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  • Gavan Mitchell

A Rainforest Adventure: Landscape Photography - An Introduction.

Updated: Jan 31, 2023

Hello fellow photography enthusiasts! I recently had the opportunity to take a trip to a beautiful rainforest near Melbourne with two wonderful friends, and give them a run-down on the basics. It was a fantastic day with great nature lovers, filled with breathtaking scenery, and endless photo opportunities. But as we all know, taking great photos in a rainforest is not without its unique challenges.

A boardwalk path winds around the stunning rainforest.
A boardwalk path winds around the stunning rainforest.

First and foremost, the light in a forest is always far darker than you expect. Especially in this dense rainforest well shaded from the sunlight. I started the lesson by explaining the fundamentals of photography, such as controlling exposure and how shutter speed, aperture, and ISO all interrelate and affect the image.

One of the first rules of landscape photography is get everything in focus and capture as much detail as you can. That's not to say you can't break the rules. They are your photos. Don't let me tell you how to live your life. But more often than not, that's the goal. So what's the best way to manually adjust your exposure controls in a rainforest? It's tempting while in a darker environment to open up your aperture letting more light into the lens. But this gives you a narrower depth of field. Essentially a thiner slice of what's in focus. So perhaps that's not what you wanted. Well, you could also raise the ISO (sensitivity on the sensor). Sure, but you will have noisier images that way. And yes, with modern sensors and incredible machine learning programs like DxO Pure RAW 2 and Topaz Labs' DeNoise AI that is becoming a little less relevant than it once was (perhaps a discussion needed in a future blog) - but I digress.

Those sticks laying across the stream bug me, but that's nature for you sometimes.

So anyway, as I'm guessing you may have figured out, the next parameter we can mess with is the shutter speed. Which refers to how long you are going to let that camera sit there with the with light hitting the sensor painting a digital representation of the scene in juicy 1's and 0's.

Often in a landscape photograph, shooting with a long shutter speed is fine. So long as you have the camera firmly planted on a tripod of course. It's usually rare there's something in the scene moving quickly that we want to capture. And if it does move, we are usually fairly keen on letting it blur. Like running water. Luckily a nice dark forest doesn't need an ND (Neutral Density) filter to achieve a longer shutter speed and to get that silky smooth flow of water. On the topic of filters though, I did demonstrate some of the advantages of a circular polariser. Incidentally, these are the two must have filters in any landscape photography kit. These days almost any other adjustment can be done in post if you wish, but reducing the light into the lens or polarising it cannot.

You can create a far my dynamic image showing movement in the water
You can create a far more dynamic image showing movement in the water

A circular polariser is far more useful than just reducing the reflections on water surfaces. It also affects brighter reflections on foliage, reducing contrast and enhancing detail and colour. Its value should not to be underestimated, even if there's no water in the forest scene.

A camera is smarter today than they have ever been. I'm certainly not implying they aren't an ever increasing beneficiary of smarter technology. The AI systems included for eye tracking, and various autofocus modes are seriously impressive. However, at least for now, what a camera doesn't do that well is render accurate colour. They simply don't and can't. In that regard they are pretty dumb. They can get extremely close with experience, some guidance, and appropriate equipment, but if we discuss this we will be heading down an involved and complicated path, and falling into the deep rabbit hole that is colour calibration. That topic in itself could be a PhD project (and likely has been). One of the many things a camera estimates as best it can, is white balance and colour. Cameras have a particularly tricky time doing that in an environment dominated with rich greens. The system invariably decides '"Oi, there's far too much green here mate, I'm going to compensate for this by warming the scene and adding in a nice big helping of magenta".

A photograph demonstrating natural rainforest green.
"Now, look, Percy, I don't mean to be pedantic or anything, but the color of gold... is gold. That's why it's called gold. What YOU have discovered, if it has a name, is some... Green."

Fixing colour in post-production is possible with a RAW file, but it can be tedious to achieve a natural look. And just like exposure latitude, there's a finite amount of information a camera can record. Getting it reasonably close in camera will give you far more of that colour latitude to use creatively when processing the files later. If you don't like processing RAW files, or simply haven't progressed to the world of RAW image processing yet and are shooting in JPG, there's even more reason to get the colour as close as possible in-camera. A JPG file is largely stuck how it is, any editing after the fact degrades the image and reduces quality. It's probably fine for an instagram post viewed on your phone. But I assume if you're reading this you understand and value the benefits of striving for higher quality photographs. So anyway, how to improve colour? Outside of creating complex camera calibration profiles, you can use a manual white balance setting on your camera. Most cameras with manual functions have a way to set the white balance or color temperature. If you use the back screen in live view mode and adjust various colour temperatures, you'll see the result in real-time. The camera screen isn't always accurate, but it's a good starting point. Your manual colour temperature is represented in Kelvin (K). 5500-5600 K is daylight balanced, and although it may be cooler in the shadows of a rainforest, it's a good starting point to avoid excessive magentas.

Yes, I'm aware that I mentioned landscape photographers shoot with a wide depth of field. Perhaps this is a good example of where you'd break that rule and seperate something from the background.

With that, we went about having some fun exploring and taking photographs. There's only so much you can learn at once (or listen to me ramble) and I think these fundamentals provide a solid foundation to build from.

So, next time you are out on a photo adventure and find yourself in a beautiful rainforest, remember to try slowing down your shutter speed, close down the aperture, keep your ISO low, set your white balance, and most importantly have fun enjoying the process. Even if you don't take an award-winning photo, getting out there and enjoying nature is the award in itself.

Sittable tree fern.
I want to sit on this tree fern.

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