4 Tips for Taking Better Photographs of Trees

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Can’t see the wood for the trees? I’ve often struggled with the challenge of photographing trees in a way that captures the imagination and takes the viewer on a journey. I’ve learned that for me, there are two very effective ways to consider and photograph trees. Try asking yourself these two questions:

  • Which tree is the leading actor?
  • Which tree/trees are the supporting actors?

I have to thank my mother for this interesting perspective. As a boy I was dragged to many a theatrical play and so I tend to look at my images as a stage on which there are certain characters that play out a scene. There’s always a lead character, some supporting roles and some cool props. Understanding the hierarchy of your characters will really help to improve your compositions in general.

How to Photograph Trees

1 – When a single tree grabs your attention

Decide who is the lead and make that your most important subject. With the image above, it’s pretty obvious who the lead character is in this scene. That huge knotted cedar tree is my leading actor, so I place him centre stage and place all other trees around him.

Using an aperture of f/22 means that my entire image (stage if you will) is in focus and the only reason I can get away with this is because my central character is so obvious that I don’t need to accentuate his presence with shallow depth of field.

Here’s another example of a very obvious leading actor in my scene. It’s pretty much ALL one tree with the supporting actors being a sun flare, the shadows on the foreground and the Koi Carp gliding through the pond in the background. Again, I used a very narrow aperture of f/16 to ensure maximum focus throughout the image.

How to Photograph Trees - Gavin Hardcastle

2 – When trees play supporting roles

Let’s face it, not all trees are A-list actors, but they don’t need to be. You can use trees to frame another, more interesting character, in your image. When you’ve found an interesting subject such as a waterfall, lake reflection or sea stack, take a look around and see if there are any trees that would make a nice frame or leading line that directs the eye towards your main subject. If there are, place them in your foreground.

In the image below, I used the trees and shrubs to create a frame for my sea stack. I used an aperture of f/8 to create a subtle bokeh effect in the foreground shrubs because I wanted to draw the viewer’s eye towards the central sea stack.

How to photograph trees

Here’s another example of where the tree was used as a supporting actor in my scene. Once again the tree creates a frame, and although we don’t see the entire tree, the image would be nothing without it.

Tree Photography

3 – When NOT to include people for scale

How to photograph trees in landscape photgraphy

How big do you think that tree above is? Well, let’s just say that only a toddler would be able to stand under the canopy.

There’s often a temptation for photographers to get a person to stand in their tree photograph for scale. That’s a great idea if your tree is massive, it really emphasizes the immense size of your subject. For smaller trees such as the maple shown above, it would have been a disaster to include a person for scale because that tree is tiny. In fact, it’s so small that I was laying prone on the ground in order to get the shot.

4 – When to use shallow depth of field

Sometimes it’ll be really obvious that in order to accentuate and bring attention to a certain tree or feature of a tree, you can use a wide open aperture like f/2.8 to create shallow depth of field. This is a creative decision, there’s no right or wrong, only what works for your vision. I rarely use shallow depth of field in my landscape photography, but occasionally I’ll want to bring attention to a certain feature of a tree like this guy below.

Photography tips for shooting trees

Whether you shoot huge landscapes or intimate nature scenes, using these four tips should improve that way that you photograph trees. Try them out and capture your own beautiful tree photographs.

PS: looking for some inspiration? Check out these 21 amazing Tree Images!

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Gavin Hardcastle is a fine art photographer, writer and instructor from BC, Canada. Become a better photographer today with his free photography guides and photography tutorials. You can learn from Gavin directly at his global photography workshops in some of the worlds most spectacular locations. Upgrade your post processing skills with his online video tutorials for Photoshop and Lightroom.

  • pkiger

    Great article. I spend a lot of time in outside and I often have trouble capturing trees the way I see them. Can’t wait to try these out!

  • Michael Owens

    Gavin, I enjoyed the article but OMG the example images. Stunning stuff.

  • Well focused but, the angle we take really matters. i tried taking pictures of a coconut tree in my garden and the results came good.

  • Keith Starkey

    Wonderful shots. Thanks very much.

  • RDaleMc

    Got to ask, pictures 1,2 & 3… HDR as well? the colors are incredibly vivid on my computer monitor, so I was wondering about that…

  • jimjim

    i really like the images here.. how i wish i can get that kind of images also from my camera..

  • Fr. Alexis Duncan

    I realize that some processing is necessary, but these photos are so over processed they are garish. Perhaps HDR should be banned altogether…disinvented.

  • Hi Gaven,
    Nice article on trees. We have a field trip for our students dedicated to trees.

    This comes up more often than I like.

    In the first images you are writing to use F22 and for obvious reasons. I personally don’t have a problem with that.

    However quite often the word “defraction” rears its ugly head and makes lots of folks afraid to go beyond f8 or f11.

    My feeling is if you need the depth then sacrifice some resolution that only pixel peepers will see. But sometimes it is hard to get students to work with that small of an aperture just because they read something somewhere that only technically spoke about the lens and not the artistic value.

