I approach tree photography as an artist but when commissioned I must also meet the needs of the client. A commission for any work of art requires a relationship to be built between the artist and the client. It is important to have open communication and discuss what the client’s expectations are and then to educate them on your creative vision and approach to the project as well as any technical issues that may impact on your work. Depending on what the client asks for and how much work you are taking on, commissioning any work of art is a long process that should not be rushed. What if you are shooting an image yourself for your own or your organisation’s use? Is it any diﬀerent? I suggest not and suggest that you become your own client. This paper outlines my creative process and some technical information about how I photograph trees for myself and for my clients. I believe anyone who needs to capture images of trees should strive to do the best they can. I trust the contents of this paper will help you.
In this paper I discuss my creative approach to tree photography and the equipment and technical approaches that I use. Like all art, much of what I do is subjective. However, if I am shooting a commission for a client then there are boundaries, processes and expectations that must be honoured and met. In this paper I set out in order how a typical commission usually runs. If you are in the tree industry, please think about how my approaches might be adopted for your use if you are required to create images of trees for yourself or your organisation. I submit that even if you are creating a tree image with your phone for species ID or reporting purposes only, you can create lovely images with a little planning and understanding of what makes a great image and not just a snapshot.
What portrait do you want?
I believe that creating a great image of a tree is no diﬀerent to creating a great portrait of a person. The portrait client usually has a good idea of what they want. A portrait could be a headshot, full body, close up detail, full length body shot or a smaller picture in a certain location. It is no diﬀerent with trees. The choices are pretty clear: a tightly cropped full tree portrait from the ground to the top of the canopy and no other distractions (Figure 1), or a portrait of the canopy only (headshot). Other options include close ups sowing details of leaves, bark, buds, ﬂowers, seed pods, cones etc.
Figure 1: Eye-level portrait of a Eucalyptus camaldulensis
Once I decide what the ‘portrait’ is I begin to consider the angle. In the case of trees it may be at eye level, a worm’s eye view up the trunk to the canopy (Figure 2) or top down if I can get some elevation (or use a drone). These are the issues I discuss with my clients and I suggest you also consider these if shooting just for yourself. My experience with people in the tree industry is that they usually know exactly how they want their tree to be presented. Sometimes they will say ‘you choose what you think works best’, which is ﬁne by me of course! However, to ensure I cover all bases I will shoot as many angles and ‘portraits’ as I can so I don’t get caught short of options.
Figure 2: Worms-eye portrait of Aracauria bidwillii
Trees in the landscape
Sometimes I might be asked or choose to shoot a tree in its wider landscape rather than the portrait view described above. This means further reconnaissance is needed – a recce – to see how the tree trees sit in the landscape, such as in Figure 3.
Figure 3: Streetscape with Quercus macrocarpa
The ﬁrst thing I do once the location is identiﬁed is to conduct a thorough recce. Unlike a human portrait a tree has many faces and they can be viewed from 360 degrees. I walk around the tree a few times to discover its most attractive face while also considering foreground and background. In urban locations surrounding buildings and ugly structures need to be carefully considered. Once I have decided on the most suitable angle I will move on to considering light. The same recce considerations apply to a wider ‘landscape’ image.
Composition is very important and typically comes through a lot of experience and a ‘good eye’, which is why professional photographers will give you the best results most of the time. Factors such as leading lines, rule of thirds, patterns, textures, depth of ﬁeld and symmetry will all be used if and when appropriate. Figure 4 is a good example of the use of leading lines to feature some stunning branches on this tree in a park in suburban Canberra.
Figure 4: Leading lines to Eucalyptus blakelyi
Lighting the tree
Having decided on the most attractive face of the tree, just like a human portrait I must decide how it should be lit to best display the natural assets it possesses. A preliminary step is to use a compass to ascertain exactly where east and west are in relation the face I wish to feature. This then allows me to discover whether sunrise or sunset would work best. As with all outdoor photography the light is best early morning or late afternoon. Figure 5 was shot late afternoon in the beautiful soft light of autumn in Namadgi National Park. My experience with trees has taught me that lower angle light works best to penetrate the canopy and light up the leaves, trunk and bark for best detail. I often want light and shadow, but high sun in the middle of the day is usually harsh and cloudy skies produce ﬂat images. Of course there are exceptions and if I decide to do a ‘worms-eye’ view up the tree trunk to the canopy as in Figure 6below then midday/afternoon could well work. I may decide for creative reasons to shoot with the sun at various positions such as in Figure 7. Like people, no two trees are the same and they must be treated individually as
Figure 5: Great face with pleasing background Eucalyptus stellulata
Figure 6: Worms-eye view of Eucalyptus grandis
Figure 7: Sun high on canopy of Cedrus deodara
Consider other shots
When I know how I am going to shoot the whole tree I will take a very close look at it to consider possible macro shots. For example bark, buds, ﬂowers, seeds, cones. Some clients ask for these but even if they don’t I will probably shoot anything interesting I see to keep in my library for possible future use. While natural light is preferred I will sometimes add light to these shots to enhance the detail, especially if they are attached to the tree and in shade. Figures 8 and 9 are typical macro shots of this nature.
Figure 8: Cedrus deodara mature cone
Figure 9: Cedrus deodara immature cone
Planning the shoot
The weather forecast
Check the weather forecast well ahead of time and then day by day as the shoot day approaches. From my discussion about light above, you will appreciate I am generally looking for full sun days and clear weather at sunrise and sunset. Depending on the location distance from my home oﬃce, travel time also needs to be factored in, so I often leave well before sunrise. Seasons may need to come into your planning if you are capturing speciﬁc autumn foliage and or fruits, seeds, buds and ﬂowers. Ideally wind speed should be as low as possible. I rarely shoot trees on windy days but if I have no choice then I will shoot at a faster shutter speed to stop the motion.
