Looking to delve into forest photography? Capture the intimate beauty of woodlands with these expert techniques.
Forests, with their enchanting light, varied geometry, and tranquil aura, beckon to both amateur and professional photographers alike.
But here’s the deal: If you’ve ever tried to snap a forest photo, you may have realized it’s not as simple as just hitting the shutter button. You can easily get lost in the chaos of branches, shadows, and foliage. Not to mention grappling with the challenge of different lighting conditions and appropriate settings that can vary dramatically depending on the situation.
That’s where this guide comes in. I’ll break down the essentials of forest photography, provide useful gear recommendations, share the ideal settings, and throw in some handy tips to help you elevate your forest photography game. By the end, you’ll be armed with practical knowledge and creative strategies to transform your photos from average to awe-inspiring – making your next woodland adventure a photographic triumph.
Let’s dive right in.
What is forest photography?
Ever looked at the array of trees in a woodland area and seen an opportunity to capture an amazing shot? That’s the essence of forest photography. It’s a broad field that covers any photography centered around woodlands. Whether it’s the deciduous forests of North America, the boreal forests of Siberia, or the jungles of the Amazon, they all fall under the scope of forest photography.
It’s more than just capturing a stand of trees. Yes, you can create a landscape shot with dozens of trees leading into the distance, but you might also focus on the detailed texture of bark or the delicate flowers on the forest floor. Forest photography is a versatile niche. You aren’t limited to one approach; there are plenty of options available for your creative exploration.
Typically, forest photography is seen as a subset of landscape photography. However, its expansive nature means it can venture into the domains of macro photography – close-ups of leaves, for example – and wildlife photography, capturing the dynamic movement of a deer among the tree trunks. So, if you’re drawn to forest photography, there’s no need to feel restricted. The forest is a vibrant, diverse canvas just waiting for your creativity.
What makes forest photography special?
Simply put, forests are amazing photographic subjects. They offer endless opportunities for photographers to play with geometry, contrasting the vertical lines of tree trunks with the horizontal planes of the forest floor.
Photographing forests, however, isn’t just about the natural lines and shapes they provide. It’s also about the challenge of creating order from the inherent messiness of woodlands. A forest scene can be complex, chaotic even. Organizing such a scene into a cohesive frame presents an exciting puzzle for any photographer.
Another allure of forest photography is its tranquility. Forests are peaceful spaces, serene and quiet. It’s this tranquility you get to capture in your images – and the act of walking through the forest with your camera, immersed in the calm and silence, is an experience that’s therapeutic in itself.
The best gear for forest photography
While you can capture great forest photos with any equipment, there are a few items that’ll help you get high-quality forest images on a consistent basis.
A sturdy landscape photography tripod is essential for any woodland photography; forest environments tend to be dark, and without a sturdy support system for your camera, you’ll be forced to widen your aperture (and sacrifice depth of field) or drop your shutter speed until you can no longer get sharp shots.
A full-frame camera
Second, while your camera choice isn’t critical – in fact, you can capture great forest shots with pretty much any model, including a smartphone – I do encourage you to use a DSLR or a mirrorless camera, ideally one with a decent megapixel count and a larger (preferably full-frame) sensor. More megapixels offer greater flexibility when printing or cropping, while a larger sensor will enhance your abilities to capture high dynamic range scenes in a single shot.
If you can’t afford a full-frame camera, however, don’t sweat it. Today’s APS-C and MFT models produce outstanding images (and they’re more compact, too, which is a major bonus).
A variety of lenses
Next, if you do go with an interchangeable lens mirrorless model or DSLR, you’ll want to carry a few lenses. A wide-angle prime or zoom will help you capture scenic-style shots, while a telephoto lens (such as a 70-200mm) is great for tighter forest photography (e.g., foliage, aerials, forest patterns). I’d also suggest grabbing a macro lens or at least a close-focusing lens like a 50mm prime. That way, you can shoot all sorts of little details, including leaves on the ground, fungus on logs, and flowers sprouting on the forest floor.
Forests are pretty dirty, so it can be helpful to mount a clear or UV filter on all your lenses. If you do go this route, be sure you purchase a high-quality model; there are a lot of cheap UV filters on the market that’ll degrade optical quality. Alternatively, you can simply carry a cleaning kit and keep your lenses well-maintained (always use a microfiber cloth, not rags or towels of any type!).
Finally, a polarizing filter can come in handy, especially if you plan to shoot fall foliage. It’ll remove glare on wet leaves, deepen fall colors, and reduce reflections in bodies of water. Keep in mind, however, that polarizers reduce the amount of light coming into your camera, so you’ll definitely need that tripod!
