The Primeval Forest

"Twins" - sun breaking through fog in a redwood forest, northern California, USA

“Twins” – sun breaking through fog in a redwood forest, northern California. 25mm, 1/8th of a second at f/16, ISO 200. See the main text for a description of how I made this image.

Many people seem to have a deep, instinctive connection with redwood forests. I’m certainly one of them. Every year Claudia and I journey to the northern California coast prior to our redwoods workshop, and one of our first stops is at a favorite redwood grove. I’ll get out of the car, step onto the trail, and enter the forest. I’ll see the huge trees soaring into the sky. My nose will catch the familiar, earthy smell of the redwoods. I’ll hear the buzzing call of a varied thrush – the soundtrack of the redwood forest. I’m home.

We photographers often talk about gear, technique, light, composition, and image processing. And all those things are important. But I don’t think you can make truly meaningful photographs unless you feel a connection with your subject. More than once I’ve looked at a person’s portfolio of landscape photographs, found them so-so, then looked at images of their children – and thought they were fantastic. It was clear that while they liked nature and landscapes, they were truly passionate about their children (as they should be!).

It’s so important to figure out what you love, what you’re passionate about, what you’re knowledgeable about, what really lights your flame as a photographer and artist. If you truly care about what you’re photographing, you’ll find a way to make images that communicate that passion to yourself and others.

If you love nature, some places will probably speak to you more than others. I can find things to love about any natural habitat, but I seem to connect with some places on a deeper level. Yosemite is obviously one of those, but the redwoods are also at the top of my list. When I’m in the redwoods I never want to leave.

We landscape photographers often try to portray our subjects at their most photogenic moments. In Yosemite that’s usually when a storm is clearing. The redwoods are at their most spectacular when the rhododendrons are blooming or sunbeams are fanning out through the fog. The fog beams are truly breathtaking. And I’m drawn to those scenes as much as anyone – as you can tell from my last post.

But during our recent visit to the redwoods it occurred to me that those exceptional moments don’t portray the real character of the redwood forest. The rhododendrons bloom for only a few weeks of the year, and their pink blossoms are an anomaly amid the forest’s overall palette of greens and browns. The sunbeams are dazzlingly bright, but most of the time the forests are rather dark, even gloomy.

In thinking about this, I decided to try making images of the redwoods that captured their true character – magnificently dark, brooding, and primeval.

Doing that, or trying to do that, still required the right conditions – especially fog. Fog is common in these forests, especially in summer, so it’s not exceptional or unusual. But fog helps immensely when photographing redwoods because it declutters the background, and, more importantly, conveys that mystical, primeval mood I’m looking for.

The images I was happiest with also needed something more uncommon – sun breaking through the fog. Instead of looking toward the sun and the radiating sunbeams, I turned and looked at the sunlight striking the trees and forest floor through the fog. This lighting seemed to convey the mystery and mood I was looking for.

In my last post I said that I like images that are rich and complex, without being too busy or visually confusing. Before capturing the image at the top of this post I noticed the sun hitting the twin trunks just left of center, and knew those trunks could provide a key focal point – something for the viewer’s eyes to latch onto amid the sea of branches, leaves, ferns, and trunks. And I loved the chiaroscuro effect – the modulation of light and dark across the frame.

The rest of the composition, including the two smaller trees in the middle (young redwoods, I think), seemed to fall into place naturally, except I wasn’t sure what to do with the trunk at the left edge. Usually I would avoid cutting a trunk in half like that, but I figured that cut-in-half trunk would be balanced by the dark areas on the right edge.

The resulting photograph is certainly complicated, but the focal point provided by those twin trunks helps clarify the image, as does the repeating pattern created by all the vertical lines. Most importantly, to me, I think it conveys the dark, primeval mood of my spiritual forest home.

— Michael Frye

Trail through a redwood forest in the fog, northern California, USA

Trail through a redwood forest in the fog, northern California. Again, sunlight breaking through fog helped give this scene the mood I was looking for. 19mm, 1/10 of a second at f/11, ISO 100.

Ferns and redwoods in the fog, northern California, USA

Ferns and redwoods in the fog, northern California. To me, the ferns convey the feeling of this forest as much as the redwoods, so I tried to make the ferns a prominent part of this composition. I lowered the camera to make the ferns look tall, and using my widest lens (16mm), carefully positioned the camera so that the tall fern left of center was positioned between trunks, as was the tip of the fern near the right side. The closest fern was perhaps eight inches from the lens, so I had to use focus stacking to make everything sharp, which meant waiting a long time for the wind to be perfectly calm. 16mm, 1/2 a second at f/16, ISO 100; eight images focus stacked and blended with Helicon Focus.

Claudia's vertical panorama of me resting on a redwood log

Claudia’s vertical panorama of me at home in the redwoods

Related Posts: Simple and Complex; Capturing a Mood

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.

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