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The Magic of Trees

Cedar, Lake Tahoe, Nevada Shore

Perhaps my favorite photographic subject is trees - contorted oaks, showy fall aspens, joyful spring dogwoods. Single trees, groups of trees, live trees or dead trees. “It’s all good,” as some say.

I’m not the only one who feels this way. A quick perusal of Flickr will reveal a number of photographs of trees. Several of my favorite photographers, Michael Kenna, Charles Cramer, and William Neill, are avid tree photographers.

Prior to pursuing photography somewhat seriously, I assumed that it would be easy to photograph trees. There are so many of them out there, how can you miss? Many ways, I found out!

Consider the single tree. Perhaps a stately oak on a grassy knoll, or a contorted dead snag in a meadow. Here the difficulty is generally the foreground or background. Powerlines in front of the oak, or possibly just a featureless blue sky behind it. Maybe the meadow in which the snag stands is ringed by summer cabins.

An obvious solution is to go find other trees, at which point one discovers there are not as many good ones out there as we think! We can try moving to a different vantage point to eliminate foreground or background distractions, but then we might find that our composition is less powerful than one that includes the undesirable elements. One solution, generally my favorite, is to photograph the tree in fog, rain, or snow, to eliminate, or at least deemphasize, the background.

Trees in Fog, Miller Island Refuge, Oregon

Groups of trees can be challenging as well. In this case, it is nearly impossible to photograph from within the group. Nearby trees will dominate the photograph. This can be effective but, again, is more challenging to work with than one might think. Depth of field becomes an issue. It easier to photograph a group of trees from outside the group, which can be done if they are at the edge of an opening or body of water. In densely forested areas the best opportunity may be to photograph across a road.

Aspens, Near Fort Klamath, Oregon

Lighting must also be considered. Trees are fairly complex subject matter, and when a significant amount of contrast is thrown into the mix it is nearly impossible to get an acceptable result. Some sort of soft, even light is usually optimal. Sometimes photographing before sunrise or after sunset can work. I prefer a light overcast that allows enough sunlight to impart a glow but does not create harsh shadows. Occasionally backlighting can produce a compelling result.

Red Leaves and Green Lichen, Rogue-Siskyou National Forest, Oregon

A good tree photograph often requires some level of perseverance, but the reward for a patient and thoughtful approach can be a result that gives the photographer much satisfaction and the viewer a great deal of pleasure.

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