Posted on October 31, 2021
I love trees, and try to feature them in my images as much as possible. When I say “feature,” I don’t mean simply including trees in an image (pretty hard to avoid as a landscape photographer with an affinity for California’s foothills and mountains), I mean actually using a tree or trees as the basis for my composition.
Given my love for trees, I’m blessed to live in California, where we have many beautiful arboreal specimens, in all shapes and sizes. Sadly, when most people think about California trees, their mind usually jumps to palm trees (one of my least favorite trees and not nearly as ubiquitous in most of the state as most people believe). But when I think about California trees, I go to our foothill oaks, gnarled bristlecones, and regal redwoods.
In fact, in a state with more than its share of unique natural features, California’s giant sequoia trees stand out—both figuratively and literally. It’s no exaggeration to say that the first sight of these massive giants will drop even the most immutable jaw.
Many outside the state don’t that we have two very distinct versions of redwood in California: there’s the coastal redwood, which is also quite massive and sometimes even slightly taller than its Sierra cousin. A coastal redwood can grow up 370 feet, while the giant redwoods top out at around 300 feet. And though a mature coastal redwood’s trunk might grow to more than 20 feet wide, that’s dwarfed by the 36-foot diameter of the General Sherman giant sequoia tree in Sequoia National Park. The giant redwoods also win the longevity battle, with some living more than 3000 years, while the coastal redwoods top out at around 2500 years.
Unfortunately, many people visit California with redwoods on their must-see check list, drive up or down the coast to the nearest redwood grove, check the been-there box, and return home without even realizing they missed the even larger trees farther east. (I won’t get into the debate of which redwood experience is “better,” except to say that in my mind, the coast redwood experience is more about the mystical stillness of the grove, while the giant redwood experience is more about the mind boggling mass of individual trees.)
In my previous blog post, I wrote about my recent visit to Tuolumne Grove in Yosemite. With clouds and occasional sprinkles, conditions for photography were ideal. But on my hike down, I was so struck by the electric fall color of the dogwood (also on my list of favorite trees) and other deciduous trees, I almost didn’t make it down to the redwoods.
Thankfully, I did make it. But getting there was only half the battle because redwoods’ size makes them really hard to photograph—capturing a redwood from top to bottom requires a combination of distance and wide angle that diminishes its unprecedented mass in a photo. And to me the most impressive part of a giant redwood is that massive girth.
On this visit I concentrated on finding large trees surrounded by fall color, meandering along the half-mile loop through the grove, enjoying the peaceful ambiance while keeping my eyes peeled for a suitable composition. Every once in a while I’d set up my tripod and click a frame, but whether it was a distracting trail or fence (nothing manmade in my images), or just a less than ideal vantage point (you can’t just wander haphazardly among these shallow-rooted giants), I started heading out of the grove without feeling like I had any real keepers.
Trudging back up the hill and about to exit the grove, I came across a striking redwood, one of the largest I’d seen that day. I realized that by standing in just the right spot and pressing tightly against the low wood fence, I could frame the broad trunk with an assortment of red and yellow dogwood, ferns, and other fall foliage. I stayed here for at least 20 minutes, trying a variety of perspectives and focal lengths before finally landing on this one. (This is also about the time I discovered an especially stupid and embarrassing mistake that I promise to share in a future “Photographers are Stupid” post.)
This shoot was gratifying for many reasons, but especially because, despite my love for trees and the relatively close proximity of the giant sequoias, I have none in my portfolio. Now I do.
If you love trees (especially redwoods), or just think your world might be made a little better by improving your relationship with trees (spoiler alert: it will be), drop everything you’re reading and pick up The Overstory, by Richard Powers. You’re welcome.
Posted on October 24, 2021
Yesterday I got to spend a day in Yosemite. On my drive to Yosemite, In the back of my mind I was thinking that the day’s forecast of clouds with a chance of rain would be perfect for the intimate scenes I love so much. One of my go-to spots for this kind of photography is Bridalveil Creek, but it’s closed while NPS overhauls parking and access (how much longer will this take?!). As I started considering other options, it occurred to me that a long overdue visit to Tuolumne Grove might be in order.
In Yosemite, Mariposa Grove gets most of the attention from those who want to marvel at massive redwood, and with good reason—it’s by far the largest of Yosemite’s three sequoia groves, and has the largest trees. Mariposa Grove also has the most tourist-friendly infrastructure (a “feature” partially mitigated by a recent NPS overhaul designed to reduce human impact on the sequoias and their surroundings).
Of Yosemite’s two smaller sequoia groves, Merced and Tuolumne, I’ve always been partial to Tuolumne Grove—partly because of familiarity (it’s the grove I grew up visiting because it was closer to home), but also for its intimacy, and the abundance of photogenic dogwood lining the trail to-and-from and mingling among the big trees. In fact, I’ve had better luck photographing the grove’s dogwoods than its redwoods because, well, redwoods are hard (a topic for another day).
One “problem” with photographing Tuolumne Grove (and any other redwood grove) is that it requires clouds to prevent a distracting hodgepodge of highlights and shadows that test any camera’s comfort zone, and clouds in California are relatively rare. And the difficulty of doing justice to the size of a redwood tree in a still photo probably makes me guilty of not prioritizing Tuolumne Grove. With limited time and a surplus of more heralded subjects, most of my time in Yosemite is spent elsewhere.
With the clouds really starting to settle in, after lunch I decided to make the drive up to Tuolumne Grove. While I had no illusions of great success with the redwoods themselves (but who knows?), I looked forward to exploring the forest lit by nature’s softbox and dressed in fall color.
I knew the dogwood in Tuolumne Grove would be turning its autumn red, but I had no idea that I’d find entire hillsides saturated with a kaleidoscope of peak reds, oranges, and yellows, mixed with a few shades leftover green. In fact, the trail to the grove was so beautiful, it took me more than an hour to make the one mile hike down to the redwoods.
As much I love the grand views and dramatic skies that seem to attract a lot of attention, photographing intimate views of nature is probably my favorite kind of photography. Even in Yosemite, with its collection of iconic waterfalls and granite monoliths, I’m never happier than when I’m photographing the smaller scenes that aren’t recognizable as Yosemite.
But as beautiful as the surroundings on the were trail this afternoon, I really struggled to find a composition that did it justice. Instead of insisting on a composition with the elements I consider essential to a good image (a path for the eye to follow, strong visual anchor, no distracting elements), I just pointed in the direction of anything pretty (pretty much everywhere I looked) and started clicking.
Eventually this approach led me to a large dead tree in an area scarred by a recent fire. Scrutinizing my frame, I instantly realized I’d found my visual anchor. After that, my task became mostly a matter of moving around to eliminate all signs of the nearby trail, maximize the color behind the tree, juxtapose the foreground logs into something that wasn’t a disorganized (distracting) jumble, and eliminate the bright sky visible through the trees up the hill. (Even though it was cloudy, including sky that was much brighter than the forest would have pulled my viewers’ eye away from the colorful scene that was the whole point of the image, and reminded them of the world outside my frame.)
One more thing
In my previous post I sung praises of my (Breakthrough) polarizer, but I can’t emphasize too much what a difference removing the wet sheen from the leaves in this scene did for the color. If you think a polarizer is just to darken blue sky, please do yourself a favor and try it for your next fall color shoot.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.