How to Photograph a Tree

Trees are willing subjects but don't be fooled—to create a compelling photograph, you need to take time to get to know them.

Trees are willing subjects—you don't have to worry about catching them in action or getting them in the right mood. They won't get uncomfortable if you spend hours studying them from every angle at all different times of the day. Does that make them easy to photograph? "In my dreams!" laughs photographer Len Jenshel.

Jenshel and his partner Diane Cook have been photographing landscapes together for over 20 years, combining a fine art aesthetic with documentary storytelling. For their most recent collaboration, "Wise Trees," they spent two years documenting trees around the world and how they play a unique and important role in our human history.

Here are their tips on how to get the most out of the trees in your life.

For this photograph of Sir Isaac Newton's apple tree in Lincolnshire, England, being there at the right time of year was essential—when the apples are at their reddest and before they have fallen from the tree.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DIANE COOK AND LEN JENSHEL

Research, research, research.

When Cook and Jenshel started work on their "Wise Trees" project, the question foremost in their minds was how to make a beautiful photo, but also how best to convey the importance of each tree. "You want to tie into seasonality and cultural significance. You want to know about weather, when it will be in bloom," Jenshel says.

For the photograph of Isaac Newton's apple tree, they emailed back and forth with experts to determine when the apples would be at their reddest before falling off. They also use tools like Google Earth to find out what to expect from the terrain and Photographer's Ephemeris to learn at what times of day a tree might get sunlight. All before taking out the camera.

Every year, thousands flock to the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C, to experience the fleeting beauty of the cherry trees in full bloom. Finding a spot to photograph without people takes perseverance.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DIANE COOK AND LEN JENSHEL

Followed by patience, patience, patience.

"A tree does not reveal its secrets in just two hours," Cook and Jenshel both agree. "It takes walking around it at different times of day." For their Wise Trees project, they spent about two days with each tree.

"Our initial reaction to every tree is 'This is going to be a difficult one to photograph' but it does, with time, reveal its secrets," Jenshel says.

Take the famous cherry trees around the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C., which at their peak are a sight to behold. Only, there are a zillion other people there.

"We got up at 3 am to get there an hour before the sun came up," they recall. "It was wall to wall photographers with tripods who had already claimed their spot. How are we going to navigate this craziness?"

They decided which spot they wanted, waited for the moment for it to open up, and waited some more until the tree was lit in the way they wanted. "Then you just ignore the people complaining behind you," Jenshel jokes.

Sixth-grade children from the Colegio Motolinía de Antequera line up in front of a Montezuma cypress known as el Árbol del Tule. The trunk, 119 feet in circumference and roughly 38 feet in diameter, supports a crown the size of almost two tennis courts.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DIANE COOK AND LEN JENSHEL

Photographing a tree is like taking a portrait.

"You want to know as much as you can about your subject," Cook says, whether the subject is a person or a tree.

And, like portraits, the view can be full-length, head and shoulders, a detail—anything that conveys the essence of that person.

When faced with the challenge of photographing the Montezuma cypress in Oaxaca, Mexico, there was no way, even with their wide angle lens, they were going to be able to get the entire thing in the frame. Plus going with a wide angle lens means distortion around the edges.

So they instead focused on the most remarkable aspect of the tree—its 38-foot diameter.

"Often a piece of a tree is fine," they say. "It's the same thing as taking a portrait—someone has captivating eyes, so let’s focus on that."

The rainy weather on the day Cook and Jenshel photographed this gingko tree in the courtyard of the Zoshigaya Kishimojin Temple in Tokyo actually worked to their advantage. The muted light brought out the bright colours of the leaves.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DIANE COOK AND LEN JENSHEL

There is no bad weather. Only bad clothing.

It was pouring rain the day the pair headed out to photograph the Child-Giving Gingko tree in Tokyo, Japan, but the weather yielded unexpected, and beautiful, results—soft, muted light with the bright yellow leaves scattered on the ground.

"If it had been a bright sunny day, the image would have too much contrast," Cook says. And, Jenshel adds playfully, "A great advantage of our collaboration is that one can hold the umbrellas and keep the camera dry while the other one shoots."

Smoke from a forest fire lingers in the air above ancient bristlecone pines in the Inyo National Forest, California.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DIANE COOK AND LEN JENSHEL

Don't be a slave to the "golden hour."

One of the most-often repeated rules of thumb when it comes to photography is to avoid shooting in the middle of the day when the sun is overhead and the shadows are harsh. Rather, go out in early or late light – around sunrise or sunset to get the most even, golden light.

But this doesn't mean you can’t get great results at other times of the day. In fact, it can be a welcome challenge.

Cook and Jenshel were scouting out the best places to photograph the bristlecone pine trees growing in California's Inyo National Forest when they came across this scene. Normally, lingering smoke from a nearby forest fire might be a nuisance, but in this case, the enshrouding haze muted the bright 2 p.m. sun and created a more textured atmosphere.

"Every single picture we take is about light interpreting and bringing out the best in the tree," Cook says, no matter what the position of the sun.

A rainbow appears above a baob known as the Derby Prison Tree in Western Australia.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DIANE COOK AND LEN JENSHEL

Build in time to accommodate the unexpected.

Fog in the forest, an unbelievable rainbow, a flock of birds flying overhead, a group of schoolchildren on a class trip—all of these unexpected elements can add a layer to a photograph to tell a fuller story.

"You want to do it all when you’re there – night, morning, afternoon, up, down, shot up, shot down from the church steeple," Jenshel says. "Diane and I will look at the trees on our laptop after the first day of shooting and then make some adjustments. It’s a great luxury of shooting digitally – to see your results at the end of the day and be able to fine tune your images the following day."

According to legend, the “Wedding Oak" in San Saba, Texas, was the site of many Native American Council meetings and ceremonies - including marriage. Early settlers continued the Native American tradition, travelling to the tree by horse and buggy to perform their vows under the shade of this 400-year-old tree. It is still the site of marriage ceremonies.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DIANE COOK AND LEN JENSHEL

Be open-minded. Be patient. Do your homework. Do your research. Then go crazy being creative when you get to the tree.

Climate change makes it difficult to predict the weather, so we try to be flexible," Cook says.

They had spent two days waiting to photograph the Wedding Oak in San Saba, Texas. "We had rain for two solid days, zero light, and one night at dusk we were just about to pull away and we looked in the rear view mirror and saw our tail lights illuminating the tree," they recall. "We turned to each other and said 'Ah! Tail lights!”

Plus, they add "There’s something funny to us about the idea of a car being part of the picture– thinking of lovers in a car parked under the tree."

Header Image: A veil of wire adds an artistic element to this photograph of a weeping cherry tree in Tokyo, Japan. PHOTOGRAPH BY DIANE COOK AND LEN JENSHEL

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