Walking around in a nearby forest is like meditation for me. It’s extremely relaxing and puts the mind at ease. I live in the Netherlands and we have a lot of forests spread throughout the country. I occasionally find time and explore new forests. I love to take a walk and just enjoy the relaxation of nature. To smell the forest, hear the birds and enjoy the peace and quietness of these forest is the ultimate form of relaxing and releasing stress.
The forests are often beautiful with different trees, some old and some new. Each forest has its own characteristics and paths. That’s why they never get boring and that’s what also keeps them interesting for photography. Because after all, that’s why you’re probably reading this article :)
Forest photography is a category on its own. It can be included in the general ‘Landscape Photography’ category yet it is totally different. It’s different because it’s actually different from anything. It’s challenging but can be very rewarding.
Forests are often messy. The trick is to find peacefulness in the chaos. To have an image that looks calm while it’s composed of lots of different elements.
In this article I’ll go over everything you need to know when photographing forests. I’m a landscape photographer and I have lived around forests all my life. When I see them change during different seasons and light conditions, I am drawn to them and have to capture them. I am lucky that I can see them that way, but some of you might need to come from afar to capture a beautiful forest. This guide prepares you for everything you need to know for forest photography.
When you want to photograph a forest, it’s important to scout. If you’re lucky and live around a forest area it’s very important that you always look around you whenever you’re driving or walking around in your neighbourhood. It’s small things that can look like magic when the right weather conditions happen.
When you live in a country with lots of trees and forest, check Google Earth to see where they are located. You can then find hikes on Google itself and see where people like to take walks in general.
I often explore a new forest without my camera. Just for the relaxation and to take a walk without any distractions. I do this during the day time. It’s important to know your way around a forest because when you’re actually photographing you can easily find the ‘good’ spots in the forest when the magical light presents itself. By ‘good’ spots I mean many things: an interesting tree, path, group of fauna etc. Anything that’s interesting can look magical with the right light. More on that later.
A nice tree in autumn, not in a forest but simply next to a road. Photo by: 'Albert Dros'.
You don’t necessarily need to find a big forest. Sometimes, small areas in between houses can already look magical with the right conditions. Or even a road surrounded by trees, a ‘tree lane’.
If you don’t live near any trees and are planning to visit a forest for photography, simply use Instagram for hashtags with trees in them. For example #tree_captures, #tree_magic, #tree_brilliance etc. These can be used for inspiration but also for locations.
When you want to do a trip specifically for photographing a forest, the best would be to plan a few days. You really want the right conditions and it can often be a few days (or even week) before they present themselves. That said: you can always find interesting things in the forest and always shoot interesting photos, no matter the light. But if you’re coming from afar, I would recommend doing forest photography in autumn.
The next important thing when you’re scouting a forest is to check where the light is coming from. When and from where is the sunrise? When and where is the sun going down? The magic light happens in the morning after the sunrise, and in the evening before the sunset. It’s important to know from what direction the light comes, because you’re going to be shooting into the light. This is necessary to create more separation, more on that soon. To check all this, use a smartphone app called PhotoPills. This lets you check exactly the above.
When you’re walking and scouting in a forest, try to imagine how things will look with different light. But not only that, try to even imagine how things will look during a different season. How will this old tree look like in winter without leaves? Or how will these certain trees look in autumn? Some will be gold, but some won’t. Try to imagine a forest in different light and seasons. You can always return to the same spot. I have photos from the same forests throughout all the seasons and all different kinds of light.
A photo of a tree lane taken in autumn. Photo by: 'Albert Dros'.
The same tree lane, taken in summer. It's hard to pick a favourite. Photo by: 'Albert Dros'.
For me, the best conditions in the forest is when it’s just a little bit foggy. As mentioned, I often shoot during the early morning or late afternoon, when the sun is still relatively low on the horizon. That said, especially in the morning when the conditions are right, I can shoot for hours. Here are various conditions of weather for photographing forests:
A great time to be in the forest for me. Thick fog separates all of the trees and makes it much easier to make compositions in the forest. It gives a very spooky atmosphere and is absolutely amazing.
Depending on how low the clouds are and how thick the fog is, this can be great shooting conditions during the whole day.
In some countries there are forests on higher altitudes. The clouds move through them all day, making it perfect for these mystic conditions.
Thick fog and clouds are great shooting conditions for forest photography. Photo by: 'Albert Dros'.
Also great to go for photography in the forest. If you get a tiny bit of fog with sun, make sure you’re in the forest right after the sun rises. You will get beautiful light rays peaking through the trees.
For this, make sure to visit a thick forest with good coverage. The light will peak through the holes in the thickness and create absolutely magical light rays.
Some people think the light rays in some of my photos are ‘photoshopped’. This is not the case! They’re entirely real. Sometimes they’re so strong that it looks like you’re in a dreamworld.
Rays of light in a forest. Photo by: 'Albert Dros'.
Light rays are magical! Photo by: 'Albert Dros'.
A difficult time to photograph the forest but still possible (see the compositions part in this article).
