Forest Photography Composition Considerations

During a recent hike to the Niagara Whirlpool I found myself pondering a few options with my images. This article shares a few basic forest photography composition considerations. 

Often when hiking on established trails we are aided by rudimentary staircases. The following images illustrate four basic composition options from which we can choose.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 6.7-13 mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 6.7 mm, efov 18 mm, f/5.6, -1.0 step, 1/60, ISO-400

The first approach is simply to use the staircase as a leading line. This is the most subtle way to include this type of element into a forest photography image. We can integrate it into a composition without making it the main subject.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 23 mm, efov 62 mm, f/8, 1/40, ISO-400

Another technique is to make the staircase the main focus of our forest photography. We can use the surrounding forest to give it some scale. By the way, this section of stairway was only the first portion of a series of 62 steps going up from the forest floor of the Niagara Gorge.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 12 mm, efov 32.4 mm, f/8, 1/40, ISO-400

A third option is to position the staircase in our photograph so that it gives the viewer an experiential view. A feeling of being involved in the action.  It can also make a difference how you position the first step of the staircase in your photograph. In the image above, it is clear that this part of the journey is about to begin.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 14 mm, efov 38 mm, f/8, 1/40, ISO-400

The photograph above has the exact same number of stairs visible, but now the viewer is unsure about how many steps have already been climbed. For some folks this type of composition adds a feeling of more immediacy and involvement.

Choosing how to deal with trees presents a range of considerations in forest photography. In this article we’ll discuss two common ones. The first option is shooting angle.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 6.7-13 mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 6.7 mm, efov 18 mm, f/8, 1/80, ISO-400

The image above is probably the most common shooting angle and camera position used by most photographers, i.e. at eye level from a standing position. Now let’s have a look at another photograph of the same scene, but this time I dropped down to one knee and held my camera close to the ground.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 6.7-13 mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 6.7 mm, efov 18 mm, f/8, 1/200, ISO-400

You can see that this lower to the ground shooting angle produces a very different feeling to the scene. The trees appear larger and there is a more expansive feeling to the image. Other than the shutter speed changing because I was shooting up towards the sky, the EXIF data is identical. Changing our camera position and shooting angle is one of the simplest things we can do to add drama to our forest photography images.

When walking along trails our forest photography images can take on a monotonous look. Using a simple ‘partial reveal’ technique can add some variation to our compositions.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 6.7-13 mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 7.7 mm, efov 20.8 mm, f/8, 1/25, ISO-400

Using this approach can heighten the feeling of ‘being there’ for a viewer and also add a good sense of perspective in a photograph. The key to making this approach work is to use a wide angle focal length and to get in very close to the tree being used for the partial reveal. It also helps to stop down your lens a bit to help ensure deep depth-of-field. You will also have to adjust your camera height and shooting angle to eliminate the potential for wide angle distortion. The results can often be quite dramatic.

The last technique we’ll look at in this article is ‘tree inclusion or crop’. How we use trees on the right and left hand sides of our compositions can significantly impact reader eye flow. Let’s have a look at a cropped tree composition.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 6.7-13 mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 6.7 mm, efov 18 mm, f/8, -1.0 step, 1/50, ISO-400

By cropping off the tree on the left hand side in the image above, it draws the reader’s eye towards it… then forces the reader’s eye to the right. The photograph makes us feel more confined and compressed as the scene is much tighter. Now let’s take a look at the same scene, but this time the tree on the left hand side has been treated differently in the composition.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 6.7-13 mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 6.7 mm, efov 18 mm, f/8, -1.0 step, 1/50, ISO-400

This is the same scene, shot with the same focal length, from the exact same physical position. All I did was shift my composition to add some visual space to the left hand side by not cropping the tree. I allowed about the same width in forest view as the width of the tree on the left side to create balance in the composition.

You can see that this very slight shift in composition changes the feeling in the photograph quite a bit. It is less confining and it feels less compressed. There is a bit of an optical illusion created as there appears to be more depth in the image. This is caused by allowing the reader’s eye to flow past the tree on the left hand side, rather than being stopped by it.

None of the composition techniques in this article is ‘better’ than another. They are just approaches we can use to create different feelings in our forest photography images.

Technical Note:
All photographs were captured hand-held in available light using Nikon 1 gear as per the EXIF data. All images for this article were produced from RAW files using my standard process of DxO PhotoLab, CS6 and the Nik Collection.

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4 thoughts on “Forest Photography Composition Considerations”

  1. Another excellent article, Tom – – Very well timed for some processing I’m doing after a recent trip (including a forest walk In Sri Lanka). I’m never quite sure/confident about the partial-reveal – great to have such good examples. I’ll take this on-board at the composition stage, next time.

    Regards, J-TKA

  2. What a splendid place to hike and marvelous photos and information. Thank you!

    I am so lucky as I get to walk through some woods twice a day. But I don’t take many photos of the whole forest, mostly smaller pieces of the forest like mosses, flowers, leaves, bark textures, etc… I will now need to try to get more photos of the forest itself.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the article Joni, and thanks for adding to the discussion! Like you, I also enjoy photographing the details found in forests… more on that in a future article…

      Tom

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