Join Ben Long for an in-depth discussion in this video Shooting the sunlight in a forest location in winter, part of Travel Photography: Mountains and Snow Landscapes.
As a photographer you're probably already use to, keeping one eye out the window to see if you should move and go shoot. Always following the light and being drawn to the light, like moths. When you're in an environment that you're not as familiar with, you've got to pay extra attention not just to the light but to the weather. Especially up here in the mountains in the winter time. So, I got up this morning and checked the forecast and it looks like it's possible that this is the last sunny day for the rest of the week. In fact, this is only the second sunny day we've had.
So it really felt like, oh wow I, if, if I want to do anything in direct sun I've gotta get out today and do that. And what I thought was forest. There's that's the predominate landscape feature around here so I had mostly been thinking of my forest shots being diffuse light overcast light which are very very different than what you get in direct light. In diffuse light you get very nice soft curvature around the trees. So it felt like today was the only day to get something other than that, so I came out into some woodlands to see what I could find, and I want to just talk about how you approach a situation like this.
Shooting in a forest is difficult under any circumstances. Whether there's snow or not, whether it's winter or summer, whether the leaves have trees or not. And whether you're getting hard or soft light. And, at least I find they're very difficult. That's why I spend a lot of time in the barren wastelands. The problem with a forest is there's just all these vertical lines, and what do you do with them? You rarely get a shot at a whole entire tree. And, in addition to just this preponderance of vertical lines, forests are just messy. There's all that underbrush, and there's leaves lying on the ground, and there's twigs, and there's sticks, and there's always an extra branch sticking through your shot, or something like that.
As photographers, we are constantly fiddling with the process of simplifying. Trying to get the shot down to the cleanest possible representation of just subject and background, and in a forest that's really hard because there's just so much stuff. So, forests scare me photographically. So, I came out here today. And one of the reasons I wanted to get out in direct light is because direct light is often the answer to what do I do with all these vertical lines? First thing I can do is just come out here and say. This is just an exercise in shooting patterns of light.
Shooting light and shadow. Finding strong distinctions between light and shadow. That immediately helps break up all that repetitive geometry in my head. So I've been out here wandering around. And kind of the first thing I do just to get warmed up, is just go. I'm going to look for a shaft of light on the floor of the forest. I'm going to just go to it, and see what I can find. Because once I'm there, I might find that the shaft of light is interesting enough that I can build a composition around it. Through all of this, I'm really just working geometrically. I'm looking through the frame, and going, how can I balance the frame? How can I find interesting lines? How can I find converging lines, receding lines, repeating lines.
Having those patterns of light in there can make that whole process much easier. Once I've found that shaft of light, or play of light, or whatever, then I work it to death. I just shoot it and shoot it and shoot it. And it's really easy to walk into a play of light that you noticed and just shoot the first thing that you saw about it, but it's very important to turn around and shoot the other direction. Because, often, that will be the, the shot that really interests you. So, I'm finding that I'm shooting into the sun, I'm shooting through the sun, and I'm playing with, actually, some things that I probably, that you're not supposed to do.
I'm actually shooting directly into the sun sometimes. I'm trying to get my lens to flare. Because I'm finding that as it washes out the scene, I get a totally different atmosphere. I'm going to want to play with the contrast in these scenes. But taking these big imposing black vertical lines and letting them wash out to something more dreamy is something else that I can play with. When you find a situation that you're liking a stand of trees or something like that, Stay with it for awhile. I'm, I'm finding I can just pick one area of the forest and just do laps around it, because the light is changing so quickly, that new place of light will show up that I can play with and new things will be revealed.
I look a lot for light on dark. So if I see a tree in the distance that's all lit up, I'll run to it. And then do a circuit around it to see if there's a way that I can compose a shot where that nice brightly lit thing is up against a dark shadow. That play of light against dark is a way of simplifying, that's a way of reducing a lot of that clutter and distraction that I'm finding shooting in such a visually busy environment. If I can get a lot of it to plunge to black, I get simpler compositions. It doesn't mean there still won't be some stray cluster of weeds in front of it and maybe I can work around that, maybe I can't.
