Why Is Woodland Photography So Hard?

Why Is Woodland Photography So Hard?

Woodland photography, while rewarding, presents a unique set of challenges when it comes to shooting and bagging some banger shots. From intricate compositions to unpredictable lighting conditions, capturing the flow of forests requires skill, patience, and adaptability. For this article, I want to dive into the reasons why woodland photography is considered difficult and explore methods to overcome these obstacles.

To begin with, we need to acknowledge that it is a hard genre. When I present any workshop participants with the challenge, the first reaction is they cannot see an image jumping out at them and can feel overwhelmed at the very thought of trying to find a shot. But, it doesn’t have to be insurmountable; there are ways to overcome the challenge which can be highly rewarding when it works.

Dappled Light and Shadows

One of the primary challenges in woodland photography is the ever-changing interplay of light and shadow. The dense canopy of trees filters sunlight, creating a confusing array of dappled light that can be both enchanting to look at and very frustrating to photograph. Achieving proper exposure and managing contrast become paramount tasks, as the dynamic range within the scene can be vast. This very challenge can put many off even trying, as looking at the back of the camera at our shots doesn’t give us the immediate dopamine hit that can be possible for the likes of traditional landscapes or my safe place seascapes.

Try These: Look at the contrast and play of light within the forest and adapt to them. Utilize techniques such as exposure bracketing and HDR (High Dynamic Range) to capture the full range of tones. Additionally, use this opportunity to tune into the light as it falls either on the floor or as it hits certain leaves or branches around you. This will help you isolate the light as the main subject in the scene and help create more focus on a certain area rather than it being a kaleidoscope of light spreading everywhere. This method can also help you simplify the scene greatly. I would also consider shooting during the golden hours of sunrise and sunset when the light is softer and more diffused, which will help with balancing the potential high contrast as well as adding some additional color overall.

Complex Compositions

Woodlands are teeming with visual elements, from towering trees to intricate undergrowth. Creating compelling compositions amidst this complexity requires a keen eye for detail and a deep understanding of visual storytelling. Trying to portray the very essence of the scene in a coherent image can be daunting, as the abundance of elements can easily lead to clutter and confusion. The phrase "creating order out of chaos" is easier to say than to actually do, and once again can put many off from trying this genre of landscape photography to begin with.

Try These: Simplify your compositions by focusing on a single focal point or subject of interest. Experiment with different perspectives and focal lengths to create depth and add dimension. Use leading lines and framing techniques to guide the viewer's eye through the image, adding clarity to the story you want to tell. In traditional landscape photography, this in itself can be a challenge, and to be able to do this in the clutter that is often the forest might seem like an intimidating task. But take your time to explore the area and look for elements that you can build on. An example of this might be a fallen branch or tree or a pathway that meanders through the scene. Once you find one, take some time to look at it from many different angles to see if there are any supporting elements to bring it all together. You will of course also need to consider light in this mix, as it can be the missing element you need for the image to work. A good rule of thumb I use here is the 6-inch rule: once you have set your shot, move your camera 6 inches in all directions to see how that slight movement influences the scene. Does it cut out distractions? Does it stop any overlapping branches? Or perhaps it reveals that missing element you needed.

Fleeting Moments

Unlike static landscapes, woodlands are dynamic environments where conditions can change in an instant. Wildlife may dart across the frame, the foliage will most likely sway in the breeze, and light may shift rapidly as clouds drift overhead, which you may not be able to see due to the thick canopy of leaves above you. Capturing the decisive moment with all this flux going on requires anticipation, quick reflexes, and a willingness to embrace the opportunity.

Try These: Anticipate potential moments of interest and be prepared to react quickly by looking at where the light is, what direction it is moving, and where you want it to be in your shot. You need to be patient here, as it may take a while for it to happen, but when it does, you need to be ready. Use burst mode or continuous shooting to capture rapid sequences of action; this can be helpful if you also want to have some wildlife in your shot. Keep your camera settings pre-configured for different scenarios to minimize the need for adjustments in the heat of the moment so you can quickly switch between each. I would have three: one for no light, one for light, and one for fast speeds should you need to freeze the action or foliage. It’s best to dial these in when you are on location, as you will be metering for the location instead of generalizing.