    Have you ever seen with the optics you use and problem caused by defraction?

  • Anyone else see a grumpy old man’s face on the close up of the tree? LOL

  • Mukund Umra

    Dear Gavin,
    Wonderful comparison to stage!Just loved the article – never came acoss tree photography in particular. (I am new to photography).THANKS.
    Dr.MUKUND UMRA.

  • Michael Owens

    Why? HDR done well is a spectacular image, just because you do not agree why does that mean should be banned/dis invented?

    Get over it.

  • SayMyName

    Sorry but these HDR picture make my eyes bleed. You’ve gone a little too far in post-processing, Gavin.

  • Trish Lechman

    I always struggle to find the ‘main actor’ 🙂

  • Phogropathy

    Haha! Awesome catch on that Darlene!

  • TedCrunch

    I agree that the HDR was overdone, but banning it is not the answer.

  • Fr. Alexis Duncan

    Well, why not overreact when possible….:) I was an art major and my sensitivities sometimes are acute. There is so much beauty in a well shot photo that the lily really doesn’t need much gilding.

  • helen

    I do very cool….

  • helen

    Some tree photos are awesome i like to either stand right underneath the braches and look up taking the photo or i kie down looking up into the braches. Its so interesting looking at the intricate branches criss crossing all over the place.

  • Sherol Bose

    I do see the grumpy old man, Darlene. Great article and thanks for bringing it forward. I’ve been fighting with a single tree on a corner in a residential area for months. It jumped out at me, with a flash of my headlights at 5am one morning this winter. Everyone in town, knows the tree, but I’m getting no insight on the best way to tell its story. I’ll have to try some of these tips.

  • Interesting points! Trees are wonderful subjects to photograph, and finding original ways of portrating them is not always easy, but taking the time to find the ebst perspective is definitely worth it!

  • Yasmin Mostafa

    i do

  • Eric

    I know you don’t use shallow DOF often in this type of photography (or landscapes in general), but that is some solid bokeh in the last picture. You mentioned shooting wide open at f/2.8, so I’m guessing it’s a standard 24-70 – which lens was it?

  • Fan Of Trees

    I don’t feel you have to be an ‘art major’ to enjoy a photo or be creative with one … after all it’s how you, the photographer, interpret what you are seeing and how it makes you feel. Personally I found all of his photos ‘well shot’ without or with the ‘gilding.’ Do you have a site I could go to and enjoy some of your photos? I would like to see how an ‘art major’ sees the world in pictures. Thank you.

  • Daniel

    What about b/n processing?

  • Matthew Schomburg

    Here’s one I took at sunrise on Lake Michigan.

  • argosinu

    Sometimes the forest is the main actor, but I have the same issue — the “lead actor” is a concept I will consider more going forward. Groves of glowing aspen at sunrise still thrill me.

  • Jennifer A. Harroun

    Hello Mr Hardcastle! Where are these beautiful trees located? Do you sell any of these as prints? They are spectacular!
    Jennifer in AZ

  • Geoff

    Sure can, just awesome!

  • Rameshwara Rao

    Hi frds 3 months back i started Photography
    I m using Sony cyber shot DSC w510
    Below one is my photography click
    pls give your valuable feedback

  • Rameshwara Rao

    this is my click

  • gumski

    you won’t – you need $850.00 worth of software to get photos to look like this. ‘Stunning Images’ is the term I believe.

  • Awesome sauce

    Oh my word! Now that you mention it….

  • Goeffrey

    I would take well composed garish over technically perfect boredom any day

  • mizcaliflower

    Gorgeous!

  • mizcaliflower

    I’m pretty sure they are all HDR.

  • Guest

    tree in wallenstein gardens

  • mcl

    tree in Wallenstein Gardens

  • Yusuf Ratlamwala

    Hey Gavin, Thanks for this lovely article, really helps.
    I would like to share few of my shots here.

    1. “Framing the star” – here I have used plants to create a frame and guess what my lead role is a tree too.

    2. “Happy Monsoon” – Here I have used Trees to fill each and every bit of negative space in the scene and I loved the feeling that these trees create it adds the sparkle to monsoon.

    3. “When huge becomes tiny” – I was surprised to witness the HUGE(Elephants) becoming tiny as compared to this giant tree on the banks of this water body.

    Hope you guys like it & keep clicking 😉

  • Linda Bon

    Yes, I think it’s my hubby!!! LOL

  • Nicola

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who dislikes the over processed look. It’s the same as the airbrushing models in magazines receive and sometimes it’s taken too far

  • Christine Woo

    i used my mobile phone and captured the scene

  • Trees and people shot, interesting article…J

  • Iman Nasir

    Here’s one at the Disney Concert Hall.

  • Boris Jakeševi?

    Here is one from Zagreb, Croatia!

  • Berti E M Lemmes
  • Lars Schmidt
  • Soumilyo Dey

    I think that is why the photographer used shallow depth of field technique…

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