that lost all their foliage. An advantage of winter is that the sun is low almost the whole day. This means that you will have much more time to shoot than in other seasons. During wintertime, you can get sunrays even in the middle of the day. That is something that is hardly possible during summer, for example.

During the beginning and the middle of summer, the light conditions are often not good for forest photography. In those times of the year, the sun is too high on the sky during most of the time of the day, the light is then often too harsh and chances to get fog in a forest are small. At the end of the summer, chances of fog start to increase again and that means that the end of the summer can be a great time for forest photography too. Late summer (around end of August) is also the time that heather fields are blooming in Europe. The blooming heather fields smell a bit like honey and the purple colors are a feast to the eye. Late summer is thus the best time of the year to shoot the heather fields that can be found in many of the Dutch forests but also in other countries such as Germany. But on average, summer is the worst season for forest photography. The colors of the leaves are dark green, most flowers are not blooming anymore and chances to get good light conditions in the forests are relatively small. So summer is a good season to do other things for which you might not have much time in the other seasons, such as going through your photo archive and scouting for new locations and thereby preparing for the best season for forest photography, autumn.

Equipment and shooting techniques

The most used equipment for landscape photography is a camera with a wide-angle lens. To capture the beauty and the wideness of a landscape, the focal length used for landscape photos is generally small. For forest photos however, a wide-angle lens is not often used. For forest photos generally a much larger focal length is used, as with a small focal length the size of trees does not come across to people that see the photo. Larger focal lengths can also be used to reduce the chaos by carefully selecting what is in the frame and what not. Following the rule ‘less is more’ often results in the best photos. A wide-angle lens in a forest is suited for making a dynamic photo of a single tree but then you should stand really close to that tree.

Shooting with a larger focal length requires a different way of looking than when using a wide-angle lens. And that makes shooting forests difficult for people who are used to shooting landscapes. Shooting with a longer lens requires looking at scenes far away from the camera. And in a forest moving the camera position by just a meter or even less or by rotating the camera a bit, can mean the difference between a crappy composition and a photo that is really appealing to the eye. Shooting in a forest for the first time can therefore be a quite overwhelming experience. With all those trees and no experience, it can be very difficult to find a good composition and to make great photos. When you are having problems with finding a good composition, you can always fall back at the basic composition rules like the rule of thirds and diagonal compositions.

When shooting forests, most of the time you will need a tripod. The amount of light in a forest is generally small and that means that longer exposure times will be needed for good-quality photos at low ISO values. That is the reason why you will need a tripod for shooting in forests. However, sometimes a tripod cannot be used. For example, while sitting in a canoe, a tripod can be cumbersome to use. In that case, you need to increase the ISO value to be able to shoot with a small exposure time. Cameras with low noise at higher ISO values, such as most full-frame cameras, are thus preferred.

Equipment is thus important but it is not the most important aspect when it comes to making great photos. When you feel your photos are not good enough, it often means that it doesn’t help to buy more or more expensive equipment. Often it means that you need to work on your shooting skills and a workshop is then a much better investment than buying other equipment. For example, an experienced photographer can teach you how to look and in general his or her experience will help you to become a better photographer and grow much faster than without help. Also, when you are in a forest for the first time, an experienced photographer can help you to find the good spots and the nice compositions that might be very hard to find alone.

Conclusion

Forest photography is a specialization that requires a different way of looking, different shooting techniques, different lenses, and light conditions to shoot, compared to regular landscape photography. You can find beautiful forests all over the world, but the Dutch forests are unique and in those forests you will be able to make unique photos that cannot be made in other places in the world.

When you are used to regular landscape photography, you will notice that forest photography is more difficult than regular landscape photography. But it is also a very relaxing and convenient type of photography, as some of the most beautiful forests in the world are very easily accessible: you won’t need hours of hiking to reach a beautiful spot. Walking in a forest is a very relaxing experience. The view of nature, the smell of the trees and flowers, the sounds of the wind blowing through the trees or the birds singing will make you forget about your daily life problems. And a photo of a forest has a similar impact on people: just looking at a forest photo will already make you feel more relaxed. Forest photography us therefore certainly worth a try. But because forest photography is quite different from other kinds of photography, the best is to go to forests with an experienced photographer. An experienced photographer can help you finding the best spots and can help you giving tips to make the best photos.

Please leave a comment

  • Martin Podt Photography

    on November 30, 2020

    Thanks a lot, Thomas. And I envy the landscapes in Germany. ;) I think the best is to try to find what makes your area unique. I live close to the forests here and I can go there when the conditions are the best. I know near Koblenz there are great places too and you can go there often to make photos when the conditions are the best too.

  • Thomas Siegel

    on November 30, 2020

    Vielen Dank für Deine ausführlichen Tipps . Wir haben zwar hier in Deutschland auch sehr viel Wald. Wenn ich mir Deine Fotos anschaue, bin ich aber echt etwas neidisch im Hinblick auf Eure Bedingungen in den Niederlanden. Deine Ratschläge und Deine herausragende Bildbearbeitung inspirieren. Viele Grüße aus Koblenz.

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