Photographing Trees, Part 1--Exposure

TreesIf you haven't tried to shoot trees in a forest before, you may not realize just  how challenging the task can be.  The biggest challenge you're likely to face is lighting.  Particularly on sunny days, once sunlight begins to filter through leaves of trees, the contrast becomes so great that it's difficult to properly expose your whole scene. You either lose detail in the highlights or the shadows of your scene.

Here are some tips and tricks I use to get good photographs of trees and forests.  In this post, I'll focus mostly on exposure issues.  In a later post, we'll consider issues of composition.
  1. Shoot Early Morning. Easily the best time to shoot trees is in the early morning hours before the sun begins to shine into the trees.  You won't have excessive contrast to worry about; sometimes you'll find there's some fog to help separate trees from each other; and you won't have to contend as much with other people.  
  2. Shoot on Cloudy Days.  I love cloudy days for photography in forests.  The clouds act as a giant diffuser to spread out the light evenly throughout the forest.  A nice, thin layer of clouds provides perfect lighting for forests and trees.
  3. Use a Polarizing Filter.  If you do have sunlight, use a polarizing filter. Part of the contrast created by the sun comes from the reflection of light off the leaves of the trees.  A polarizer will cut down on those reflections to give you nice, rich, saturated colors.  Remember that a polarizer works most effectively at 90 degree angles from the sun.
  4. Choose Smaller Areas.  As the sun does begin to shine in your area, you can still get some good use out of your time by focusing on smaller areas that are more evenly lit.  Areas all in shadow or all in sunlight may still yield great results.
  5. Exposure Compensation.  You can also get some pretty interesting effects if you're willing to use exposure compensation.  You will probably get best results if you use your spot meter and manual mode.  Find the brightest part of your scene and zoom into that area.  Spot meter off that area and set it to the exposure value you want (maybe +1 to +2 stops).  You'll be able to properly expose your highlights and let the shadows go to black.  This can create some very dramatic compositions with practice.
Don't treat any of these rules as absolute.  This is what I do to get the results I usually want.  But you may want to shoot on sunny days and expose for the shadows, letting the bright parts of your image become white.  There are good reasons to do so.  Also, if you're interested in trees by water, I have another post on photographing waterfalls and cascades.