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Sunday, 11 June 2006 00:00

A Day In The New Forest With Digital Camera Magazine

Every month Digital Camera Magazine have a feature in the magazine called Readers Day where one of the readers is taught how to shoot a specific subject or genre. Suggestions for readers days can be made by writing to the magazine direct or by responding to a specific thread in their user forum.

This thread was started by Ben Birchall who is the Technique Editor at the magazine and the person who typically runs the readers day and it was in this thread that I said that I would like help on how to photograph forests.

I try to go down to the New Forest as often as I can, usually staying in the area around Brockenhurst which gives easy access to my favourite parts of the forest and in particular, Ornamental Drive which has some of the best scenery of the entire forest in my opinion. Despite going there once a year and despite the fact that I always take my camera I have only ever taken one photo down there that I am reasonably happy with which is this one.

Beam of light bursting through the trees in the New Forest

This photo was taken on Ornamental Drive at Bolderwood where there is also a Deer viewing platform. We had just parked the car and were crossing the road to see if we could spot the Deer when I saw this beam of light cutting through the trees. To be honest this shot was more luck than judgement and at the time I only owned my old Fuji Finepix 4900 Zoom compact digital camera and a cheap lightweight Jessops tripod. As I wasn't really sure what exposure I should be setting I just bracketed 1 stop either side and eventually ended up with what I wanted.

The biggest problem I have though with photographing in a forest is the feeling that the subject is too large to fit into the frame. Often I'll be walking through a forest and find that it's almost as if my brain joins lots of images I see through my eyes together to give a much wider and bigger impression than is possible to take in all in one go. This is more understandable when you remember that the human eye gives roughly the same field of view as a 50mm lens and often a 50mm lens is not wide enough to capture a single tree let alone an entire scene.

The New Forest

I've also tried using wide angle lenses in an attempt to capture a wider field of view as demonstrated here. This shot was taken on my Canon EOS-10D using my Canon 17-40 f/4 L USM lens and a circular polariser. The problem here though is that I've ended up simply with a shot of two trees that could be anywhere as there's very little to indicate that I am in a forest and although using a wide angle lens has enabled me to capture the entire tree all I've actually captured is a rather dull snapshot.

In this particular scene I could have taken the photo in landscape orientation in order to achieve a wider image and to put the trees in context with their surroundings but then I would have had to cut the tree's off either at the base or at the top as they higher than the frame would allow.

Tree Roots

As it is clearly not possible to always fit your entire subject within the frame I have also experimented with capturing the details of a larger object. The photograph opposite is of a fallen tree in the New Forest that I have visited numerous times in the past. The tree itself had fallen over exposing the entire root ball which remains relatively intact whilst the trunk of the tree has begun to rot away. All the different shapes and textures combined with the way that sunlight plunges parts of it into shadow make this a very interesting subject to photograph but it's size and shape does not lend itself to the aspect ratio of the camera frame and so despite photographing it several times I've never really produced a shot that I'm totally happy with or one that conveys really what it is and I am seeing.

With my lack of success with this subject I was delighted when I received an e-mail from Ben Birchall saying that Digital Camera Magazine would like to write a Readers Day on forest photography and that as I had suggested it, would I like to be the reader. Naturally I said yes and was also able to get my friend Bob Foster to join us on the day.

On May 24th we met at Bolderwood on Ornamental Drive where Ben took us through a few basics. One of the things he asked us to do was to shoot in Jpeg rather than RAW as this would make things easier for him when writing up the article. This was quite a surprise for me as I haven't shot in jpeg for over 4 years and suddenly I had to remember where to set the white balance on my camera as Ben suggested that we set it to cloudy being that the day was very overcast and threatened heavy rain the entire time. After talking to us about what it was that we wanted to get from the day we headed off into the forest.

As we walked into the forest it was interesting to see how Ben 'worked the scene' always looking around him and he explained that often it's worth looking back at where you had just walked as things can look very different from this angle which was proved to be the case a couple of times that day.

