Creating images full of mood and atmosphere takes a keen eye and an ability to see order in chaos, as Neil Burnell explains
While many landscape photographers are drawn to shooting sunsets and sunrises with drama light and colour, I’ve always taken more enjoyment from shooting in conditions more suited to atmospheric scenes. Woodland can be a daunting genre for many photographers who are led to believe that it’s an extremely difficult subject to master. While I agree it’s not an easy subject I’d also say that all genres are difficult if you don’t put the time and effort into them. I’ve found woodland to be an enjoying challenge and extremely satisfying when it all comes together.
How to start shooting moody woodland landscape photographs
To begin with, woodland can be a bit overwhelming: tangled trees seem like a complete mess and it’s hard to make sense of it all let alone take an image. Almost certainly the best place to start your woodland journey is by going on a few scouting missions – try keeping it local if you can. Travel light and go with no expectations and I can almost guarantee you will find some scenes with potential that you can return to. Work the edges of the woodland first. Looking into a woodland can often reap rewards and is an easier way to spot compositions, especially if you haven’t shot this genre before.
Heading straight into a woodland can often be very overwhelming. Once you’ve found a scene make sure you give it time by checking out various angles and taking reference shots, so you are fully prepared when the conditions are right. When you first start shooting woodland, don’t expect to shoot keepers from day one. Yes it can happen, as in every genre, but I almost guarantee that it will take some time and several outings for your confidence to grow first.
Check weather conditions
It’s fairly obvious, but fog or mist are an essential ingredient in the majority of my atmospheric woodland images. These conditions are not only essential to create mood, but they also help dramatically when it comes to picking out compositions and isolating subjects of interest. The time of day is also a key ingredient. For my own images, I prefer the softer muted light of blue hour, especially when the objective is mood.
Of course there are other ways to isolate subjects, like using fast lenses wide open to create a shallow depth of field, but if you want that atmosphere make sure you head out on those misty days.
There are several places I enjoy shooting and exploring when I want to try and create atmospheric images. The first is Wistman’s Wood in Devon. It’s an amazing location and one that every photographer who likes to shoot woodland should visit at least once. It’s a very small woodland and can be extremely difficult to shoot and negotiate your way around, but if you get lucky with the conditions it really is a magical place. The second spot is Haldon Forest in Devon – a place I’m only just finding my way round. It has massive potential and I’m hopeful I will shoot some keepers there this year. The woodland itself has an abundance of various species from gnarly oak to silver birch, providing great variety and endless opportunities for photography. Another great Devon location is Churston Woods. There are a few small woodlands close to my home and on the rare occasion there is fog locally I will head to Churston Woods. There are also some nice trees on the local golf course, which I have shot in some thick fog, after seeking permission from one of the greenkeepers.
Camera equipment and accessories
My typical woodland set-up has recently changed, as I’ve collected a few old Nikkor AIS lenses. I currently use a Nikon Z 7 and FTZ adapter with 50mm f/1.2 AIS, 85mm f/2 AIS, 105mm f/2.5 AIS and 135mm f/2.8 AIS lenses; a 3 Legged Thing Winston tripod with Zelda L-Bracket; another 3 Legged Thing tripod; Vanguard Alta Sky 51D bag; Kase Polariser; and Nikon cable release.
How to process moody landscape photos
When it comes to processing, we all have our own style. Over the past two to three years my processing style has changed dramatically, as I’ve been inspired by various photographers. For me, the most important thing is to experiment and get a feel for the type of image I want to create, using the sliders to see how they affect an image. Don’t be scared to push the colours in a direction that suits your tastes.
As my Mystical series was all shot during the blue hour, I really wanted to emphasise that soft blue light. I did this by using a mixture of tweaking the Colour temperature and Split tones. I’ve also added a fair bit of noise to the images, which were originally shot between 100-800 ISO – this is just something I liked at the time as I felt it added to the mood of the image. Finally I flattened the tones slightly using curves and desaturated. I feel the end results really represent how I visualised the scenes in my mind when I was there shooting.