Woodland photography often involves traversing rugged terrain and contending with uneven footing. Carrying heavy gear through dense underbrush or over rocky terrain can be physically demanding, requiring stamina and agility. Moreover, accessing remote locations may require hiking long distances, adding an additional layer of logistical complexity to the process. Be ready to get down and dirty also if needed, as the best shots are ones that you have to work for. However, this very challenge can put many off, as the thought process of "is it worth it" will no doubt creep in, especially when you also think that this genre is hard, which it is.

Try These: Invest in lightweight and durable equipment that can withstand the rigors of outdoor photography. Use a sturdy camera backpack with padded compartments to protect your gear while hiking. Wear appropriate footwear with good traction and consider using trekking poles for added stability on uneven terrain. Scout out a location in advance where possible without any camera gear, as it will make it easier to get around and less cumbersome when it comes to getting into tight spaces or through thick vegetation. Be sure to always bring water with you; it will help when you may mean spending a lot of time getting to a spot and potentially even longer trying to fine-tune that composition. Finally, immerse yourself in the location, and be prepared to get dirty, wet, and up close with your potential subjects.

Weather Variability

Woodlands are susceptible to a wide range of weather conditions, from brilliant sunshine to dense fog and torrential rain. While inclement weather can yield dramatic and atmospheric images, it also introduces logistical challenges and potential risks to equipment. Waterproofing gear and maintaining situational awareness are essential precautions when shooting in unpredictable conditions. Wind will also be something you need to be aware of, as leaves will move, and when you are exposing, you most likely will have a longer shutter due to the lower light levels.

Try These: Monitor weather forecasts closely and plan your shoots accordingly. Fog is something we all want when it comes to woodlands, as it helps with separation and adds mood and depth. However, fog comes from moisture, so the ground will no doubt be wet. If you visit a location after rain, you will have more vibrant colors to photograph, plus the raindrops on leaves can work as a great supporting actor to your shot. Wind will be something that you ideally will want to avoid. However, if you are faced with a scenario where the wind is present, then try to wait for moments of stillness to ensure your leaves aren’t blurred in your shots. Pack essential protective gear such as rain covers for your camera and lens, as well as waterproof clothing for yourself. I always have an extra pair of socks in my bag, as even though I have waterproof boots, you just don’t know what terrain you will find yourself in. Expect a unique atmosphere created by inclement weather, and even if you don’t get it, be prepared for it, but prioritize safety above all else.

Patience and Persistence

Perhaps the greatest challenge of woodland photography is the need for patience and persistence. Nature operates on its own timeline, and capturing the perfect shot often requires multiple visits to a location, careful planning, and a willingness to wait for the ideal conditions to materialize. Success in woodland photography is as much about perseverance as it is about technical skill. The shot you had in mind might take minutes to capture, but more often will take a lot more. It’s not a bad spot to spend some time in, as it can be quite relaxing to spend time surrounded by the sounds and smells that the woodland has to offer. Don’t force the shot; let it happen and let nature take its course.

Try These: Create a mindset of perseverance and resilience. Understand that capturing the perfect shot may require multiple visits to a location and be prepared to invest the time and effort necessary to achieve your vision. Take advantage of downtime to explore alternative compositions and experiment with new techniques. Yes, you will get it wrong more than right, but take each opportunity as a chance to unwind, relax, and hopefully come away with a shot you’re proud of.


In conclusion, woodland photography presents a myriad of challenges, from mastering complex compositions to navigating dynamic lighting conditions and unpredictable weather. However, for those willing to embrace the difficulties inherent in capturing its beauty, the rewards are immeasurable as you know the amount of work you put into bagging that shot. By tweaking your shots, compositions, and techniques, exercising patience, and respecting the rhythms of the natural world, you can unlock the magic of woodland landscapes and share this unique vision with the world.

By implementing these strategies and adopting a flexible and adaptive approach to woodland photography, you can overcome the inherent challenges of the genre and unlock the full potential of the natural world as your next favorite genre. With each obstacle conquered, new opportunities for growth and self-expression emerge, enriching both your journey and the final outcome of your work.

Finally, bear in mind seasons, as each can add more opportunities for your shots. Spring can be a superb time to shoot; it doesn’t just have to be an autumn/fall exercise.