Digital Camera MagazineAfter a short time we came across our first photo opportunity that was this tree stump which had interesting roots. Ben then asked Bob and myself to shoot the stump how we 'normally' would which we did by kneeling down and trying to get low to the ground. Due to the heavy rain that there had been the past few days the ground was very muddy so neither Bob nor myself wanted to get too low and in truth I think we both felt that we were low enough anyway. After taking a few photos we showed them to Ben who then quickly lay on the ground and produced a much better shot by getting a lower angle. There was nothing else to do but get ourselves dirty and so we both took it in turns to lay in the mud and try to use the roots as lead in lines. My Giottos Innovator tripod also came in very handy as by removing the center column I was able to mount my camera just millimetres off the ground photos of which I think will appear in the article when it is published.

Due to the very bad weather we had that day the light often was very flat which often made separating the subject from what was nearly always a busy background of tree branches and leaves very difficult so although I don't think the photo's I got where that great I can see that there is an improvement that will only get better in the right light.

dcmrd4.jpgOur second location turned out to be the fallen tree that I'd struggled to photograph numerous times before and thankfully for the first and only time that day the sun started to shine. Ben could immediately see why I had been drawn to this tree so many times before and we spent around 20 minutes "shooting the hell out of it" and Ben described it. This wasn't in order to try and grab a shot by chance but more to stop us looking at the tree with our eyes and instead to look at the tree from all angles with the camera to see what can and cannot work within the frame of the camera. During this process it became evident that it was impossible to capture the entire tree in the frame as it's size and shape left too much 'dead area' within the frame and therefore did not allow us to produce shots that would conform to the rule of thirds. It was at this time that Ben suggested that we try to pick out the details of the tree so as to not only produce a more visually interesting shot but to also capture the 'essence' of the tree. This is something I had tried to do before, as can be seen with the 3rd photo posted in this blog, but Ben said that I should get in closer still. The photo opposite was one of my first attempts at getting closer and at the time I thought I was very close but still wasn't that happy with the result, as it still looks over complicated.

dcmrd5.jpgBen then took a look at my photos and then pointed out that really the 'story' of the tree was in the much finer detail, which I was missing by still not getting close enough. I was amazed to see Ben take a camera out of his pocket and in less than 5 seconds seemingly grab a photo of not only something I hadn't even seen but produced a result that I would have been very happy to hang on my wall. Inspired by this I walked around the tree a few more times and this time got in really close like this shot opposite.

The funny thing is that I have read about how to do this dozens and dozens of times in magazines and photography books but it was only when actually being shown it in person did it suddenly make sense, sometimes less is more. Looking back on it, it all sounds so obvious and it's not as though I didn't already know it - just that up until then I had often been doing it incorrectly, but at that moment it kind of felt as though the missing piece of the jigsaw had been put into place and that this is something that is applicable for all kinds of photography from landscapes to photojournalism, portraits to sport. There are times when you need to show your subject in context with their surroundings, sometimes when you'll need to isolate them from their surroundings and sometimes when you'll just need to focus on one small element of a much bigger subject to tell their story. Like I say, it sounds obvious - because it is, and I knew this already but seeing it demonstrated clarified it in my mind and, pun intended, allowed me to see the wood for the trees.

On a separate issue taking these photos also proved a challenge in the post production too. As previously mentioned Ben has asked that we shoot in Jpeg the whole day but jointly we had decided that, due to the poor light, most of our shots would probably have to be converted to black and white. I'm a big fan of black and white photography but my preferred style is high contrast black and white which normally with RAW is quite simple to achieve by using the Channel Mixer in Photoshop. However jpeg has such a limited gamut range that by using the kind of settings I would normally use I was introducing a posterisation effect. This resulted in me having to use multiple layers, layer masks and a lot more dodging and burning then I would normally do. It certainly is possible to produce great black and white images from jpegs but personally I'll stick to RAW for that!

dcmrd8.jpgOur next location was just a few meters down along the path from the fallen tree and demonstrated why Ben had said that we should always look behind us as whilst walking down the path there really wasn't anything that seemed worth photographing but then looking behind us this scene presented itself to us.

