Posted In Education

Conquering The Clutter
Tips For Creating Strong Images In The Forest

Kyle McDougall | October 17, 2016

Now that we’re well into the autumn season, I felt it would be appropriate to talk about creating images in the forest during my favourite time of year. Walking into the woods with a camera can be an intimidating endeavor. The best word to sum up what lies in front a photographer’s eyes is “clutter”.

Forest scenes stand on their own in regards to difficulty and execution. There’s often so much going on that it can be challenging to both find a subject and arrange all of the elements surrounding it into a pleasing composition. You really have to dig deep before elements start to reveal themselves. It would be an understatement to say that patience and practice are key!

In this post, we’re going to take a look at a number of techniques and conditions that will help you create stronger images in the forest.

There’s something about experiencing the forest in the early morning during times where unique weather and light combine to form special moments. That being said, earlier in my career I never used to shoot much in the woods as I found it incredibly difficult and never had many results that I was happy with.

Listed below are some of the most important things to take into consideration when you’re shooting in the forest.


1. A Strong Subject

foggy muskoka sunrise morning trees in autumn

This small cluster of pine trees instantly jumped out at me. The entire group is my subject, but the differences in size throughout help tell a story.


This sounds so simple and obvious, but it really is so important to understand. Even though forests are busy places with lot’s of elements throughout, you always need to start by finding the main subject. For me, this is almost always a tree or collection of trees.

Even though many times it will seem like there’s nothing that stands out, there are always subjects to be found, even in the most difficult of locations. Take the time to search the area and find what interests you the most. It doesn’t have to overpower everything else in the scene, but it needs to be something that is going to be the basis that your image is built around. Once you find your main subject, you can make decisions on what else you’ll include in your frame, and how you can compliment it.

Some examples include:

  • A single unique tree that stands out.
  • Multiple trees in a collection across the frame. All similar in size with interesting or complimentary lines.
  • Branches of a tree that create pleasing lines throughout the frame.
  • Forest details that you can isolate. i.e. spider webs, cattails, leaves etc.


2. Weather

a foggy morning in a forest in canada

The fog is what makes this scene come alive. Once the sun broke, this forest became awkward and too busy to shoot.


In my opinion, some sort of unique weather is almost always a necessity while shooting in the forest. My favourite is fog or mist, and that is a big reason why I love shooting during the autumn season. If the weather report calls for it, I’m almost always heading out to shoot and you should be too!

The biggest effect that fog has on the forest is that it instantly simplifies the scene and creates separation, allowing for endless compositions with things like negative space, patterns, and contrast.

Fog also creates depth and layers of contrasting tones which naturally eliminate some of the clutter in the scene, making it easier to find and isolate a subject, or tell a unique story.

Take the above image for example. Without the fog, all of the trees shared similar same tonal values which left no separation in the image and made the composition feel quite “messy”.


3. Longer Focal Lengths

foggy muskoka morning in autumn with trees and mist

By using a longer focal length, I was able to isolate and reveal an interesting scene that was part of a grand landscape. These details would have been lost in a wider composition.


I naturally find myself almost always shooting the forest with a longer lens. Typically anything over 50mm, but usually somewhere in the neighborhood of 150-200mm. Patterns and lines tend to be more prominent when they’re far away and the scene is compressed. On the flip side, if you get too close to your subject with a wide lens it can be difficult to tame the rest of the clutter throughout the scene.

By compressing the frame you’re able to work in complimenting elements even if they’re a far distance apart. This opens the door to a number of different options when it comes to creative compositions. The forest is a grand landscape, and there is magic waiting to be found throughout it. Don’t limit yourself to a wider composition. Search out details and isolate smaller scenes by using a telephoto lens.


4. Light

By waiting for the late evening light I was able to create a strong contrast in colours.

By waiting for the late evening light I was able to capture a strong colour contrast throughout the scene. As the sun got lower in the sky it slowly isolated specific details.


Obviously, like with any image, the light is key!That being said, proper and creative use of the available light is key to unlocking your creative vision, especially in the forest. The right light can transform your scene from a bland and boring image to something magical. When you’re dealing with a forest, there are so many elements that are affected by the light, that when it’s changing rapidly during the morning or evening hours, every minute creates provides a new creative opportunity.

It’s Important To Practice Visualization!

I always like to visualize how the light is going to affect the scene, and then compose my shot and wait as it changes until the moment is right. Instead of trying to create a number of images during sunrise or sunset, really focus on creating a single one, and pick the right time where the light matches your intended creative mood. By studying the landscape and how the light affects it, you’ll develop your creative vision at a more rapid pace.


5. Lines & Patterns



Last but not least are lines and patterns. Almost all of my forest images are structured around specific lines and patterns that I’ve found throughout the landscape. They don’t always come easy, but if you search through the clutter and concentrate on finding interesting elements, you’ll be suprised at what you find.

Don’t Give Up

For the above image, what at first felt like a harsh and distracting area, ended up providing me with a number of options once I stopped and took the time to throughoughly study the landscape. The lines created by the trees allow for a number of creative compositions. I decided to include two similar groups of trees for my foreground, and then center frame my main subject in the background.

The exciting thing is that images like this are waiting to be found everywhere. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, it just takes time and paitence. You need to force yourself to keep looking even if it feels like there’s nothing around!



The forest is an amazing place to create images and provides a healthy challenge for photographers. I really do believe that learning to create strong images in the forest will help you apply a more thoughtful and detailed approach towards all of your photography, no matter the subject.

If there are certain techniques that you find helpful or any areas that you’ve struggled with, I’d love to hear about them below!


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