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.
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.
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.
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.
3 – When NOT to include people for scale
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.
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!