The best forest photography settings
To take a fantastic forest photo, you need to master your camera settings. The best settings vary based on the type of image you want to capture, but you’ll want to start by setting your camera to Manual mode, which will grant you complete control over the image exposure. Another reliable choice is Aperture Priority mode.
If you aim to capture a scene with deep depth of field, meaning an image that’s sharp from the foreground to the background, a narrow aperture is the way to go. Often, a setting of f/8 or higher achieves this effect. Such a setting is effective because it allows the viewer to fully immerse themselves in the scene:
On the flip side, a wider aperture can create a shallow depth of field, where a single element is in sharp focus while the background blurs. This technique is excellent for highlighting specific subjects like a leaf or a tree:
In most cases, a narrow aperture will likely serve you better, but don’t neglect the power of a well-composed wide-aperture shot.
Once you’ve selected your aperture, set your ISO to its base value, usually ISO 100, and pick a shutter speed based on exposure considerations. The idea is to ensure there’s enough detail in the shadows and highlights of the scene.
But bear in mind: To achieve a deep depth of field with an ISO of 100, you’ll often require a longer shutter speed. This means a tripod is essential to prevent blur in your images. Additionally, if the branches of the trees are swaying in the wind, the longer shutter speed might cause motion blur, whether you use a tripod or not. Whether this effect is desirable is a matter of personal preference. If you’d rather avoid it, you can always increase your ISO and shutter speed simultaneously.
12 forest photography ideas and tips
Now that you know the forest photo basics, it’s time to really delve into the tips, techniques, and ideas that’ll elevate your shots, starting with:
1. Take proper safety precautions
Before you head off into the forest – especially if you plan to go on a multi-day trip – consider any potential dangers. It can be easy to get lost in forests, plus they’re often dark and feature rough terrain. And if you’re not careful, you might get hit by a storm or a flash flood.
Always tell someone where you plan to be walking, and make sure you carry a phone that’ll maintain a signal throughout your entire trip. Be sure to bring food, water, a map (if available, a topographical map is always best), a compass, sunscreen, and bug spray.
I’d also encourage you to bring rain gear for you and your camera. A waterproof covering will keep your camera safe, and unless your backpack is waterproof, I’d recommend carrying a cover for it, too. And bring a dry towel or rag to remove moisture, dirt, or rain from any exposed gear.
2. Go out when the light is right
Forest photography, unlike most types of landscape photography, can be done at any time of day – even in bright, direct sunlight.
You see, the forest canopy will filter out some of the harsh light, creating a more subdued lighting situation, one that you’d normally expect to find after just sunrise and before sunset.
So don’t be afraid to go out on sunny days (though midday clouds can be even better!). If you do find that the light is too strong, you can always try shooting in black and white. Look for interesting shadows, powerful patterns, and high-contrast edges.
That said, forests are pretty magical around sunrise and sunset, so I’d urge you to head out during the early hours of the morning or late in the evening. If the forest is near water, you may get some ground fog, which can add lots of mood to your photos:
Note that forest photography during the golden hour tends to feature lovely warm light that gives trees a sort of fairy-forest look – while forest photography during the blue hour tends to feature soft, cool light that gives a more ethereal vibe.
3. Try to include a nice foreground subject
A truly compelling forest photo does more than just capture the scene. It invites the viewer on a journey, guiding their eyes from the foreground to the background. This is where your composition skills come into play. What better way to create this sense of movement and depth than by incorporating an engaging foreground subject?
You could find a cluster of wildflowers, an interesting rock formation, or a set of gnarled roots. The idea is to have an object that grabs the viewer’s attention and then, through clever composition, leads them into the wider forest scene. Sometimes, something as simple as a fallen leaf can be a wonderful foreground element that complements the expansive woodland backdrop.
Getting low and close to your foreground element can emphasize its importance. But if you use this approach, be cautious – you’ll need to set your aperture and point of focus carefully to ensure both the foreground and the background are sharp. Even the smallest shift in focus can cause blurring in one area or another. It’s a delicate balancing act, but when you get it right, the results can be stunning.
4. Don’t forget to shoot in portrait orientation
Most landscape shooters create horizontal compositions out of habit, but when it comes to forest photography, this is a mistake!
Yes, you can capture stunning horizontal forest images, but I’d also encourage you to try shooting vertical photos.