Have I missed anything here? I’m still learning myself, and it will be a long time before I get totally comfortable in this genre.

Do you have more insights, stories, or challenges to share?

Let’s continue the conversation in the comments below.

Darren Spoonley's picture

Darren J. Spoonley, is an Ireland-based outdoor photographer, Podcaster, Videographer & Educator with a passion for capturing the beauty of our world.

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The greatest challenge in forest photography for me is the fact that nature is inherently messy. You call it complex. A patch of dirt here, a broken tree limb there... all kinds of things which disturb the simplicity of the composition that we hope to capture. Everything in the forest is so nice and quiet that a bad picture seems impossible. At least until we start looking more closely at our pictures on the monitor at home, where all kinds of distracting elements appear. However, like any other genre, we need to closely examine everything in the picture beyond just the subject, before clicking the shutter.

I tend to prefer rainy, moody days in the forest. For one thing, it reduces a lot of the harsh contrast in bright sunny days, leading to blown-out highlights or loss of shadow detail. And a sunny weekend afternoon in late September in Colorado feels like Times Square on New Years Eve. Bad weather though, even in popular tourist spots, can make it feel like you have the place all to yourself. So my favorite moments are rainy days, or the time slightly after peak color season, or best of all... both.

Sometimes it's hard to find diagonal lines or leading lines in the forest which create depth in a picture, so we usually have to make a special effort to find them. The fact that there are so many trees packed into one place in the forest makes it difficult to find a picture which is distinctive, and so we end up with flat pictures which all look the same. Look for ways to create depth. As Ansel Adams said, "A good picture is knowing where to stand."

I really enjoy these kinds of articles!

Thanks Matthew, glad you enjoyed it ! Hope some of the tips help

Woodland photography actually needs a different type of “hard.” Instead of tidying the messy patches and inconvenient light etc to force fit an idealized, dare I say it – idyllic paradise, why not just show it as it is, and in the process add meaning and depth to a discussion on forestry, conservation, and parks? An alternative is to make it even more chaotic. How about disruptive realism? Look at Jonathan Yeo’s work in portraiture to determine how that could be done. That would be a breath of fresh air in woodland photography.

Why not render the scene in a different way?

I’m reminded of a story about Norman Rockwell from his autobiography “My Adventures as an Illustrator.” He describes his experience at the age of about 28 where, after some early success with the Saturday Evening Post, he travels to Paris to satisfy an itch to get out of town and see new things. While there he takes a few art classes, and is subsequently ridiculed for his old-fashioned, out-of-touch painting style. This would have been approximately 1922. So on his trip home he vows to make more contemporary paintings. And so he does just that, and rushes to show a more modern style sample to his editor at the magazine. The editor examines the picture for awhile and then proceeds to lecture young Rockwell about trying to be someone that you’re not. In most cases, it doesn’t work. Besides, too much of the magazine’s audience wouldn’t like it, or so the editor claimed. Sort of like Jonathan Yeo’s portrait of King Charles.

So call me old-fashioned but there’s something I like about an idyllic setting in a picture. There’s enough chaos in the world without my adding to it. Too much symbolism or abstraction goes over my head and I lose interest quickly. Besides, I happen to like Rockwell’s view of the world. It’s a world that still makes sense to me. And if I failed to do my best at composing a photo which minimized clutter, I’d feel that I was no more skilled in my craft than anyone with a cellphone in their pocket. I much prefer to make a print that I am technically proud of, rather than something purely to advance a social cause. Not that I don’t appreciate the cause; it’s just not something that I want to point my camera toward. I can write letters with that purpose in mind. But I realize that as artists, we all have different motivations for doing the work that we choose, and the artwork we create reflects that.

Norman seemed to want to branch out and do some something different, and his editor seemed to think he knew more about Norman, than Norman knew about himself. Seems to be more about selling the magazine. I wonder if Yeo cares that much about what the general public thinks of his art. Charles and Camilla seemed happy with the portrait. It certainly helps Yeo’s art when there is polarization regarding it. That is one of many ways that art progresses. It does not progress through repetition ad nauseum, and seldom through the number of likes the general public bestows on a work. And as for chaos, artists often thrive by including it in their work. The world is chaotic (when has it not been?), and I see no reason to avoid it.

