Half-week homework: Arboreal art

I’m writing this near the great Father & Mother of the Forest in California’s oldest state park, Big Basin. Having started down the Pacific coast all the way back at Port Angeles, I’ve found myself surrounded at various instances by some of the most massive, ancient life forms on the earth. How could I think of photographing anything else?

Exceptions made for dinosaur statues, obviously.

Trees give us air to breathe, shade for our vulnerable skins, and harbor an incredible array of other animals which brighten our lives. They have sap that pulses like our own blood, albeit at a much slower pace. Much more than big plants, they seem to have a quiet wisdom beyond our ken.

As I am in awe, so too must you be. Your photo challenge this week is to take one or more trees as your subject(s)! Whether you want to make a portrait of a favorite fir, capture the heart of a forest dear to your own, or even explore the form of an artificial aspen, lets see those trees. Read on for suggestions and photos to get your mental wheels turning, then share your results on our Facebook page or Instagram tagged with #mymikescamera #halfweekhomework. My wife is particularly enamored with trees (her art is under the name Sigatree, for heaven’s sake), so she’s looking forward to this one!

Tips for tree tableaux

“Don’t miss the forest for the trees” is wise advice for life but poor advice for photography—your images are better served by the exact opposite maxim. To someone standing on soft, needle-covered ground, the whisper of a light breeze accentuated only by ancient bird-song, the grandeur of a forest is undeniable, but pointing a camera at it is liable to produce nothing but a flat jumble of sticks. The ease with which a tree is visually swallowed by its setting is the primary reason photographing trees can be trickier than it might sound at first. The best thing you can do is put in extra effort to differentiate a subject.

Sometimes it’s easy. A lone tree can make for a striking image, whether well-lit or in silhouette. On our Western plains, it’s also not hard to get a great contrast with the setting (as it is in the forest). Solitary trees can express a wide variety of moods, from the verdant exultation of a fat, full tree in spring to the grim solemnity of a dormant or dead tree at sunset in the late fall.

If you’re trying to communicate scale, using a secondary subject might be essential. An unimaginably large group of redwoods is, well, unimaginable—a photo without context tends to fall flat or, at best, appear more or less like a fantasy painting. Add a banana for scale (or, failing that, a travel companion) and all of a sudden you’ve found a common tongue with your viewer, with which you can express the scope of what you’re witnessing.

If you have a gymnastically-inclined friend or a limber child on hand, you could even get them up in your tree tree of choice! Just be aware that you and/or your friend do so at your own risk. 😉

You don’t have to capture the entire tree to make it a good subject. As someone who’s always been interested in both life’s hidden details and macro photography, I’ve found that focusing on small pieces of the whole can express its essence better than any “complete” picture can. Picking a specific point to hone in on, like a spider’s web tucked between thick folds of bark, will produce a more memorable photo as well as tell a much more engaging story.

Finally, it’s important to remember that, as with every unique photographic scenario, lighting and perspective are key. Light shining through leaves can make for incredibly interesting shadows on the ground just as well as it can make for abysmal portrait lighting on someone’s face. Look from a tree’s roots up it’s whole length, visit it at different times of day, and experiment with backlighting leaves. (In case you haven’t noticed, they glow!) You can even get really abstract, like I did with the photo, below, splitting the frame between a sharp, dark trunk and out-of-focus, brilliantly-lit leaves.

Enjoy the rest of the inspirational photos in the gallery below, and let me know if I missed any hot tips for getting quality tree photos. Whatever you do, just get out there and shoot. Then, when you’ve shot, share and print! That’s the photographer’s lifestyle, and it’s a pretty cool one.

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