Make sure you go early morning or an hour or two before sunset, when the sun is a bit low still. During the day with strong light you get shadows everywhere and it gets very messy to photograph.
When the sun is low you can still play a bit with the sun light.
An autumn image of playing with the low sun. You can always create interesting compositions in the forest! Photo by: 'Albert Dros'.
Not the optimal conditions to go photographing in the forest. Because there is no light, you will get very ‘bad’ separation of trees, making it difficult to find good compositions. However, with flat light you can still do some nice macro in the forest.
With all of these conditions the best time to be in the forest would be right after sunset. Lots of times, the humidity level around this time is high and the cold ground gets heated by the sun, creating the humidity in the air. During these times there is a high chance for light rays. It’s the magical atmosphere lots of photographers are aiming for. I prefer very thick fog when I can shoot all day in mystic conditions.
Now how do you prepare and plan for the right conditions? You have to ‘know’ your local weather. I often check the weather and can see when mist and fog is predicted. Next to simply checking the weather forecast, the next very important thing is humidity. When the humidity level is high and the sky is clear, you’re almost certainly getting light rays in the forest in the morning after sunrise.
So what season is ‘best’ to photograph the trees? That depends of course on your preference. In general, the most popular season is autumn. When the trees turn gold combined with the sunlight making their leaves glow, that’s magical.
But I also like winter when everything turns white and the trees are without leaves. It gives this surreal cold atmosphere that I am really a fan of. But even summer, when everything is green and the trees are full of leaves, is beautiful to photograph the forests.
The most important thing to photograph a forest is really the conditions and light. Forests look magical throughout the whole season.
Winter in a forest. Photo by: 'Albert Dros'.
Summer in the same forest. Photo by: 'Albert Dros'.
Autumn in the same forest. Photo by: 'Albert Dros'.
When you’re in the forest, shooting or scouting, there are a number of compositions that you can look for. In the beginning a forest can be very overwhelming. There are so many trees everywhere and pointing your lens in any direction just looks like a complete mess. The trick is to create a sense of peace in this chaos. You can all it order.
Try to look for a single or group of trees that stand out. The easiest thing is to use a telephoto lens in the beginning. A 70-200mm is perfect for that. Look through your viewfinder and simply move your camera from left to right very slowly, and try to find the elements in the chaos that create some sense of order. It’s not easy in the beginning but once you’ve used this technique for a while and become more experienced in photographing forests, it comes natural.
When we’re walking in a forest, new compositions constantly present themselves. This is because the sun is moving through the trees and shines its light on different elements constantly. That’s why I like to walk ‘to the light’, I like to walk to the sun and constantly see the light popping up on different spots.
If you’re walking away from the light everything looks completely different and you can’t really see well where the light is hitting. Try to walk to the light to get the best results. Sometimes I keep walking and shooting and really get lost in a forest. It can be very addicting and you can do it for hours. Make sure you mark your car on your GPS!
As mentioned, shooting with a telephoto in the forest is the easiest form of forest photography. Find a single tree or a little group that looks nice, and then figure out how to compose them. Sometimes the light hits just those trees and its perfect to get a clean shot.
Another favourite of mine is shooting paths. These work great with telephoto lenses as well. It compresses angles and you can get some great creative leading lines while using them.
A group of trees in the foreground separated by the light. Shot at 100mm. Photo by: 'Albert Dros'.
A single little tree hit by the light in a dark forest. By underexposing the frame, only the little tree pops out. Shot at 400mm. Photo by: 'Albert Dros'.
A swirling bike path shot at 200mm. The compression gives it this really packed look which works very well with roads and paths. Photo by: 'Albert Dros'.
Wide angle shots in the forest can be tricky because there is so much going on. It’s challenging, but fun!
Try pointing your camera up for example. A whole new world opens when you see all the branches against the sky. It can be great for abstract shots.
Also try shooting closer to the ground by using foregrounds. Use branches or shrooms as a foreground, with interesting light and trees as a backdrop. These compositions are often not that easy to find, but if you do find them they can be a very rewarding photo. If you see interesting shrooms, try going very close to them with a wide angle, and take a photo using focus stacking so you can get the whole image in focus.
A focus stacked image at 12mm. Photo by: 'Albert Dros'.
Looking up from trees with a wide angle lens creates a whole new world. Photo by: 'Albert Dros'.
This totally depends on your shooting style. Some of my friends hate tripods in the forests. You’ll probably be walking quite a lot.
When I am going out for forest photography I often walk at least 5km and sometimes over 10km in a morning while shooting, because I am constantly seeing new positions popping up when following the light. So a tripod is extra weight. Not only that, a tripod also makes you less ‘mobile’. In forest photography you often have to be quite quick because the light is moving fast. So using a tripod is not always preferable.
However, I always bring a small tripod myself. Forests can be a little bit dark, especially when they’re thick. If I go in the very early morning when there is not much light yet, a tripod is a must to get sharp shots without bumping up the ISO too much. Also, when I need to focus stack a wide angle shot in the forest, I need my tripod. I have a small lightweight tripod that I carry around just for that case.
