Taking photos in forests is a tricky prospect. I’ve talked a little elsewhere about the fact that the key to outdoors photography is the balancing of light and shadow- and when light is on one part of the frame but not on another, there has to be a compromise- either one part will become too light, or another too dark. The best thing to do is wait until the light has hit the bit that you want to be nicely lit, and then take your photo- which is, of course, a luxury we can’t always afford.
Forests are especially difficult because of the extreme contrasts in light and shadow. Although we don’t really notice it because our eyes adjust instinctively to differences in light and shade (and have a much broader dynamic range than cameras do), in fact forest floors are habitually shady places. That means if we take photos of forests and expose for the forest floor, chances are, we’ll be exposing for the shade, and the sky will burn out- become just a white haze between the branches, even on a nice sunny day. The alternative is that the foreground becomes very dark and you lose a lot of detail for the sake of exposing the sky, not a good prospect for a forest photo.
The photographs I love from forests are the ones where sunbeams are catching in smoke or mist. We’ve all seen these sorts of shots- they’re phenomenally atmospheric, with shafts of light split by boughs and branches to form beautiful patterns. I haven’t yet succeeded in taking any of these, but it remains a goal. Shots of trees- especially Australian eucalypts with their pale trunks- in the mist also make for really pretty images.
Other, simpler alternatives include shots which exclude the sky altogether- so that the entire image is exposed for the darker undergrowth. You often need to do more close-up photography or angle the lens downwards to do this- and because the forest is often quite dark, you may need a tripod. A lot of long-exposure shots of forest streams are taken like this, and it can work well. Alternatively, especially in a place like Australia where the white bark of the gums is so stark against the blue sky, shooting skywards when trunks are illumated by sunlight can look quite good- although this sort of shot is rarely very eye-catching once displayed, and I tend to find looks a lot better through the viewfinder than it does on the screen.
As with my earlier post on light on cloudy days, waiting for a stray sunbeam to make it down to the forest floor will allow you to get a better balance between the light and dark areas, but because of the nature of a forest (lots of canopy cover), these sunbeams are usually pretty spaced out, which means small areas lit and lots of areas of shadow-still not the best look. For these two shots of the Porongorups, in Western Australia, I really lucked out because not only was there a big enough gap in the canopy for light to be hitting the forest floor, but there was also a gorgeous spray of vibrant undergrowth which contrasted nicely with the bark of the tree trunks. The overall image was one that was well lit from sky to soil, and I was able to expose it easily. This is a rare success story, and I have to say that nine times out of ten, I rarely break my camera out while I’m walking through the bush- so few shots actually turn out well.
Incidentally, the Porongorup Ranges is a beautiful and understated region to visit. A low line of rounded hills that boasts some of the geologically oldest rocks on the planet (about a billion years old, for those nerds among you) and an extremely diverse and unique biome consisting of a large number of plants unique to the area, there are numerous walking trails that wind their way up through the forest to the ridgeline. Once on the treeless ridge top, the views in three hundred and sixty degrees are spectacular- the vast flat plains of South Western WA broken by the Stirling Ranges some twenty kilometres to the north, and far to the south, the Southern Ocean. When we were up there, we had the hills largely to ourselves, and it was peaceful and exposed and dramatic- a fantastic area to explore.
Down at the foot of the hills, the Porongorups are navigated by one main and mostly-sealed road that connects nowhere with nowhere else. It’s a sedate area, with the hamlet of Porongorup forming a hub around which are spread vineyards and farms, and an incongruous Thai restaurant that’s also worth a visit. The A-Frame cottages of the Porongorup Chalets, where we stayed, are delightful. Set in pretty woodland backing straight into the bush, they are comfortable and cozy inside, and well catered for. For a quiet weekend away you’d be hard pressed to find a more relaxing milieu.