The vertical format will allow you to capture more of the (tree) scene, and it’ll also give your images a sense of height. Make sure you pay careful attention to the edges of the frame – you don’t want to cut off any key elements! – and keep the horizon level. While you can always correct crookedness in post-processing, you’ll lose pixels along the way, which is never a good thing!
Also, if you’re not sure whether a scene will look best in the vertical or horizontal format, just take both shots. Once you’re in the editing room, you can evaluate the compositions and see which works best.
5. Color contrast is key
One drawback to shooting in a forest environment is the lack of color contrast. Unless it’s autumn, the majority of your environment will most likely be composed of green leaves and/or brown tree trunks, which can lead to bland, boring photos.
So you should do whatever you can to add pops of color.
For instance, patches of brightly colored flowers can offer an eye-catching touch. Same with colorful insects!
And even if you can’t find a colorful subject in the area, you can always try to use the light. By including golden-hour sun or flare in the frame, you’ll get beautiful oranges and reds (which will give your shot a more vibrant look).
6. Try black and white
Sometimes, when you’re shooting in a forest, nothing seems right. The light doesn’t hit the way you want, the colors feel off, or you just don’t get a sense of drama from your subjects.
This is a common issue among forest photographers; it’s due to the general consistency of color from scene to scene, and how too many greens and browns make it hard to highlight a subject.
But if you shoot in black and white, you can ignore the color monotony, and you can instead concentrate on the light and tones and composition. Look for interesting atmospheric effects such as fog, and do what you can to organize forest chaos into orderly structures.
Note that you can create black-and-white images in two ways:
You can switch your camera to its black-and-white mode, or you can work in color and convert to black and white during post-processing.
Either is fine, but the two methods do have their pros and cons. If you work in black and white, you’ll be able to review the monochrome image on your LCD (and if you shoot mirrorless, you can preview the scene through the EVF).
On the other hand, if you work in color, you have the choice of converting to black and white or keeping the original shot. (This is an option afforded to all RAW photographers, whether shooting in color or black and white – but if you shoot JPEGs, you won’t be able to convert a black and white image to a color file.)
7. Seek out intimate shots
While capturing the grandeur of the forest is a wonderful experience, sometimes it’s the smaller, intimate details that create the most meaningful images. These images showcase the hidden beauty of the woodland, the little elements that you might miss when you’re focusing on the wider scene.
Switch your mindset from the expansive to the minute. Instead of looking up at the towering trees, look down and notice the patterns in the fallen leaves or the way the moss blankets a fallen log. If you have a macro lens, you can get especially up close and personal with your subjects so you can create images that offer a different, more intimate perspective.
A few drops of water on a leaf, the texture of tree bark, a small stream winding its way through the undergrowth, or even a lone mushroom sprouting from the forest floor – these can all be extraordinary subjects. Each element adds a different layer of appreciation of the forest and can bring you beyond the traditional forest photo into a realm of unique, detailed woodland imagery.
8. Photograph in every season and all types of weather
Forests are not static; they are living entities that transform dramatically with the changing seasons and weather conditions. And as a forest photographer, you should strive to embrace this variability, rather than avoid it.
Summer, with its lush green canopy, offers opportunities for photos bursting with life and vitality. In autumn, forests turn into a riot of color, with the reds, yellows, and oranges creating a stunning backdrop for your images.
But don’t forget about spring, when new leaves bud and flowers carpet the forest floor. And winter, despite its challenges, can produce some of the most magical forest images. Snow-covered branches and frost-covered leaves can create enchanting scenes straight out of a fairytale.
Forests also provide striking scenes in varying weather conditions. Fog and rain can transform the familiar into the mysterious and the mystical. Photographing forests in near-whiteout conditions or on misty mornings can give your images an abstract or impressionistic feel, emphasizing the shapes and forms of the forest rather than the individual trees.
Of course, if you do shoot in these conditions, remember to protect your camera gear. Working with a rain cover is a great starting point, and whenever possible, change your batteries and memory cards in a dry, covered location.
With a bit of preparation, you’ll be ready to capture the forest’s many moods – in any weather and every season.
9. Capture that classic “path through a forest” photo
Photographs of paths winding through forests have a mesmerizing charm, so it’s no surprise they are a staple in forest photography.
Sure, they’re popular, and yes, you might even say they’ve become a bit of a cliché. But remember, clichés are clichés for a reason. They work. They appeal to something universal within us. A path through the forest isn’t just a path. It’s a metaphor for the journey of life, full of twists, turns, and surprising discoveries.