You make good points. Although one could argue that modern art... things like cubism, abstract impressionist, and pop art culture of the Warhol era were all artistic aberrations better left as a sidenote to art history. I have a hard time characterizing some of that as progression. Andy Warhol's pictures seem to mock artistic skill, turning serious art into child's play. Jackson Pollock's abstract drip paintings do no more than psychoanalyze the painter. He should have just written a book about his life and spared us the debate over the symbolic meaning in his paintings. And thanks to abstraction, we have a generation of interior designers buying abstract art for the sole purpose of matching colors between wall decor and home furnishings. For what my opinion is worth, I feel like we've had a hundred years of art regression.

And with regard to Yeo's portrait of King Charles... my first reaction upon seeing it was that the artist had a thing for Britain medieval executions. Obviously an artist can't control everyone's response as viewer. But red is one of the more highly symbolic colors so there had to have been some thought given to its intent in shaping a response. And the head separated from the body by color values? Hmmm... feels creepy to me. Whether Yeo cares or not about public opinion would have to be answered by himself. I can say for myself though that while popular opinion doesn't always dictate what or how I photograph, I do care about the response. It feels good when people like my pictures. Rockwell said as much, and I think it was good for him that public acceptance aligned well with his natural illustrating style. In that case, his editor may have understood him better than he understood himself. We all go through phases that sometimes stick; many do not. Anyway, nice chatting with you.

The thing to bear in mind here is that it is quite easy to find out how and why known artists produce the work they do. There are many books and articles on that. It is not so easy at times to figure it out looking at the works of art without any such knowledge. What I believe happens in certain art circles, is that an artist provides a body of work and explains the rationale behind that body. It happens in painting and photography. Was it an argument against greed, for conservation, against the detrimental effects of poverty, against surveillance and so on? Andy Warhol certainly had a rationale. And why was the body of work conducted at that period of time? Was it to resist certain developments in a field and if so, why? What we see in many photography sites is very often a single image. No rationale behind it, just a one-shot wonder. Make of the photograph what you will, but there is often little explanation of what it means or an associated corpus of work that shows how it all links together and why it was provided at all. And in the process, I certainly begin to understand why there is so much emphasis on the f-stop, the gear, the software, the rule of thirds, and so on, rather than on what is the artist thinking and why? And I absolutely understand why the emphasis mostly is on a pretty picture. Superficial?

I don't think pretty pictures are superficial. They are what I see, and I can take that picture for purely my own benefit as a reminder of the places I've been, or I can show it on social media and allow the world to respond to my picture however they see fit. I derive a certain amount of satisfaction from someone giving me money in exchange for my picture. Nobody ever asks the how or why behind the picture. It reminds me that other people value seeing what I see. It bridges the gap that exists between ideological battlegrounds so prevalent in this country. But I doubt they really care much about me personally.

Either way, I take a picture because I'm a visual person. If I want to show you what I saw, I'll post a picture. If I want to tell you what I think, I'll write a book, an Fstoppers comment, or letter to the newspaper's editor. Where visual and conceptual expression overlap in artwork is where you lose me. I'm not terribly interested in what an artist is thinking, or the rationale behind his artwork, at least until I see enough of an artist's work that I become interested in that person.

Of course you can bet the house you won't get a gallery show unless you have a really good story to tell about yourself which supports your art. But therein lies the problem... the stories are interesting but the art sucks. Which brings me back to my photography. I want it to stand on its own and not be accused of being something that a first grader could have made. When I look at art, I want to be struck by the craftsmanship... not for fishing around into what was going on in Andy Warhol's head in 1962.

Too bad you see art that way. We are world's apart. Why Your Five Year Old Could Not Have Done That /anglais Paperback – September 20, 2012
by HODGE SUSIE (Author)

It's not bad or good... it's just a different view.

I've got the book bookmarked to acquire for future reading. Thanks.

Forests and woodlands offer quite a challenge. As mentioned they are messy places, compositionally, and often there is not a lot space to work to isolate interesting elements. Over the last 4 years or so, I've dedicated a good portion of my time photographing in the burned and scorched forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains. This was to document the regrowth after devastating fires. Definitely a lot of challenges.

