Of all the different landscapes I have in encountered in my many journey’s throughout the US and the world, there is none that moves and inspires me more than the feeling I get when walking just above mist, fog and clouds moving through a Pacific Northwest Forest. I just love photographing in these conditions. With the fast changing action caused by fog, mist and clouds mingled with light moving through the forest canopy, possibilities for compositions seem almost endless. It is almost as if the forest is a blank canvas mirroring ones internal thoughts, dreams and visions, all captured through the lens of the camera and later processing.
Spirit Angels in the Forest
In this blog post I will discuss will discuss several factors that go into the creation of the Forest in the Mist image including (1) location ; (2) state of mind ; (3) equipment: (4) technique; (5) active imagination; (6) composition, and (7) processing.
Although most of the images in this blog post were taken at a single location, Poo Poo Point in the Issaquah Alps, one can find similar opportunities throughout the Pacific Northwest. I find the best locations for shooting are along the ridges of the foothills and first flank of peaks of the cascades, with forests trailing down to the wide open valleys below. The valleys are important because they are the first to fill with fog and then when the morning sun rises, the fog and mist lift and rise moving in a constantly changing fashion through the trees as the mystery of an ethereal world comes in and out of view.
Island in the Fog
Forest Carpet of Clouds
(2) State of Mind
Making images of forests in the mists is not as much about exact locations as it is about ones state of mind. As previously mentioned, one can find these vistas just about anywhere in the Pacific Northwest, but will you be ready for the mystery and recognize this ethereal beauty when it arises? Many will likely answer this question with a resounding yes, but the true answer is likely not nearly so forthright. One needs to be in the right state of mind. Looking out at this foggy and misty world through a long telephoto lens one is no longer pondering the wide open grand landscape, but rather a very small section of the macro world. Scenes transpire and evaporate into evanescence in a matter of seconds and then reappear in different shapes and forms in a seemingly endless cycle. Looking at such drama is like looking through a window into ones own soul. What attracts you to this small section of the misty landscape rather than another? A rational approach to answering this question may not get you very far. With the environment changing so fast there is no time to precisely compose. One is not so much aware of things here as they are, but rather ones experience of a fast changing landscape. And with this much movement and change, our experience of the scene will direct where our attention goes and ultimately the moods and emotions inherent in the images. Presence and stillness are required, a willingness to let go and go with the flow, and to be a part of the flow. In essence, we become part of the landscape, with our inner self, emotions, and feelings moving freely through the mist of the forest.
Secrets of the Forest
The equipment I recommend for capturing beautiful moody and atmospheric images of forests in the mist includes a full frame digital mirrorless or DSLR camera and a long telephoto zoom lens. For most of the images in this series I used a Nikon D810 along with a Nikon 200-500mm 5.6 lens. Although the Nikon 200-500 is one big beast of a lens weighing approximately five pounds and being 10.5 inches long, it is not nearly as heavy as its F 4.0 counterparts. The lens has a very capable Vibration Reduction (VR) which can be used even when the lens is resting on a tripod which is very important because even the slightest movement of the lens can create blur with a telephoto zoom this large.
Although one can of course also compose images with other focal lengths such as wit a 70-200mm zoom or even a wide angle zoom, it is a long telephoto zoom that is going to maximize your flexibility in capturing the best compositions in the field. The best compositions are most often very small areas of the larger scene best captured at focal lengths of between 400 mm to about 700 mm. Even small movements left, right, up or down, will result often in entirely different compositions. Using these large focal lengths will also create a pleasingly compressed perspective. This will transform a scene that at shorter focal lengths would appear rather flat with major areas of dead space to something with well placed composition elements filling more of the frame. Although the Nikon lens only goes to 500mm, going beyond this can easily be achieved by either shooting in cropped sensor mode or by simply cropping the image in post processing. The quality of the files from the Nikon D810, Nikon D850, Sony A7R2 and A7R3 can easily handle cropping by as much as 50% or even more.
