Tips Feature

9 steps to shooting abstract landscape photography

with Lee Acaster

Landscape photographer and Amateur Photographer of the Year 2015-winner Lee Acaster offers a guide to creating beautiful images of woodland foliage

'Left', Sony ILCE-7R, 70-200mm, 3/5sec at f/11, ISO 100

1. Make sure you research your location

One of the beautiful things about shooting woodland images is that you don’t have to travel too far to find potential locations.

'While having access to a nearby forest is great,' says Lee, 'there is just as much interest to be found in the copses, parks and field edges that most of us barely give a second look to as we pass them each day.

'I often scour the OS maps of my local area looking for patches of trees to explore. These days I rarely travel more than 15 minutes from home when heading out to shoot woodland images.'

'Depths,' Sony ILCE-7R, 55mm, 2secs at f/14, ISO 100

2. Be open to unplanned ideas

What’s good about Lee's particular brand of abstract landscape photography is that it doesn’t necessarily require any kind of previsualization when thinking about what he'd like to shoot.

'While I occasionally set out with a particular image in mind, the chaotic and unpredictable nature of the areas I tend to shoot means this usually leads to disappointment,' says Lee. 'More of than not, I just set off walking through the woods and wait to see what catches my eye.

'Hues', Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 100mm, 1/400sec at f/2.8, ISO 100

3. Make sense of visual chaos

One of the main difficulties people encounter when attempting to shoot in woodland is simply knowing what to photograph.

'When you are faced with a 360-degree vista of trees and foliage it can be hard to know what to make the focal point of your image,' says Lee.

'The temptation is often to settle on a particular tree trunk, but these can be quite dominant in an image, and often leave me feeling I have come away with a photograph of a tree, rather than of the forest.

'Instead, I try to look at the scene as a whole and then try to work out what it is that appeals to me about it. Then I can use that as the starting point to build a composition from. This may well end up being a tree trunk, but more likely it will be the way an area of leaves is catching the light, or some brambles are growing over a fallen tree.'

'Finery', Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 70-200mm, 1/1000sec at f/2.8, ISO 400

4. Think about the colours of your scene

Conveying a particular mood is always one of my key objectives, and colour is a great way of achieving that. When shooting landscapes, Lee often uses black & white to simplify a scene into graphic shapes, particularly by the use of contrast.

'However, in the woods, contrast usually spells disaster,' says Lee. 'Unless I’m shooting in bright sunlight, there is less tonal range, so colour is a vital component for drawing attention to areas of interest, and balancing a composition.

'I’m more than happy to tweak the colours in post-production if I think the image needs it to give it the feel I want to achieve. I almost always reduce the saturation and vibrancy a little so that the colour doesn’t dominate but hopefully work more subtly.'

'Hushed', Sony ILCE-7R, 70-200mm, 1/40sec at f/8, ISO 125

5. Bad weather can be as attractive as a sunny day

As you can perhaps see, weather is a crucial factor in Lee's images. But keep in mind that ‘bad’ weather usually means good weather when it comes to photographing in the woods. Mist or fog offer up opportunities for compositions that simply don’t work in other conditions.

'One of the most difficult aspects of shooting in a forest is trying to exclude elements that detract from the image,' says Lee. 'Mist is the perfect solution to this, as it creates separation between the foreground and the background, which is often only a matter of a few metres.

'You can achieve this to a degree by using a narrow depth of field, but a good blanket of mist is much more effective. Rain is always welcome. Wet foliage and wood reflect the light to add a richness, while the diffuse light that comes with it helps reduce distracting areas of contrast.'

'Refugees', Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 70-200mm, 1/80sec at f/2.8, ISO 100

6. Notice how the light interacts with the scene

Lee is a big believer in working with the conditions and light you have, so if its a bright sunny day with light streaming through the canopy then he will usually simply set off walking through the trees towards the sun, looking for patches of light falling on an interesting area, and if it's been a misty start then there's the possibility of some nice light rays breaking through.

'If there’s a strong wind blowing, then I will often use a slow shutter speed and let some movement into the image to get this across,' says Lee. 'My favoured conditions are much less dramatic though. I love it when the light is more subdued and subtle as this suits more atmospheric and melancholy images, which really appeal to me.'

'Sloth', Sony ILCE-7R, 55mm, 1/13sec at f/11, ISO 200

7. Exclude all sky

In all landscape photography, what you leave out is just as important as what you include. This is even more important when shooting in the chaos of a woodland. It may sound strange, but the single most important aspect when I’m composing an image is to try and exclude all traces of the sky. By their very nature, woodland scenes are dark.

'Any areas of sky that are visible are likely to be several stops brighter than any other part of the image, so they will immediately draw the eye to them, and this can completely overwhelm every other part of the image,' says Lee. 'I usually achieve this by heading deep into the woods, or if its a smaller area of trees then staying close to the edges and shooting into the denser interior.

After that, I’m usually looking for leading lines that will lead the eye into the key parts of an image. These may be very subtle, and often even consist of just areas of light and shade. And that leads us onto…'

'Choked', Sony ILCE-7R, 70-200mm, 1/50sec at f/11, ISO 100

8. Choose the right lens

As Lee has become more comfortable shooting in the woods, he's found that he can use wider lenses.

'Initially, I found it much easier to shoot at around 200mm to isolate areas and exclude distractions, but as you become accustomed to finding compositions in the blankets of foliage undergrowth, it becomes easier to include more without the image losing its impact,' says Lee.

'After working my way down through the focal lengths I now mainly use a Sony Sonnar T* FE 55mm. I always shoot on a tripod using manual focus, which I find helps me finetune a composition until I’m satisfied with it.'

'Tributary', Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 70-200mm, 1/15sec at f/2.8, ISO 100

9. Tweak your shots in post-production

'I process everything in Adobe Lightroom,' says Lee. 'But when it comes to post-production, I mainly use most of the sliders in the negative, reducing contrast, clarity, saturation, vibrance and sometimes some negative dehazing if its a misty shot. I then use a few radial filters to add some clarity and contrast back into particular areas that I want to draw more attention to.

'I’ll often use split toning which I find can help tie an image together if used subtly. I treat every image individually though so my processing may change dramatically from one shot to the next, with some having lots of work, and some pretty much untouched.'

'Dressing', Sony ILCE-7R, 70-200mm, 1/6sec at f/9, ISO 100

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