How to Photograph Trees

– Posted in: Garden Photography, Trees and Shrubs
Gymnocladus dioicus, Kentucky Coffeetree; Arnold Arboretum

Gymnocladus dioicus, Kentucky Coffeetree; Arnold Arboretum

A recent visit to the Arnold Arboretum in Boston provided a glorious opportunity to photograph trees.  After all, the word “arbor” is Latin for tree and arboreta are collections of trees.  What better a place to go to work with my camera.

I confess I was once uninterested in traditional arboretums because there tends to be little structure to define a garden.  But now I have learned to appreciate the simple unique beauty of trees, and there is no better place to study them than a good arboretum such as the Arnold.

Oxydendron arboreum - Sourwood tree; Arnold Arboretum

Oxydendron arboreum – Sourwood tree; Arnold Arboretum

A tree that has had the chance to grow up in the care of an Arboretum is a chosen specimen, on display to represent an entire family of brothers and sisters that may live nowhere near the collection. An arboretum will have planted them with room to grow and reach their full stature.

Gleditsia triacanthos 'Skyline, Honeylocust Tree; Arnold Arboretum

Gleditsia triacanthos ‘Skyline, Honeylocust Tree; Arnold Arboretum

Just as snowflakes and fingerprints are all different, every tree is different from every other tree. Each specie has its own signature DNA of leaf shape, bark structure, and branching within its native habitat with phenotypic distinction.  Each grows a bit differently in every microclimate, so that by the time any given tree is mature it is utterly unique.

Quercus bicolor - Swamp White Oak tree; Arnold Arboretum

Quercus bicolor – Swamp White Oak tree; Arnold Arboretum

Looking up at a tree to see the branching, scarring, and subtle growth patterns one can imagine its history, what it has seen, what birds might have visited, how many squirrels have jumped from limb to limb, and what plants it has already outlived.

Trees tend to be hard to photograph simply because they are large and nearly impossible to separate from the landscape.  My favorite trees, the Oaks of California, can often be found alone in the landscape, as seen in a post on my PhotoBotanic site, but most trees are mingled into woodlands or crowded into gardens and are really hard to see in their full magnificence.

Here is a grove of Oak trees in the Arnold Arboretum.

Grove of Oak trees, Arnold Arboretum

Note that I want to photograph one specific tree. I look for any opportunity to isolate trees to show their shape, but stepping back far enough to see the whole tree and its branch structure brings in all the others.

Instead, I find I can walk right up under a tree and look straight up from the vantage point of a few inches away from the trunk.

Quercus alba, White Oak tree, Arnold Arboretum

Quercus alba, White Oak tree, Arnold Arboretum

A tripod is always critical in making these compositions, though I confess, I usually get a crick in the neck straining to look into the viewfinder.

From across the garden, I saw this Green Ash tree with butter yellow fall foliage.

Fraxinus pennsylvanica 'Vinton', Green Ash tree (tallest) - Arnold Arboretum

Fraxinus pennsylvanica ‘Vinton’, Green Ash tree (tallest)

I walked up underneath it, both to isolate the tree and to help make the autumn foliage glow.

Fraxinus pennsylvanica 'Vinton', Green Ash tree - Arnold Arboretum

Fraxinus pennsylvanica ‘Vinton’, Green Ash tree

Usually, I prefer a vertical format so that the trunk of the tree leads up into the composition – and the tree towers as a tree should.

Trees are tall after all, so a vertical usually makes sense, but sometimes when a tree has an especially nice branch pattern only a horizontal can really show the display. Here is a vertical and horizontal of the same honey locust tree:

Gleditsia triacanthos 'Imperial', Honeylocust Tree; Arnold Arboretum

Gleditsia triacanthos ‘Imperial’

Gleditsia triacanthos 'Imperial', Honeylocust Tree; Arnold Arboretum

Gleditsia triacanthos ‘Imperial’, Honeylocust Tree; Arnold Arboretum

Looking up at the trees also allows the leaves to glow because of the back light. This effect will happen even if there is not strong, sunny light in the canopy, because to open up the shadows, the photographer is effectively overexposing – which will make the leaves bright anyway.

In order to get a proper exposure to show off the bark and still have color in the sky I usually will underexpose the original digital file so that I can hold the highlights and color in the sky.  Then in the postproduction, with the computer, I will open up the shadows.

Juglans nigra - Black Walnut tree; Arnold Arboretum

Juglans nigra – Black Walnut tree; Arnold Arboretum

Juglans nigra - Black Walnut tree; Arnold Arboretum

Juglans nigra – Black Walnut tree; Arnold Arboretum

This is something I could never do in years of shooting with film. The digital era has opened up a new way of expressing trees in photographs.

Gymnocladus dioicus, Kentucky Coffeetree; Arnold Arboretum

Gymnocladus dioicus, Kentucky Coffeetree; Arnold Arboretum

I only had time for one day of shooting at the Arnold while in Boston, but it was a glorious day. These are trees I never see in California, I felt honored to be in their presence.

Here is the full gallery of the photos in the PhotoBotanic Archive.

Saxon Holt
Saxon Holt is the owner of PhotoBotanic.com, a garden picture resource for photographs, on-line workshops, and garden photography stories. An award winning photojournalist with more than 20 garden books, he lives and gardens in Northern California. PhotoBotanic - Garden Photography online at www.photobotanic.com
Saxon Holt

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9 Comments… add one

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Elaine Davidson October 29, 2016, 9:13 pm

Wow, what great tips. I’ve just been photographing trees like crazy with some of my results in recent blog posts. Where were you when i needed you?

Daniel Tyrrell October 31, 2016, 1:14 am

Some great pics, i too find it hard to capture what we see through a lens

Debra Lee Baldwin October 31, 2016, 11:46 am

Saxon, what a perfectly timed post. Your photos of trees are glorious, and you captured them perfectly. I love your posts on Instagram, too, of your walks with Kona dog!

Randi Winterman October 31, 2016, 12:55 pm

You might be interested to know that Highland Park in Rochester NY, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, has every variety of tree at Arnold Arboretum as a safeguard against viruses or disease.

Saxon Holt October 31, 2016, 3:45 pm

Thanks Elaine – The tips are timeless I hope.

Saxon Holt October 31, 2016, 3:47 pm

Thanks Daniel – It is indeed hard sometimes to make a good composition out of what you know should be a beautiful scene; but the fun is in the trying and seeing.

Saxon Holt October 31, 2016, 3:49 pm

Thanks Debra Lee – Autumn makes it easier to “see” the trees and traveling always opens ones eyes to new possibilities. As to the daily walk with Kona – it helps to live in a incredibly beautiful part of the world – and always having a camera phone in my pocket

Saxon Holt October 31, 2016, 3:50 pm

Great tip Randi ! I am sure it is wonderful if Olmstead designed it

Takeshi kenshin November 4, 2016, 12:07 am

Thanks for your tips :d i usually use app vsco for photographing 😀 it have many effect

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