Lost in the Forest
One must keep in mind when discussing technique in photographing forests in the mist that technique is all in service of creating images that are also projections of our own inner vision. As previously mentioned, the images are not of the scene as it is but rather our experience of the scene. More on this when we discuss the “Active Imagination” and how this relates to creating images. But clearly there are actions of a more pure technical nature that warrant review that will help us harness our vision.
I always scan the scene first with my own eyes looking for areas of interest. Remember areas of interest will be fleeting, but one may still look for the dominant recurring patterns in the scene by answering the following questions: (1) which direction is the mist moving –up from the valley, or down from the ridges? (2) What sections of trees come in and out of view? (3) Are the trees deciduous or evergreen or some of both? (4) do the trees follow the lines of ridges and are these lines curved or straight? (5) Are there islands of trees separated by fog, mist or clouds? (6) Where is the source of light and how is it penetrating the clouds and mist? (7) Is there a layer of clouds over the fog and mist? (8) What colors, texture and tones are present? Once I have an understanding of the answer to these and related questions I will only then mount the lens with camera attached to the tripod.
Behind the Scenes PC Stuke Sowie
Long telephoto lenses will magnify the impact of any movement of the camera and lens resulting in blurry images. A long telephoto lens needs to be mounted onto the sturdiest tripod you can reasonably carry using a tripod color as the point of attachment and not the camera itself. This will help reduce the chance of shake and vibrations associated with the use of a very long and heavy lens. If possible it is best to mount the lens on the tripod with the legs only partially extended minimizing the use of the extended legs that are smaller in diameter. This will result in a sturdier tripod less effected by movements caused by wind. Never use the tripod’s center column unless absolutely necessary.
Additional steps to reduce vibrations and any camera and lens movement include the following: put the mirror in lock up position (or use a mirrorless camera), use a cable release in combination with a self timer, and enable use of electronic first curtain shutter. Electronic first curtain shutter (EFCS) used either with mirrorless or with the DSLR mirror up makes it so the start of the shutter motion isn’t even mechanical (the camera basically just starts recording the exposure because the shutter is already up, so there are fewer parts moving to create vibration. Even with mirror lockup on a tripod and proper technique, without EFCS enabled it’s easy to get blurry results at certain shutter speeds (from around 1/100 to 1 second) with long lenses. With the EFCS enabled, use a 3 second exposure delay mode combined with the 2 second self timer (5 seconds total) and a remote, and that will be enough time for camera and lens to settle.
To even further reduce vibrations cause by wind experiement with the use of VR. VR on newer lenses have either a tripod mode or the lens automatically detects the use of a tripod. Try taking images with and without VR. Use of VR will often make a huge difference for the better, other times it seems to make things worse. Finally experiment with the use of different ISOs. I always take a series of images at several different ISOs. I always start by attempting to use the cameras base ISO because ultimately if conditions are sufficiently good this will result in the best file. In order to ensure success, however, I also try ISO 400 and even ISO 1000, especially when shooting in low light, to get at faster shutter speeds that may be less succeptible to the impact of any camera and or lens movement.
Once the camera is mounted on the camera and you are ready to shoot, start at the widest focal lenght because it can be very diffcult to find and isolate your intended subject at 500mm. Alternately look at the subject with your eyes and through the viewfinder until you lock on the subject and then move to the desired longer focal lenth. Remember the scene will be fleeting and the cluods and mist may be moving fast so you will need to repeat this process again and again during the shooting session.
“Without this playing with fantasy no creative work has ever yet come to birth. The debt we owe to the play of the imagination is incalculable.” Carl Jung
Forests in the Mists offer a fertile playing ground for the Active Imagination and finding the inner source and drive for creativity. For the Active Imagination to come into play it is necessary to let go for a period of time of our conscious attempts to deliberately control every step of the photographic process and enter a state of flow. The first stage of the active imagination is like dreaming with open eyes. Active imagination is a method of assimilating unconscious contents (dreams and fantasies) through some form of self-expression, in our case photography. With a constantly changing landscape with the mist and clouds moving through the forest coming in and out of view, it is difficult if not impossible to be too deliberate in our actions because if we do, the scene will evaporate before our eyes before we have a chance to capture the image.