Another way that I have in controlling and simplifying of course is depth of field. So, working with wider aperture and longer lenses, and then standing back and trying to use depth of field to simplify my scene. Speaking of standing back, I'm doing a lot of work with a very wide angle lens. Because since what I'm mostly working with is geometry, playing with the shadows of the trees on the ground. Playing with the hard vertical lines of the trees themselves, I can really change that geometry around by changing focal length and camera position.
If I go to a wide angle lens and get close, I'm going to get really receding lines. As I step back, I'm going to get, I'm going to take those lines that recede and they're going to start to do more of this. So I can play with those angles. I can also play with depth compression within the scene. I can make different vertical lines appear to get closer and farther. So I'm playing with that a lot, moving around when I see a subject. And trying to figure out the geometry that I want. I'm spending a good amount of time walking around the forest, and I'm actually just holding the camera up to my eye and looking through it as I move.
Yes, you can say, oh, I'm going to keep my eyes open to light, and then go work that shot. The geometry in here is so busy and so complex that I am finding myself not able to recognize a shot just by eye. I've gotta have that view finder up there. Having that rectangular crop on the world, your brain immediately starts to order it. You might hold the camera up and go oh wait, here's a shot. I can put this tree here and this pine cone here and that thing over there, and there's a shot. It's hard to see that without looking through. If you're walking through the forest finding I don't see any pictures.
I would recommend looking through the camera more. Very often you're not seeing pictures because you're not looking through the view finder enough. And it's just overwhelming. These trees are very tall. They're very striking in the receding lines that I get going up, so I'm spending a lot of time looking up. And boy my neck is hurting and my back is getting sore. But, I see a lot of shots that way, looking up. And playing with those receding lines. These types of shots can be clichés, but they're also really fun to do. And if you start thinking about them in terms of the geometry plus the play of light, you can maybe find something new.
Some of the trees have lots of dead branches sticking out, which is this wonderful cacophony of, of graphical stuff. And so looking up at that and playing with that is interesting. It's an overwhelming visual environment in terms of just composition and in terms of line. There have been a couple of times where I've just given up and gone okay trees, there's just a bunch of vertical lines here, I'll just shoot that. And it's interesting to find that as a compositional exercise, that's a really pow, a really good thing to try and experiment with. I don't know that any of those pictures are going to be keepers. But it's interesting to just frame a flat shot of a stand of trees and watch what happens as you move around.
And watch how oh, some of those vertical lines are further back, so they change relationship to the ones in the front. It's a good exercise in having to pay attention to the entire frame and go no, I want space between this tree and that tree, and so on and so forth. I really have to be paying attention to all of the relationship details in the frame. It's a good exercise. Then I've got the snow. I'm trying to shoot in winter landscape. And that gets to the question of what is a winter landscape? Does it have to be snow? Can it be a bare tree? Can it be bare underbrush? Things like that.
If I'm trying to represent the winter landscape, I need to just stand here for awhile and look at it and think about it. I'm cold what out here makes me feel cold. A lot of these trees, especially the aspens, are really white and they're leafless. It's a stark, cold color palette that they are. So shooting those might be something that I can do if I'm wanting to really capture feeling of winter. Then of course, I've got the snow on the ground, so playing with those elements. Sometimes I'm out here just trying to look for cool geometry. At other times I might want to go no, no, no I want to bring home images that are representative of my cold winter experience here.
So I'm, I'm just looking for tone and color, temperatures that speak cold to me. In addition to the literal cold things like snow on the ground. Those are all things you can think about when you're wandering through a forest in the winter. There's no right or wrong. A big part of it is simple exploration. I think the best thing to do is don't come into it with expectation. Don't come into it saying it's winter I have to shoot trees and snow, and they're aspen trees because those speak of high altitude cold to me, and. Don't do that. Just come into it. Be open to the forest, be open to the trees.
Try to see the forest for the trees, all that kind of stuff. And just keep shooting. You will probably find your way through to the images both that you like simply on their own rights, and because they speak to you of something about the winter forest experience.
In this course, photographer, author, and educator Ben Long takes a trip to Lake Tahoe to explore winter shooting at various times of the day. He also shows techniques for post-processing winter scenes to make them look their best.