A couple things to add for you. To start with, find a pair of tough, non-cotton, pants. I destroyed a few pairs by snagging branches and spending a lot of time on the ground. Next, I found that I shoot with a wide lens much more, 14mm, 17mm TS, and 16-35mm, they offer the ability to create space between things. Lastly, Abandon the idea of a"clean" compositions. allow yourself to embrace the complexity and detail the forests offer.

One more thing, If you want to venture off trail, be aware that it is easy to become turned around and lose track of the main trails. Bring a map and compass, yes a GPS is great, until the batteries die, and know how to use them. It's also safer to go with a buddy.

Finally, be aware of the environment you are in, treat it kindly and watch where you step, not everything appreciates being crushed under our backpack laden, waffle-stomping hiking boots.

I'm probably hung up on semantics, but I think your pictures are clean, in the sense that all of the elements are unified between subject and supporting elements. They can still be inherently busy, but there's order and structure to your images. I took a peek at your website so I feel like I'm responding in general terms, as well as to what you've shown here. Certainly fog, like snow in the winter, simplify a composition because they hide a lot of clutter. On the other hand, something like a discarded Pepsi bottle might be considered naturally found in the landscape, but as photographers we typically attempt to "clean" up the picture by removing the distractions from our photo. Whether it's a manmade object or a weed, we make those decisions to include or exclude them... which shapes our style of photography. A documentary photographer would purposely include the trash so as to influence public perception of environmental issues. I would go to great lengths, for the purpose of making art, to exclude it from the picture. As I would other distractions and elements that I considered at odds with the mood and feeling of the picture.

I think you may be hung on the semantics of what documentary photography is generally accepted to look like. I would look at it as more of a faithful representation [almost factual] of what was in front of the camera. Yes, my images are clean, carefully composed and I do not include things I don't think add to the image. Certainly one way to shoot environmental images is to include all the damage and garbage that we as a species have imposed on the natural world, and this is a perfectly valid approach. However, there is another way to do the same thing. I have chosen to highlight the beauty and grandeur of what I have found with hope that people will see the natural world as I do and perhaps there will be a new appreciation. I see this as a more positive approach. Intention is a very important tool in photography. My approach the CZU fire images was purely to show what nature is capable of doing on it's own. Keep in mind that the areas I photographed were on conservation land not open to the public. Less people equals a lot less trash. As for the discarded Pepsi bottle, I'd pick that up and take it out with me.

Thanks for taking the time look at my images and I always appreciate another point of view on things.

What’s helpful to me is to enter the forest with lowered expectations and a heightened sense of curiosity. I refer to it as my “walks through the woods”. I tend to go often and on cloudy days to avoid bright sky spots through the trees. It’s quite an adventure in the swampy area where I live because these
are the homes of water moccasins, chiggers and mosquitoes. I wear repellent. My goal is to connect with the landscape rather than judge it.

I know several people who prioritize the experience of being outdoors in nature over capturing the picture. I myself always feel a bit disappointed if I don't come home with a picture I really like, but I'm trying to change that. I especially like your second picture. It has that hope and rebirth of spring feel, and a clear subject which emerges nicely from the background.

Thanks... I know the feeling all too well. Of course, the disappointment and frustration is very human. Overcoming those things have been a personal mission for me. Sometimes, I leave the gear in the truck and just walk, look and listen. That prevents me from clicking on "marginal" visions that so often litter my catalog. I am now able to stroll or hike with camera and tripod in hand and just enjoy the scenery. Then, when I see that special something or notice the unusual, I set up to make an image. The one that you noted was on such an afternoon. I kept walking and it was as if the sunlight over the top lit that tree just for me. It's like fishing; I brought one home.

I really appreciate this article, it resonates with several experiences I've had trying to take worthy photos in the middle of redwood forests. My luck is usually along the lines of every time I come back from a trip, something gets posted that would have helped before I left! But that just adds motivation to planning the next one.

Thank you very much Andrew, I am always finding new ways to correct my errors :-) but the real challenge is to find that woodland that sets itself up perfectly for the shot, sadly they mustn’t have gotten my memo :-) Delighted you enjoyed it

Trying to impose one's sense of order upon a forest by means of photographic rules and conventions is like peeing against the wind. Photographers who do so would be better off shooting architecture.