Bringing a small lightweight tripod is useful in the forest. Photo by: 'Albert Dros'.
As I do a lot of our shooting handheld in the forest because I like to be flexible in compositions, my ISO is almost always a little bit higher, around 200 to 400. This is so that I can get the shutter speeds I need. This is especially important when shooting with a long lens.
Shooting handheld allows you to be flexible with your compositions. Photo by: 'Albert Dros'.
I recommend a narrow aperture from f/11 to f/14 to get a relatively large focus plane. Because I am shooting with a long lens most of the time and photographing a certain line of trees, I want them all in focus (the backdrop will be slightly out of focus, this is fine). However, if I aim to photograph a single object and want to zone it out, I will use a more open aperture.
Use a faster shutter speed in general. Not only because I'm often shooting hand held, but also because the trees are moving. Just a small breeze already moves all the leaves and if your shutter speed is too slow they will be unsharp. I aim to use a shutter speed of at least 1/100s.
Like mentioned before: a little bit higher than base ISO in general, to get the right shutter speed.
I would not recommend to use spot light metering. Try to use the average of your whole picture (if your camera supports it), but in general just look at your live view and see if the picture is properly exposed. You can always under expose a little bit, especially when there are light rays. It’s no problem to crank up the shadows a bit in post production, providing you are shooting in RAW format.
When photographing, don't focus too much on the settings. When it looks good on your Live View and when your shutter speed is fast enough, the outcome will be fine. Focus on compositions and catching the right light in the moment. The first time you’re photographing a magic morning in the forest is really an experience. Never have I seen so many beautiful compositions and light during one morning of photographing. Experience it!
Forest photography can basically be done with ANY kind of camera. I often take beautiful pictures in the forest with even my smartphone. However, to get great results it’s often necessary to have a bit of a longer lens, so have a camera that can zoom. But you definitely don’t need a high end camera for forest photography. Forest photos are often very dreamy and look a bit magical, so you don’t need crazy sharp photos at high resolution. Also weight is an issue if you’re going to go for a long walk in the forest, so a lighter camera is better to use in the forest.
The best you could use is a small compact camera with 1 lens that has a huge range, think of 24-240mm. This way you can capture everything with 1 camera and lens. I personally bring my whole bag with me with my Sony A7RIV, 100-400 lens and 12-24mm for wide angle. This is simply because I want to be able to get to extreme ends, like 12mm and 400mm shots. But in general, this is not really necessary.
Simply bring a camera with an all rounder lens with you, or if you have a good full frame camera mostly the 70-200mm and 16-35mm (or wider) will be enough. And a light weight tripod.
Use clothing that breaths. Depending on the temperature and conditions, it can be humid in the forest. You will sweat easily so it’s important to wear clothing that breathes.
A breathable water resistant coat works best. I usually bring an extra layer and put it in my bag incase I get cold.
Try to not wear shorts. Forests have all kind of insects and it’s better to try and prevent yourself getting stung by something. I usually wear good outdoor pants. I have one for summer and a thicker one for winter.
Use waterproof shoes or sometimes even boots. Forests can get very muddy and wet (depending on conditions). Also wear some comfortable hiking socks.
I love to process forest photos. My forest photos always have a dreamy look that I think fits the general atmosphere of when I walked there very well. This dreamy look is already in the base of the photos. After all, the atmosphere was magical when I walked around there. But it’s important for me to bring that across in the final images. I process my images mainly in Lightroom, Photoshop and Luminar. There are a few tricks regarding forest photography:
Give everything that little extra magic by adding glow to a forest image. It softens all the light a lot, makes it a bit warmer and gives that extra atmosphere to an image. Be careful to not add too much.
If you have a photo with beautiful light rays, you can make them pop by adding some micro contrast to the image. Try to not add this micro contrast to the whole images, but only the spots where the light rays appear.
You can change the colours of leaves slightly to give them more of a summer or autumn look. You can change the hues of yellows/oranges to more reddish for a more intense autumn look. Or change the leaves during summer to more green for a more intense summer look. Play with hues to see the results.
Split toning is very powerful in processing forest photos. This way you can give the light a certain tone, and the shadows another. Light and shadow are very well defined in forests, so split toning is perfect to process. You can get very creative with split toning and think of complimentary colours. For example, during autumn photos you can give the light a bit of a blue tint, that goes very well with the red and orange of autumn leaves. Experiment with it!
You can find all of these aspects in Luminar using my presets. I usually use Lightroom to catalogue my files and then bring them into Luminar for the editing.
BEFORE (straight out of camera). Photo by: 'Albert Dros'.
AFTER: Golden Autumn II Luminar Preset. (1 click). Photo by: 'Albert Dros'.
I hope you enjoyed this article and I am very much looking forward to seeing your forest photos!
Have you tried photographing the forest? What did you find challenging and have you got any other tips for people wanting to try forest photography for the first time? Leave a comment below!