On the surface this is a very simple shot, a rotting tree trunk leads your eye into the picture and the trees and the sky take up roughly one third each of the photo, which balances the scene nicely. However the weather was beginning to turn again and the white sky was always going to cause us problems in post production. In the end this I had to post produce this photo almost as if were an HDR (High Dynamic Range) image by creating 4 separate images, one exposed for the sky, one exposed for the trees in the background, one for the middle ground and one for the tree trunk in the foreground. By the use of layer masks I was able to then combine all of these elements into one image to produce the final result. This is not the recommended way of producing a true HDR image as Adobe recommend that not only do you shoot in RAW but that you shoot separate RAW files exposed for each element rather than just shoot one RAW and process it multiple times.

dcmrd9.jpgAfter posing for a few photos for the article we set off deeper into the woods when Ben spotted this scene. This really showed us how a professional photographer really has a trained eye because at the time neither of us could see what Ben was photographing until he showed us the result. Fortunately now we were under the canopy of all the trees as 'outside' it was now raining heavily but this meant that the light levels where very low so out came the tripods and shutter release cords. The weather had now really turned against us and in truth if it had been just Bob and myself we would have hurried back to the car and found the nearest pub to shelter in but with an article required for the magazine on we pushed.

dcmrd12.jpgAfter walking on for 10 minutes getting wetter and wetter we came across a large clearing where the canopy not only protected us from the rain but also gave a beautiful green glow to everything. The only problem was that in order to reach the clearing we had to cross a bog and a stream which, as we were weighed down by all our gear and the mud sucking at our feet, proved to be a bit of a challenge.

Not content with already being wet Ben again suggested that the best angle for many of these shots would be obtained by laying on the ground and pointing the camera slightly upwards to capture the greens of the leaves. By this time we didn't care about keeping clean and so happily got down on the ground to see what we could produce. This photo opposite was one of the many I took here. It was also at this time that Ben suggested that I try something that I would never had thought of trying myself.

dcmrd13.jpgWhen I first set up the shot opposite I was laying on the ground with the camera in portrait orientation with the trees and bracken perfectly straight because this was factually how the scene was. Ben then explained how that although a photograph is two dimensional the camera frame can be three dimensional. The way he described it was "imagine you have an empty photo frame, you could compose the scene factually by placing the frame either perfectly vertical or horizontal but you can also distort the perspective by tilting the frame both left and right as well as forwards and backwards to create pretty much any image you want. This way the bracken which did appear very small in the original photo now has more dominance in the frame and the twisting of the frame ensures that there is no dead areas in the photo.

dcmrd10.jpgThe last photo I took that day before the weather finally beat us and we retired to the pub was this one which followed on from the previous theme. I toyed with the idea of converting this one to black and white but the richness of the colours I felt were worth keeping.

Bob and I had a fantastic day with Ben and one of the things that stood out the most in our minds was how Ben had been focused on showing us how we could improve the photos that we wanted to take rather than just show us how to take photos the way he wanted them taken which really helped us develop our photography rather than try and adopt someone else's style.

Both of us know several professional photographers and have attended various training courses in the past run by professionals but sadly more often than not we have both felt that a lot of the professionals were more interested in either showing off their own skills or teaching you how to take photos of what they wanted you to take rather than teaching you how to develop your own skill and style which too often has felt condescending. Ben on the other hand, instead of approaching a scene and saying "right, I think you should photograph this" would always wait to see what it was that caught our eye, see how we got on and then suggest how we could improve that shot. Then and only then would he point out a scene that we had missed but again would then first allow us to shoot it how we thought it would look best before again suggesting ways we could improve our shot instead of his shot.

Although I wouldn't say that any of the shots I took that day are excellent I'm still pretty pleased with them being that the conditions were as bad as they were and that I was trying different ideas many for the first time. What it has done is given me both the confidence and desire to try new things and to apply many of the skills and techniques I learnt that day in other photographic genres. If you want to have the experience of a Readers Day yourself then visit the Digital Camera Magazine forum and make a suggestion for a subject as it's certainly worth it. As for the article itself, I don't know yet when it will be published but I think it will be in a couple of months time - as soon as I know I'll post details here.


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