What makes a forest path so visually fascinating is its ability to act as a leading line in your composition, drawing the viewer’s eye into and around the image. It adds depth and dimension, creating a structural pathway that naturally invites exploration.
So whenever you head into a new forest, spend some time photographing its paths. How you capture it is completely up to you. Yes, you can go for the classic shot: path in the middle, trees rising majestically on either side. It’s a time-tested composition that never fails to impress. But let me urge you to think outside the box a bit. Play around with the composition. Frame the path off-center, try shooting from an unexpected angle. There’s a whole world of creative possibilities waiting for you.
Pro tip: An overcast or dreary day can add an extra layer of moodiness, creating a more compelling visual narrative.
10. Photograph on the forest edges
Being deep inside a forest can feel magical, like you’re immersed in another world. It’s an exhilarating feeling. But sometimes, especially when trees are densely packed, it can limit your options for telephoto shots from a distance.
Here’s where the forest’s edge, or even a forest clearing, can come in handy. It’s an area with plenty of open space that allows you to step back, mount a telephoto lens, and capture a different perspective.
Look for patterns formed by tree trunks and branches. Forget about seeing them as trunks and branches; start seeing them as lines and shapes. Try to create an abstract composition that leads the viewer’s eye around the frame.
Sure, it might take some persistence and a lot of shots. But believe me, when you manage to capture that stunning image, it’ll all be worth it. You might even end up with a photo worth framing and hanging on your living room wall!
11. Post-process to enhance your forest photos
Post-processing is an essential part of forest photography; it’s how you refine your photos and really make them pop.
I’d recommend you start your editing workflow by making basic corrections (exposure, white balance, cropping, etc.). Then go into the more advanced adjustments, such as targeted contrast and color grading.
Lighting tends to be more dramatic in the forest and can result in gorgeous rays hitting the forest floor – so draw attention to these by adding contrast to the sunlit areas. You might also try applying a bit of Vibrance to the overall image and playing around with the hue and saturation of individual colors to bring out a natural feel in the shot.
For my own images, I like to decrease the Lightroom Clarity slider, which gives a dreamy or magical feel. I then apply local adjustments to important areas of the photos, such as the main subject. During the latter editing phase, I’ll often use a Brush to boost the Clarity and the sharpness for a little extra crispness.
But there’s no single best workflow for forest photography. It’s really all about experimenting and finding what works for you!
12. Leave the forest as you found it
The forest is beautiful, mysterious, and amazing. It’s worth preserving for the next generation, so please, please, please do whatever you can to keep it clean.
Whenever you’re out shooting, make sure you clean up all your trash, including plastic bags and water bottles. And if you see trash left by others, consider cleaning that up, too.
Also, respect the environment. Don’t get too close to wildlife, and don’t disturb sensitive plants or trees (by trampling over them, climbing them, etc.).
Little things like that may seem trivial, but if we all take care of the environment, we can have a positive effect on our natural world, and we can keep it in good health for generations to come.
Plus, there’s an element of self-interest to consider: The cleaner the forest, the better your photos will look!
Forest photography: final words
We’ve journeyed together through the enchanting world of forest photography, sharing crucial tips and effective strategies to help you capture the beauty of the woods. By now, you’ve gained a solid understanding of the gear, settings, and techniques needed to turn your forest excursions into stunning photo ops.
Sure, translating the mesmerizing charm of forests into photographs might still feel challenging. Remember though, every professional photographer started where you are now. With the knowledge you’ve gained from this guide, you’re already steps ahead, ready to tackle those intricate details and dynamic lighting conditions that make forest photography such a fascinating pursuit.
So what’s next? Get out there and put these insights to work! The forest is calling, and it’s time to answer with your camera in hand. Experiment, explore, and above all, enjoy the process. There’s nothing quite like capturing the magic of the woods and sharing it with the world.
Now over to you:
Which of these tips do you plan to use first? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
A note on authorship: This article was updated in July 2023 using text originally provided by Tim Gilbreath.
Forest photography FAQ
Variety is your friend! Both wide-angle lenses and telephoto lenses can work magic in a forest setting. And don’t forget a macro lens for those intimate detail shots.
As a rule of thumb, I recommend a longer shutter speed, often below 1/100s. This compensates for the limited lighting you often find within forests.
I’m a big fan of the early morning – you get fewer people and occasionally beautiful fog. But you can also shoot in the afternoon and even at midday (especially if it’s cloudy!).
Yes, a tripod is very useful. Given the lower light conditions of most forests, a tripod will prevent camera shake and allow you to use optimal settings for the shot.