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Taking photos in pine forests

2020VISION photographer Niall Benvie takes photos in the pine woods of his home country and tells us what's begin done to restore them. He also shares some tips on taking photos in forests.

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Take a look at Niall Benvie's forest photography tips: Top tips for shooting in pinewoods

Pine Forest
Ancient Caledonian pine forest at dawn, Rothiemurchus, Cairngorms National Park © Mark Hamblin/2020VISION.
It’s sometimes easy to forget just how far north Scotland is. Trace a line westwards from where I live and eventually you would come to Churchill, Manitoba - famed for its polar bears - cut across the Alaska Peninsula and first encounter Russia in Kamchatka. But thanks to the ameliorating effect of the North Atlantic Drift, north west Europe remains on average several degrees warmer than is the case on the western side of the ocean. Were it not for the movement of water from the tropics (keeping at bay the North Atlantic Oceanic Polar Front) we would live in a very different landscape. Perhaps even one with bears in it.

So while we may have only the scantiest covering of tundra (on the high Cairngorms), Britain does have the most western extension of the massive boreal forest that stretches eastwards through northern Scandinavia, Siberia and Canada. It is our part of the true north. But it is a frayed edge, much diminished by the onset of cooler, wetter weather about 4500 years ago and 1500 years later, by Bronze Age farmers. Today, perhaps one percent of the original 1.5 million ha of the “Wood of Caledon” remains and too often these remnants are scattered and disconnected. If we are to enjoy the full benefits of the boreal forest we need to reconnect these and expand their area.

So what good is native pine forest? What do we need it for? The answers to some extent depend on the store you set on keeping your home in good order. We can, of course, survive in a place with a leaking roof, overgrown garden and rotten wood work but isn’t the experience of living somewhere that is well maintained much more satisfying? The asset you have to pass on to your children is certainly worth more. Practically, pine forests sequester carbon and are net producers of oxygen. They provide shelter, building materials, fuel and stability for fragile mineral soils. They are sponges that regulate the flow of water into rivers. These things all matter to society: if the pine forests didn’t happen to do this for us (for free) then we would have to pay directly, or indirectly through our taxes, to stop a part of our “home” from becoming derelict.

Pinewood impression, Abernethy Forest © Mark Hamblin/2020VISION.

To those who have spent any time amongst the old pines, stilling themselves so intensely that they feel part of the forest, the Wood of Caledon is more than a mere provider of ecological services. It’s home to some of the most charismatic animals in the land: red squirrels; crested tits; crossbills; pine martens; red deer and capercaillie. These creatures provide a link to greater boreal realm far beyond these shores, and encourage the imagination to roam.

Those who are working to reconnect and expand our boreal forest practise “cathedral thinking”: the results won’t be seen in their own lifetimes but they are driven by a vision of what could be, often informed by having seen wild boreal forests on the Continent.

Pine marten in pinewood glade © Terry Whittaker/2020VISION.

Trees for Life is a charity working hard to restore wild woodland in the Highlands, not for any utilitarian reasons but simply for its own sake; it believes that culturally were are enriched by having extensive natural forests. In practical terms, the long term deforestation of most of the Highlands and intense leaching of nutrients that has resulted, has been disastrous for biodiversity and abundance: re-establishing woodland is the first step in improving nutrient cycling in the landscape.

Woodland regeneration is about a lot more than simply planting trees in empty glens. A forest’s vitality begins with the mass of tiny threads known as hyphae woven through the soil and around plants’ roots. These form the main “body” of the fungi (mycelium) and without these partnerships, trees would be unable to access vital nutrients from decaying vegetation. Their roots are also shielded from disease and harmful chemicals in the soil by the mycelium. Trees for Life, ideally, prefers to work with existing woodlands and improves their capacity to spread by keeping deer and sheep out of adjacent areas. Given the presence of the vital mycelium, new woodland should generate and spread. Planting seedlings (of local provenance) in open areas is sometimes less reliable (especially if the mycelial network has compromised) but the only option available throughout much of the Highlands.

Loch Mallachie and Abernethy pine fores
Loch Mallachie and Abernethy pine forest © Mark Hamblin/2020VISION.

In the meantime, TFL’s work in concentrated on its 4000 ha Dundreggan Estate to the west of Loch Ness which was acquired in 2008. Native tree cover is currently very restricted but TFL aims to restore woodland to 60% of the estate within the next 25 years. It will then link to neighbouring woodlands, including those of Glen Affric, creating a larger, more ecologically viable network. The work of repairing the Highlands has begun.

Whether, in time, these wild woods are home again by lynx and other large predators is largely a political question but one mammal that has recovered from a century or more of sustain persecution and taken advantage of new woodland is the pine marten. For many bed and breakfast guests in the Highlands the captivating sight of this apricot-fronted weasel at a bird table is just a taster of the wild encounters that a reforested landscape could offer.

Top tips for shooting in pinewoods:

Be glad of rain - Pine woods are pretty dark places on a wet day – the pine needles seem to absorb light. But all the vegetation within a wood – not to mention the trees’ bark – becomes much more colourful when it is wet.
If you have to shoot in sunshine – and that is the time to find exciting creatures like the green tiger beetle – diffuse the light for close-ups with Flyweight envelope stiffener. This will provide bright, even lighting that reveals all the subject’s details.
Think in more than one image at a time: your final piece of work can comprise of a set of close-ups that together tell the viewer more about the location than a single image can.
Get creative - Pine woods are great places for making blurred "tree impressions" where the camera is moved deliberately during the exposure. The result is a simplified impression of the wood’s forms and colours rather than a fussy, detailed description. Try an exposure of around 1/8 second and move the camera smartly downwards during the exposure. Make sure that you avoid bright highlights (such as the sky peeking between the trees) as they tend to render as unattractive streaks. You’ll probably need to use your lowest ISO setting and a small aperture in order to get a long enough exposure, unless the light levels are low anyway.

Visit 2020VISION for more information.

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