Forest Photography Robert Leverett
August 5, 2009


As you've no doubt deduced by now, a behind-the-scene motive of mine in presenting these forest images on the ENTS list is to entice better photographers than I am into visiting idyllic Berkshire forest sites with me. It is my increasing belief that exceptional forest sites and features need to be captured on film for posterity before climate change, forest policy, disease, etc. claim out champions and reduce exceptional forest sites to mere memories.
The direct benefit of being a 'forest snob' (I clearly am that) is that I spend most of my time in the truly exceptional forest sites. I abandon unexceptional places pretty quickly. But other than those who accompany me, and with a few other exceptions, not many people visit the exceptional places - or if they do, their 'snob eye' isn't sharp enough to distinguish the nice from the exceptional - exceptional for Massachusetts, I mean.
In my self-appointed mission, I'm struggling to get good pictures because while I may have an intuitive feeling for fairly artistic shots, as recognized by my friend Don Bertolette, I have simple equipment and only the most rudimentary understanding of the features of the camera that could be employed to capture difficult scenes. The job calls for someone with greater skills and experience. For example, the three attached images represent my attempt to capture the extraordinary rock and rock-tree scenes on Todd Mountain. I flubbed most shots badly. The challenge of photographing green, on green, on green with dabbles of gray and brown was too much for me.
To put an even finer point to my lament, yesterday, when exiting the Trees of Peace Grove, I decided to check on a favored striped maple. It is fairly slender, but not small. Most people who pass it misidentify it. It would appear large to people who recognize the species, but likely they would not look up, except to ID the tree. Only a tree nut like me (and others on the list) would take further notice of it. But what should we notice? Holy Molly, as Dale would say, that sucker soars. I remeasured it and its upper leaves are 66 vertical feet above its base! There may be a leaf or two at 67 feet, making it one of 4 striped maples in Mohawk that I've measured to over 60 feet in height. All of us routinely see the species in the woods. It typically struts its stuff at girths of 12 to 18 inches and heights of 25 to 45 feet as typical maximums. People are often very impressed when they see those dimensions. Well, in the Hopper of Greylock, I've measured specimens to 40 inches DBH. In Mohawk, I've made it to 39 inches. I've measured striped maple to 54 feet in the Adirondacks, about the same in the Catskills, and commonly 30 to 45 feet elsewhere, but haven't broke 60 feet anywhere in the Northeast except in Mohawk and Monroe State Forests. I'm sure sites in NY and PA have striped maples in the 60-foot height class, but not many.
Joe, I'd love to capture the verticality of striped maple in our forest reserves, but I have no idea of how to photographically capture what my eye sees with the species, other than its large, bright green leaves and elegant striped bark. Both these features are evident up close. We don't need to search for the biggest or tallest to photograph its leaves and bark. But what if we want to capture it in its full glory, capture its extraordinary canopy achievement in areas of mature forest? Can that be done?


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Joe Zorzin wrote (August 5, 2009)

Regarding photographic techniques- I've read a lot on the subject but I'm a bit too lazy to take the extra time. It would be necessary to slow down and I know you get so excited when amongst your favorite trees- that to stop and fiddle with a camera's adjustments is frustrating.

A few things that stick to my mind are:

  a.. use a tripod, then stop down the exposure as much as possible, while making sure that the meter is looking mostly at the main subject
  b.. bright cloudy days are best- to minimize extreme contrast which usually makes dark trees and rocks too dark and grainy
  c.. most modern digital cameras have options for typical scenarios- choosing those is much simpler than actually adjusting exposure or speed
  d.. use of a high powered flash can make up for dark woods - or woods with too much contrast- photography purists hate using flash, but if it gives a clearer picture, so what? if used carefully, I don't know if anyone could tell you used a flash- and, with the flash, and the camera set on automatic- the camera's meter will do a great job
  e.. lens quality is very important, along with the size of the image in pixels- I'm not sure what the "sweet spot" is at this time for digital cameras in terms of getting the most bang for the buck but it might be worth investing in a digital SLR camera- which looks like a 35 mm

I recommend to everyone to check out Dave Gafney's web site- "50 tips to great outdoor photos" at: Dave sells a DVD with all those tips but offers several on that web site.

A decade ago I bought a top of the line 35 mm with extra lenses but I wasn't happy with it. Using such a fancy camera can probably result in superior images to digital but using film is obsolete- just too much trouble. I'm quite happy with the 700 digital 3 meg pictures I can take with my Canon HV-20 video camera. Most come out very nice- perhaps not nice if printed, but nice enough for the net- especially with brightly lit scenes.

For truly blow your mind photography, I think most professional photographers will say you need to use a "large format" camera- one of those big boxes which have huge negatives- but carrying those cameras around is a huge chore- probably best for large landscape scenes rather than routine shots of trees.

I recall seeing in a bookstore once some large formatted images- poster size- of forest scenes- the detail was microscopic- it was like looking through a window into the real forest. Perhaps such extra effort could be taken for your absolute favorite trees of all time.

Meanwhile, as we discussed recently, I hope to TRY to video tape you at some of your favorite Berkshire forests.

In my experimenting with the video camera- I taped myself in my early succession forest behind my house- which is growing into an abandoned gravel pit, which was not reconstructed with top soil- and, on that site, the previous owner left all sorts of construction debris which I'm slowly trying to clean up. The forest consists of birch, white and pitch pine, poplar, etc. Nothing exciting, but I'm excited about it as I can improve it by cleaning it up, prune some trees, thin it out- so that instead of a trash heap with low value small trees, it may someday, in another 50 years, look decent- purely aesthetic work. I have this minute long video at  which is password protected- the password is "enip" which of course is "pine" spelled backwards. I used a wide angle lens, a tripod, a shotgun microphone and controlled the camera with a remote.


Don Bertolette wrote (August 5, 2009)

I'm reminded of how long you've been searching for ways to photographically capture what your eye sees in the woods, when I think back to the 90's when you were working with, hmmm, I want to say Melendez, a photographer acquaintance of yours with an array of lenses to bring to bear on trees.
I have only seen one feature that I can think of that is relatively new, that might help.  Not in terms of accurate graphical analysis (measurements), but in terms of including entire trees in a single image.
My nephew recently purchased a Canon (a model unfamiliar to me) which enables him to capture a panorama by depressing shutter release, panning the camera from left to right and then releasing shutter...exposure changes seamlesses as you pan.  There's no reason one couldn't pan vertically with a similar success. Well of course, but for other trees and shrubs being in the way...
As we get single devices doing multiple tasks, it won't be long before most cameras will have GPS imprinting coordinates, time/date, etc.  either on image or in the image metadata, or both.  
Some already do.

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