Tree therapy: How to photograph rainforests (Part two)

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This is part two of a two part series on shooting rainforests. You can see part one, from last week, here. 

Explore patterns and details

Opening your eyes to naturally occurring patterns and the details that support the wider landscape can lead to creative photos.

This approach ties into the concept of slow photography I mentioned earlier. While big, gnarly trees are easier to spot due to their obvious visual impact, the subtleties can be an enjoyable challenge to capture.

Image: Benjamin Maze/Supplied
Image: Benjamin Maze/Supplied

One of the best ways to look for these compositions is to see the rainforest in lines, shapes, colour, and texture, rather than its literal nature. To the untrained eye, a group of trees off in the distance may be just that, nothing more. To you, they could be an exploration of parallel vertical lines. A leaf fluttering in the sunlight could be a study of shape and silhouette; lichen-covered bark, an exemplification of textures.

Often defined as “intimate landscapes”, these are a great way to diversify your portfolio and get to know the rainforest at a deeper level. As eye-grabbing as the wide-angle images are, sometimes an image that whispers rather than shouts is most powerful.

Image: Benjamin Maze/Supplied
Image: Benjamin Maze/Supplied

Experiment with abstraction

Impressionism and abstraction in art has been around for over 150 years. Though it’s not as commonly associated with photography, playing with abstraction can be a great way to get creative in the rainforest.

The most common method for abstraction in photography is using intentional camera movement (ICM). This is the practice of slowing down your shutter speed – anything from 1/30s to 1s – and deliberately moving the camera to induce motion blur.

Image: Benjamin Maze/Supplied
Image: Benjamin Maze/Supplied

Since trees are vertical shapes, moving your camera vertically usually produces the most pleasing results. A pan head tripod can be used to create smooth lines. I personally prefer to have a bit more fun with it, going handheld for a more organic and textured result. I enjoy a shutter speed somewhere between 1/5s and 1/10s, with aperture and ISO simply balancing exposure.

A second method of abstraction is using multiple exposures (ME). This consists of merging two photos together, either in-camera or in Photoshop. The possibilities here are endless – from creating floating islands of foliage, to complete abstractions reminiscent of scraping thick oil paint on canvas.

Most importantly, when practicing ICM and ME techniques in the forest, don’t be discouraged by results that aren’t immediately compelling. It may take 10, 50 or 100 bad attempts before one works out.

The technical stuff

A variety of techniques are required for shooting rainforests, depending on what sort of image you’re trying to capture.

For fine art rainforest photography, the aim is generally to have most of the image rendered in sharp focus, with plenty of detail in both the shadows and highlights.

Image: Benjamin Maze/Supplied
Image: Benjamin Maze/Supplied

Calm, foggy conditions are most favourable here since they present the least technical challenges; the soft light and still foliage allows for longer exposures at narrow apertures. Using an aperture from f/5.6 to f/16 will allow you to capture your subject in full detail, with a higher aperture required when foreground elements are included.

Aim for a low ISO for clean files and maximum dynamic range – though if you need to increase up to ISO 800, the high frequency detail of the forest should disguise the associated noise.

Finally, if foliage isn’t staying still, aim for a shutter speed that is fast enough to freeze the movement (unless, of course, movement is the creative goal). If you’re shooting moving water, which often looks best between 1s and 1/20s, you may have to blend shutter speeds to capture tasteful water movement alongside sharp leaves.

Overcoming great depth of field is a common challenge in rainforests. The inherent dim light sometimes means a wider aperture is necessary for the required shutter speed. However, this proves to be a problem if you’re wanting sharp detail throughout your composition.

Image: Benjamin Maze/Supplied
Image: Benjamin Maze/Supplied

Focus stacking is the best workaround. This consists of capturing an image sequence that focuses from the immediate foreground through to the background, which are blended into one sharp image in Photoshop. Don’t use it as a one-size-fits-all solution though, as keeping the depth of field a little shallow can also work in your favour.

Finally, high dynamic range is another challenge to deal with. Though modern camera sensors allow for much flexibility in recovering the histogram, there are still times when exposure bracketing is required. When no fog is present, you’ll have to deal with a huge difference in luminosity - from bright canopy gaps up high to deep shadows down below.

While exposing for the highlights should take priority - since shadows are much easier recovered - be sure to take some brighter exposures when necessary to avoid clipped blacks.

Post processing

Editing a rainforest image in a tasteful manner is half the challenge. Lightroom and Photoshop will be what most photographers use to get their processing done, but other dedicated programs – such as Helicon Focus and Topaz Labs – can aid with specific tasks such as focus stacking and reducing noise.

In my view, maximising dynamic range is key for rainforest edits. This will involve decreasing the highlights and raising the shadows/blacks, as well as potentially performing exposure blending. However, be aware that bringing up shadow detail especially will soften the image. Be careful to not take it too far and eliminate the image’s natural luminosity.

Image: Benjamin Maze/Supplied
Image: Benjamin Maze/Supplied

Getting colour right is another essential step. When shooting in automatic white balance, the camera reads the green scene as a colour cast and pushes the image towards magenta. You can correct this by bringing down the “tint” slider closer to the neutral mark.

It’s also best to err on the cool side of the white balance slider, as warm greens tend to look a little sickly unless they’re receiving direct sunlight. Keeping the edit closer to blue will make those green tones a nice emerald colour.

Of course, all this depends on your own appetite for editing. If you’re happy to have some fun working the scene, then utilising dodging and burning, low-opacity brush work, Orton effect, the spot-healing tool and some colour work can all aid in creating an impactful result if done tastefully. Just remember – less is often more!

Image: Benjamin Maze/Supplied
Image: Benjamin Maze/Supplied

Final thoughts

I hope these tips serve as a good starting point to get you going in these tricky settings. Be sure to treat rainforests with respect and caution as they are often sensitive environments susceptible to damage and carelessness.

Rainforests are a precious resource to protect, so I hope you now feel more equipped to be able to capture these beautiful ecosystems while they’re still here to explore. ❂

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