5 Highly effective ideas for Photographing Trees

Trees are one of my favorite subjects to photograph. Elegant, regal, and colorful — they are as individual as people. However, creating a portrait of a tree or grove of trees that communicates its essence can be a challenge. They are often a tangled mess, with distracting dead wood, or oddly shaped branches. The job of the photographer is to take in all the visual information about the trees, then arrange it into a beautiful composition that reveals its character.

Photographing Trees in Aspen, Colorado.

“Aspen Happy”, Colorado. Canon 5DsR, Canon 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L lens, ISO 100, 75mm, ƒ/16, 1/10 sec.

Order from Chaos

In reality, photographing trees is messy business, but it is the complexity itself that makes photographing them particularly rewarding. Here are a few techniques that can be helpful in creating a well-organized composition.

Using a frame card to photograph trees.

Gary showing us how it’s done with a frame card.

Cut a piece of mat board to the same proportion as your camera’s sensor. Hold it up at an arm’s length and close one eye to view the scene. That is about the equivalent of 120mm on a 35mm camera. Five inches from your face is equivalent to about 24mm, and 10 inches away is equivalent to about 50mm. This will allow you to move around freely as you visualize your composition before you even get your camera out of the bag.

Walk around and study the trees from different angles. If you are photographing a group of trees, find a position where the trunks do not overlap. Look for patterns and elements that break up those patterns. Use a long lens to isolate smaller parts of the scene.

Dreamy Photo from Aspen, Colorado

“Dreaming of Aspen”, Colorado. Canon 5DsR, Canon 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L lens, ISO 100, 93mm, ƒ/16, .5 sec.

Seeing the forest through the trees

Sometimes it helps to step back from a grove of trees in order to make a clean composition. Roads and rivers create wonderful opportunities for space when positioned between you and your subject. Or, get up on a hill where you can look down on the forest. Pick out interesting patterns from your perch.

Photographing Trees in winter in Northern California

“Winter’s Fury”, Northern California, Canon 5DsR, Canon 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L lens, ISO 4000, 93mm, ƒ/16, 1/160 sec.

Take your time

Photographing trees cannot be done in a hurry, so allow time to wander and give the task your full concentration. Patience and curiosity are necessary ingredients to make the best tree images. Trees are loaded with individual character. Take the time to get better acquainted with them and your images will be more impactful and engaging.

“Blue and Gold”, Canadian Rockies, Canon 5DsR, Canon 100-400mm ƒ/4-5.6L IS II lens, ISO 800, 120mm, ƒ/13, 1/250 sec.

Choose your light

There are wonderful opportunities to photograph trees in all kinds of light — back light, side light, shade, overcast, moonlight and starlight. But the only kind of light that comes to mind that is not particularly interesting is front light. Front light is when your subject is directly in front of you and the sun is at your back. To add drama, position the sun behind the foliage or to the side of the trees.

Dogwood trees in Yosemite California

“Dogwood and Yosemite Light”, Yosemite National Park, Canon 5DsR, Canon 24-105mm ƒ/5L IS lens, ISO 50, 58mm, ƒ/16, 1.3 sec.

Revisit these old friends every season

Visit your favorite trees during all seasons and times then note how they have changed. Try to tell a visual story about them. Pay attention to how they have changed throughout the year. For example, Dogwoods in Spring have lovely saucer-like flowers dancing on the ends of lateral branches. In the Autumn, those same trees turn vibrant colors of yellow, orange and red.

Redwood Trees Photo in Yosemite California

“Among The Ancients”, Yosemite National Park, Canon 5DsR, Canon 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L lens, ISO 100, 80mm, ƒ/16, .6 sec.

For further reading about technical settings and gear recommendations, see my article on photographing Fall color.

Check out the following tutorials on Visual Wilderness:

About Author Charlotte Gibb

Charlotte Gibb is a contemporary fine art photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area specializing in landscapes of the Western United States. Her images are often taken in familiar places for the well-versed landscape photographer, but she prides herself on her keen an eye toward the subtle and sometimes overlooked beauty of the natural world. Charlotte earned her Bachelor of Arts Degree from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and has exhibited her work in several solo shows throughout California. Her darkroom, long gone now, has been replaced with digital darkroom tools, and her style has evolved from a somewhat journalistic approach, to one that pays tribute to the natural world.