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Photographing trees - a how to guide

Photographing trees - a how to guide - Most photographers have one or more favourite themes, a particular type of subject which attracts their eye. If you look through my filing cabinets it's not hard to identify mine, one in particular crops up time and time again - trees.

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Category : Landscape and Travel
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Words & Pictures Mike Busselle

I try to ration myself, 'OK, that's the last tree today Busselle,' I'll tell myself. But of course it works about as well as my diet attempts. As I believe Noel Coward once said - 'I can resist everything but temptation.' It's got so bad now I was even taunted by a group of photographers as we travelled around on a workshop recently - 'Look Mike there's a good one,' they'd call out enticingly, but I tried not to rise to the bait.

Mind you, trees are important in landscape photography because they provide a vital element of contrast. The dominant lines in a landscape image are largely horizontal and the presence of any vertical line or interesting shape will invariably have a powerful effect, you only have to think of something like a telegraph pole or a pylon to appreciate this.

Photographing trees - a how to guide
A foggy day in the Swiss Alps seemed unlikely to produce many picture opportunities but the misty atmosphere has made this tree stand out so boldly from its surroundings. I gave two thirds of a stop more exposure than the meter indicated to allow for the large area of light background.

But I like trees for their own sake. I have a special weakness for what I call lonely trees - those which are isolated in some way, like being silhouetted on a hilltop, for instance. There's a risk of underexposing the film when taking this type of shot as aiming the camera towards the sky will often give a misleadingly high exposure reading. It's safer to take a close up or spot reading from a mid tone in the scene, an area of grass is often a convenient detail to use.

Photographing trees - a how to guide
I chose my viewpoint so that this tree was placed near the horizon and framed the image to isolate it from others nearby.

I love the shapes of trees and am fascinated by the way this can alter dramatically as you view a tree from different angles. There's one particular tree I pass in France quite often on the autoroute just before I get to Reims. It has the most beautiful shape and is growing in the middle of a sloping field which I've seen looking so different at various times of the year. Sometimes it's freshly ploughed at other times it's planted with yellow rape, or green with new shoots of grain and sometimes golden with ripening wheat or dusted with snow. I've seen the tree with bare, frosted branches, sprouting fresh green leaves, shrouded in mist and vivid with autumn colour. But I can't just stop and shoot it as I would if I was on an ordinary road. I have considered coming off the autoroute at the nearest exit to see if I can find my way to it. But I know that from a different viewpoint it's simply not going to look the way it does from the motorway.

But I also like groups of trees, and one of my recurring themes is the pattern created by tree trunks in a forest or plantation. This makes a wonderful exercise in the art of choosing a viewpoint. I like to move my camera around - a little to the left, over to the right, nearer and further away slightly while I watch the way the composition and effect of the image changes.

Photographing trees - a how to guide
I photographed this plantation of trees in the Bugey region of France on a mild, misty morning a couple of months ago.

Shots like this can be very successful on overcast days when soft lighting can be far more effective than contrasty sunlight and a foggy day or fall of snow can create pure magic. In these conditions it's often possible to obtain an almost monochromatic effect which, paradoxically, can be very striking in colour.

Trees are one of the subjects which are especially satisfying to photograph during the winter months as their shapes, patterns and textures are fully revealed when the leaves have fallen. They can provide the perfect key element in a sunset shot since a tree with a fine shape and an interesting pattern of branches can look even more effective as a silhouette than when photographed in normal lighting.

Photographing trees - a how to guide
I found this partially submerged tree on the edge of the Lac du Der, in the Champagne region of France, during the day and returned to photograph it just after the sun had gone down.

Exposure can be a problem area with sunsets even when you don't need foreground detail. I often take a reading from a section of the sky above or to one side of the brightest area - where the sun is - but in any case will bracket at least one stop each side of my estimate in one third of a stop increments. Quite often several of these exposures will be perfectly acceptable but each with a quite different quality. It's best to wait until the strength has gone from the sunset as image contrast can be too great even for a silhouette, and often the most interesting colours emerge after the sun has disappeared.

Photographing trees - a how to guide
This glorious field of poppies was near the city of Teruel in the Spanish province of Aragon.

Photographing trees is something I never cease to tire of, just talking about it has started to whet my appetite again and I'm sure it won't be very long before I'm adding to my collection - you never know, there may be a book in it!

Photographing trees - a how to guide
The small Burgundian village of Irancy is famous both for its wine and its cherries and the foliage of these trees becomes quite spectacular in early winter. This picture was shot on a very dull, overcast November day.


Photographing trees - a how to guide
I took this photograph early on a murky, January morning in the Canche Valley near Boulogne in Northern France.

About the Author
Michael Busselle who wrote this article for ePHOTOzine sadly died on 13 July 2006. Michael was a professional photographer for more than forty years working with a wide variety of subjects from nudes to fashion and still life, but his main love was for travel and landscape photography. He  wrote and illustrated over forty six books on travel, wine and photography.
Visit Mike's web site at www.michael-busselle.com

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