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How to shoot moody woodland landscape

Creating images full of mood and atmosphere takes a keen eye and an ability to see order in chaos, as Neil Burnell explains

While many landscape photographers are drawn to shooting sunsets and sunrises with drama light and color, I’ve always taken more enjoyment from shooting in conditions more suited to atmospheric scenes. Woodland can be a genre for many photographers who are led to believe that it’s an extremely difficult subject to master. While I agree it’s not an easy subject I’d also say that all genres are difficult if you don’t put the time and effort into them. I’ve found woodland to be an enjoying challenge and extremely satisfying when it all comes together.

woodland landscape photographs

To begin with woodland can be a bit overwhelming: tangled trees seem like a complete mess and it’s hard to make sense of it all let alone take an image. Almost certainly the best place to start your woodland journey is by going on a few scouting missions – try keeping it local if you can. Travel light and go with no expectations and I can almost guarantee you will find some scenes with potential that you can return to. Work the edges of the woodland first. Looking into a woodland can often reap rewards and is an easier way to spot compositions especially if you haven’t shot this genre before.

Heading straight into a woodland can often be very overwhelming. Once you’ve found a scene make sure you give it time by checking out various angles and taking reference shots so you are fully prepared when the conditions are right. When you first start shooting woodland don’t expect to shoot keepers from day one. Yes it can happen as in every genre but I almost guarantee that it will take some time and several outings for your confidence to grow first.

Check weather conditions

It’s fairly obvious, but fog or mist are an essential ingredient in the majority of my atmospheric woodland images. These conditions are not only essential to create mood but they also help dramatically when it comes to picking out compositions and isolating subjects of interest. The time of day is also a key ingredient. For my own images I prefer the softer muted light of blue hour especially when the objective is mood.

Of course there are other ways to isolate subjects, like using fast lenses wide open to create a shallow depth of field but if you want that atmosphere make sure you head out on those misty days.

Research locations

There are several places I enjoy shooting and exploring when I want to try and create atmospheric images. The first is Wistman’s Wood in Devon. It’s an amazing location and one that every photographer who likes to shoot woodland should visit at least once. It’s a very small woodland and can be extremely difficult to shoot and your way around but if you get lucky with the conditions it really is a magical place. The second spot is Haldon Forest in Devon – a place I’m only just finding my way round. It has massive potential and I’m hopeful I will shoot some keepers there this year. The woodland itself has an abundance of various species from gnarly to silver birch providing great variety and endless opportunities for photography. Another great Devon location is Churston Woods. There are a few small woodlands close to my home and on the rare occasion there is fog locally I will head to Churston Woods. There are also some nice trees on the local golf course which I have shot in some thick fog, after seeking permission from one of the greenkeepers.

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