Plan the camera kit
I shoot exclusively with OM Systems camera bodies and lenses (formerly Olympus). For trees I typically use the E-M1X or OM-1 body and I will select a lens to suit the size of the tree and location. These are mirrorless micro 4/3 cameras but there are many full frame or cropped sensor mirrorless and DSLR bodies on the market that will do just as well. A good wide to mid telephoto lens will do the job but I often use prime lenses as they tend to be sharper. For trees I usually use a tripod and a remote trigger. This is very important if shooting high resolution at 80mpx because of the nature of the pixel shifting technology the OM System cameras use. My camera bodies do allow hand-held photography at 50mpx and the standard 20mpx is always ﬁne in the hand as well.
Figure 10: Manfrotto 410 Junior geared head
Tripod choice is important and I favour one that allows for 360 degree manipulation, is sturdy and has levelling built in (although I mostly use the level built into my camera). I use a Manfrotto 410 Junior Geared Head as shown in Figure 10, which does everything I need in either landscape or portrait mode. For legs I use a Manfrotto O55 which is also very robust.
Mobile phones are useful for shooting trees and I do not discount them. If you are shooting trees purely for ID, location and reporting purposes then smartphones are ideal. Contemporary models have good quality wide angle lenses and if you follow my tips on lighting and angles you can deﬁnitely capture worthwhile images. They also have handy GPS facilities built in for recording location coordinates. If however you wish to produce high resolution artistic shots that you have full control over then a dedicated camera will do a much better job; especially if you need to produce prints for enlarging, framing and exhibiting.
I like to get to the location at least one hour before the time I have chosen to shoot. In photography we talk about the golden hour (one hour after sunrise and one hour before sunset) and this is my favourite time to shoot trees, all other things being equal. So I get there, setup the camera and tripod and wait for the optimum light. Figure 11 was shot at 6pm and Figure 12 at 6.30am
Figure 11: Eucalyptus camaldulensis, a ring tree at sunset.
Figure 12: Xanthorrhoea at sunrise
I shoot in RAW Format because I want to capture all the available data on the sensor for total ﬂexibility in post production. If you are serious about shooting great tree images I suggest shooting in RAW and learning the basics of post production in Photoshop, Lightroom, or software that does not require an ongoing subscription.
I use manual focus for trees as I want to be sure exactly what is in focus. In most modern cameras there is a facility called ‘Peaking’ which I have turned on at all times. You can usually set the colour you wish and I have mine set to red. The red peaking highlights the outline of exactly what is in focus as shown in Figure 13
Figure 13: Focus peaking in red
I sometimes use ‘focus stacking’ which is a technique designed to achieve a deep depth of ﬁeld by blending (or stacking) several images together. Each stacked shot is focused in a diﬀerent spot, so the combined depth of ﬁeld is deeper than the depth of ﬁeld produced by any of the individual images. This is particularly helpful when shooting unusual angles such as ‘worms-eye view’ up the trunk of a very tall tree or when shooting a tree in a landscape where I want the whole scene in focus from back to front.
I shoot with manual settings. In terms of the exposure triangle my ISO will be low, usually 200, my shutter speed in normal daylight will be around 1/250 s but it varies depending on the amount of light and can be a lot slower at sunrise or sunset. Shutter speed may be set higher if there is wind and the leaves are moving around. My aperture on the OM-1 will be around f5.6 or f6.3, but for full frame cameras you will probably need f8 or f11 to get the whole tree in focus. Remember there is no magic bullet for exposure as it varies with light, motion and what depth of ﬁeld is required.
I shoot high resolution if I know the shot will be printed, blown up and framed for exhibition. In the OM-1 standard resolution is 20 mpx however I have the option of shooting higher at 50 mpx (handheld) and 80 mpx on a tripod. This of course produces large ﬁles; as an example Figure 14 was shot at 50mpx and as a .jpg is 10,368 X 7776 and 96.6MB. You may not be able to see it here but once enlarged and printed you will certainly see the diﬀerence.
Figure 14: Eucalyptus maidenii adjacent to Old Parliament House, Canberra
On occasions I will shoot HDR or ‘high dynamic range’ where the I judge the diﬀerence between the highlights and shadows is just too great for a normal exposure. By shooting in Raw I know I have plenty of room to adjust exposure across the image in post production if necessary. The OM-1 comes with HDR built in, but you can also do it manually by doing several diﬀerent exposures then blending them in Photoshop.
My tree images undergo very little editing. I try to get the shot as close to the end product as I can in camera. If the steps I outlined above are followed then very little post production is required. Here is my typical work ﬂow:
Raw conversion is done in DXO PureRaw where some initial sharpening and noise reduction will be applied if required. I then move the ﬁle to Adobe Camera Raw where I study my histogram and adjust blacks and whites to ensure correct exposure across the dynamic range. Typically I will apply ‘dehaze’ to create a little more contrast as well.
In Photoshop I will crop the frame and resize for framing if needed. Then I will remove any distracting elements such as power lines, rubbish bins, people, litter etc. I will then usually apply a subtle vignette around the subject tree to enable it to pop from the background a little more. I will then save a Photoshop ﬁle and an uncompressed .jpg. Often I will need to also create a low resolution version forsharing with clients for approval purposes.
I am passionate about photographing trees and when doing so professionally I want to take the time to deliver the best product I can for my clients. Of course you can take a ‘good’ photograph of a tree on your phone but it takes a lot of planning and skill to capture a ‘great’ artistic image of tree, particularly if it is to be enlarged, printed and framed.
© All images in this paper are Copyright of the Author: Graham Gall 2023
Social Media: @gallpix