How to Photograph Trees

Napa Valley orchard on a rainy day

There is something primitive about our love for trees.  No matter where you are or the type of trees you may find, there is something appealing about them.  They provide shelter, food, materiale, and beauty.  It may seem easy, obvious, and terribly basic to photograph trees, but I think with a little planning and thoughtfulness, we can capture trees even better.  Here is how:

Basic Composition

Morro Bay, CA

When walking around the “back bay” in Morro Bay, Mary and I saw these long thin private docks.  Can you imagine how boring this photo would be without the iceplant in the foreground and the tree?  The tree anchors the photo and your eyes and then points you out toward the docks and the bay.  Think about how you might use a tree to anchor your nature, travel or landscape photo.

Use the Rule of Thirds (Golden Ratio or Phi)

Patriarch Tree, Bristlecone Pine, White Mountains, CA

We were fortunate this day to have terrific light and interesting skies.  This tree is huge.  It is believed to have the widest base of any Bristlecone Pine in CA (maybe the world).  The slope on the right and mountain slope on the left conveniently meet at the base of the tree.  The tree is in the obvious lower left power spot.  If you laid a 3×3 grid on this photo it would almost perfectly illustrates the rule of thirds (see our blog for more).

Center Focused

Bristlecone Pine in the White Mountains, CA

Though we usually want to use the rule of thirds for composition, sometimes center focused is just right.  I walked around this ugly, yet beautiful tree, until I saw this composition where the dead stump behind the tree balanced the limb on the left.  I got real low and shot up the hill.  It was a great day.

Go Wide

Aspens in the Eastern Sierra Nevada

Here is a 5-shot panoramic of some Aspens.  We were on a road and getting real close was not an option and in front of and above the Aspens was pretty boring.  A wide-angle shot and/or a panorama seemed just right to capture this yellow grove with some green trees behind it.

Up Close

Grain from Pine Tree

Mary sees the small stuff very well.  This old pine was burnt and so weathered that it was polished and the color and grain shown through in an interesting way.  Always remember to get small and up close to find these interesting details.

Reflections

Alta Lakes, CO

Lundy Canyon, Eastern Sierra Nevada

Here are two great examples of reflection shots.  The first is a nice grove of trees reflected in a large lake.  The second one is, literally, a puddle in the middle of the road.  Whenever you see water, look for reflection shots.  (see Mary’s blog on Visual Echos)

Color

Shenandoah Valley Fall Color

Zion National Park

Sometimes, the subject of the photo is simply the “color.”  The cover photo of this blog was taken in Napa Valley on a rainy day.  As we sped down the Silverado Trail, Mary shouted, “stop the car,” and shot the photo from the passenger seat with her Canon s90.  The leaves were all wet and it was fall, making the colors deep and saturated.

Black and White

Mary shoots with an infrared camera during the day.  As you all know, we recommend “seeing” in black and white during the middle of day when the light is bright and harsh.  This photo was made in a campsite in Oregon.  Again, Mary liked the strong tree trunk on the left and the delicate crossing trunks in the middle.  If you saw this photo in color, you probably would have just thrown it out.  If you like a composition, but it does not look very good in color, always try black and white.  It might work better.

Back Lit

Sequoia’s Beetle Rock

This is always a fun option at sunrise and sunset.  If you have a good sky or not, try at least one composition with a tree back-lit.  When the trunk blocks the bright light, the colors in the sky come through much better.

Front Lit

Juniper Tree in Capitol Reef

Joshua Tree, CA

The opposite of course is front lit.  I was looking at a very boring sunset with a bald sky when I walked by this little Juniper Tree and saw the yellow light from the setting sun.  I turned away from the boring sunset and spent the next 15 minutes watching the light change on this little guy.  The Joshua tree is being flooded with sunrise light.  Again, we shot a kind of boring sunrise and as we were packing up, we saw the bright light on this interesting Joshua tree, Mary grabbed her infrared and made this photo.

Chiaroscuro

General Sherman Tree, Sequoia National Park

Tall trees are hard to shoot.  Very tall trees and very large trees like Giant Sequoias are especially hard.  Don’t try to shoot the whole tree, but parts of it.  In this case, it was early morning and the sun had lit up the top of the tree, while the much smaller pine trees below it were in complete shade.  I positioned myself so that the smaller trees were completely in silhouette.  Chiaroscuro is an artistic technique to put light on only a portion of a photo or painting as made famous by Renaissance painters.

Trunks

Aspens in Winter

Mossed over trees in Monterey, CA

These two photos show what you can do by just shooting the trunk.  The Aspens above were completely bare and the pattern of the trees and the trunks were quite fascinating. The coastal cypress above is just the complete opposite as they were covered in different types of moss – red, green, and white.  In either photo, it is not necessary to show the whole tree.  You know what you are looking at.

Bark

Close-up of bark

Mary has an entire file on our PC filled with bark photos.  Any one photo is interesting, but when you starting flipping through them, you see the infinite variety of bark.  Each one of these is a mini-landscape.  After shooting the trees, move in and start building your bark portfolio.

Silhouettes

The Watchman in Zion National Park

In the photo above, I positioned myself to use the large cottonwood to “block” the bald sky. The sun is setting to the right and the glow of the Watchman is really well positioned along with the river in the foreground.  The tree, the Watchman, and the river form a nice triangle.  There is no need to show detail in the tree so it is simply a silhouette.

Juxtaposition

Burned out tree and wild flowers on the Angeles Crest in CA

A couple of years ago, we had a pretty bad fire in the Angeles National Forest above Pasadena and the San Gabriel Valley.  In the spring, the road opened and there was an explosion of wild flowers in a pretty desolate setting of burned out trees and black hills.  We found these flowers intermixed with a burned out manzanita tree.  I think the bright light and clear sky along with the wild flowers are a great contrast to the dead burned out tree.

Conclusion

I could go on and on and on.  As you can see, there are many many ways to photograph trees.  So the next time you go out, make sure you bring your camera and look for trees.  They are everywhere and make great subjects.  To see more of our photos, please go to www.pamphotography.com.

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