In the second stage of Active Imagination, we go beyond simply observing the images, consciously participate in them, taking notice of emotions and feelings, and honestly evaluating what they mean about oneself and a willingness to act on these insights. This is a transition from a merely perceptive mode to one of judgment. It is in this second stage where the craft of photography comes into play for the creation of art that is not only part of ones immediate experience and personally meaningful, but is also is connected to the the physical world, forest in the mists. This is like a dance between our conscious and unconscious self, with neither being in total control. What emerges from the dance is a stronger sense of self, and a visual metaphor for the dance, in the form of a photograph that is art.
Stairway to Heaven
Composition can be very challenging in an environment where nothing is still and scenes are fleeting, but it is not impossible if one is not overly judgmental. Remember this is a play between the fantasies of our unconscious mind and our conscious self. One must be willing to dance, not getting too attached to precisely formulated and deliberate actions. I take many images, one right after the other, looking for composition elements such as lines, curves, repeating shapes, a balance of warm and cool tones, and layers of interest that will help provide a sense of depth to and otherwise compressed telephoto perspective. This is not the time for just taking just one or two sequences of images as many do at an iconic grand landscape scene. This is also not the time for being overly critical of oneself, but just to engage in the flow and dance of creative photography. There will be time for curating and reducing the number of images to a manageable level later. But even here one must be careful not to overly curate. These images will provide insight into your own soul and creative journey. Many, not just a few, will provide the visual trail that leads to a better understanding of your authentic self. Your viewers will have a much better sense of who you are as a person and your journey through viewing a more complete portfolio. For a more on Finding Your Photographic Vision and the Search for your Authentic Self click here.
Layers and Tiers of Clouds and Trees
Trees Floating on Clouds
Usually I can capture all the dynamic range I need with either my Nikon D810 or Sony ARR3 camera and do not need to exposure blend. In raw development, however, I will often use a graduated filter to reduce exposure to the upper par of the scene. In difficult cases I will double process the image, one image processed for highlights and the second for the shadows or darker parts of the scene and then blend the two in Photoshop. A key processing step for Forests in the Mist is global and local area adjustments of white balance. I will first decide if I want to give the entire scene a warmer or cooler tone and then apply a global adjustment if needed. I will then, however, selectively cool or warm up different parts of the scene paying close attention for where the source of light is in the image. The portion of the image closer to the light source may need warming up, and the portion further away may need cooling down to get at the contrast between warm and cool light that is consistent with my experience of the scene. I may also add either globally or selectively a little more magenta to the image if it has a green bias. In raw development I will open up the shadows moderately and make sure the image has sufficient brightness. I generally do not play with the clarity and haze adjustments at all unless there are local areas of the scene that need a little boost because there is little or no definition. These scenes are naturally rendered soft so the grunge look is neither neither or desired.
In Photoshop my main adjustments are for contrast using Luminosity Masks. For this I usually start with the lights using a curve adjustment with a multiply blending mode and then raise the center of the curve. I will then adjust the darks and mid-tones using levels adjustments to improve the contrast in the image and get the image to have more pop. I then will consider applying a light Orton effect if needed (the scene is already inherently soft due to atmospheric conditions). I may or may not sharpen the image depending upon how shapening effects the image. Too much texture or micro contrast in a Forest in the Mist image is not necessarily a good thing where a softer less contrasty image usually works best. If I need to do a color adjustment this comes last but usually with the contrast adjustments in the previous steps the image already has good color.
Behind the Veil of Nature’s Mystery
If you are looking for new avenues for creativity in your photography consider taking a walk into Forests in the Mist. This mystical forest is ripe with mystery that is fertile ground for unleashing creative forces through the Active Imagination that will not only find their way into your images but also help you develop a more evolved sense of your authentic self . This more evolved self will most resonate with network of friends and acquaintances who will be able participate in your artistic journey through your images.
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