Why it works
‘Follow the Light’ was shot near Pixie Land in a small pine woodland as the mist was clearing. The light at the time was coming from my right-hand side and it really did bring the scene to life. I’m particularly pleased with the composition of this image and how the light and soft mist create depth and a clear passage to guide the viewer’s eye through.
In my opinion, both the colour and black & white work particularly well for this image which isn’t always the case. Having said that, I’d slightly favour the monochrome – I just feel the textures and tones in the mono really draw you into the frame.
Top tips for shooting moody landscape photographs
Simplify the scene
I’ve learnt from trial and error that certain elements within a scene will only cause distraction. I avoid large gaps in the tree canvas, which can often be very contrasty even in good conditions. Venturing out in thick fog or mist is the easiest way to isolate a subject, and it’s often easier to find isolated trees on the edges of the woodland.
Shoot what you see
This sounds obvious, but sometimes woodland photography can be very overwhelming, and often we can be too picky when looking for a perfect scene. Sometimes it’s best to stop and pay more attention to your surroundings, looking for light and shapes then studying various other angles before discounting scenes. Keep an open mind.
Try shooting at blue-hour
The soft light at the blue hour is my favourite time of day. While I can appreciate some people prefer the golden hour for shooting, I’d advise those people to go out a little earlier and try shooting when light starts to break through. The subtle light of the blue hour really can be magical in a woodland. Combine it with some mist or fog and you’re onto a winner!
Find a focal point
It’s quite common to find a different-shaped tree or even a different species of tree that breaks the uniformity that surrounds it. There are also other elements that can work in a woodland scene – maybe the placement of a lone figure or a man-made element. This forestry logging machine in a woodland on Dartmoor made a great subject.
When I shoot woodland I’m not looking to get a clean sharp image over 100% of the frame. Often imperfections, higher ISO (grain/noise) and shallow depth of field can add to the mystery and mood of a photograph, in my opinion. I shot this scene with various different apertures but settled on the slightly softer look of shooting wide open.
Look for small scenes
Sometimes it’s best to look beyond a full scene and look at the closer details. Using a slightly longer prime lens and using the viewfinder to look around a scene can often help when I struggle to find wider landscape shots. Taking this approach can often help to focus in the details and eliminate the distractions that can often be prevalent in larger scenes.
Neil’s simple tips
- Scout your area It’s often best to scout a location several times before taking your full list of equipment.
- On the outside Resist the temptation to walk straight into a woodland. It’s often easier to spot scenes or areas of interest while looking into the woodland from the outside.
- Take your time Shooting woodland can be daunting, so don’t rush straight in. It will take time to get your eye in so walk slowly and enjoy your surroundings.
- Be inspired I often look for inspiration and enjoy viewing images from masterful photographers I follow on social media. There are so many talented UK landscape photographers who shoot beautiful woodland scenes.
- Know the direction of the light Even with flat light or mist I find it useful to know where the light is coming from when I shoot a particular scene I’ve scouted. I tend to prefer shooting in a backlit scene or with sidelight to add drama.
- Compose your scene Don’t just look with your eyes; sometimes it’s also a good idea to look through the viewfinder. Even if you’re not sure of a scene there’s sometimes something there when viewed through the camera.
- Lens choice I’ve found shooting with a focal length between 35mm and 100mm to be most common within my photographs. I often walk around with a 24-70mm, but I very rarely shoot wider than 35mm.
- Get out there and try Many people avoid woodland because they have been led to believe that it’s one of the more difficult landscape genres. I, for one, have embraced the challenge over the past few years and have found it to be very enjoyable and rewarding.
- Experiment with processing Over the years I’ve learnt Lightroom and Photoshop by experimenting! It’s important to create your own vision in photography, and through years of watching countless YouTube tutorials and experimenting I am more confident in producing an image I envisaged from the shoot. Split toning is a great place to start, but don’t be scared to use the HSL colour sliders and really experiment until you reach your own vision.
- Stay safe Try going to a new woodland with a friend or tell people where you’re going.
- Cable remote You’ll often shoot moody images in darker conditions so shutter speed can be a few seconds. A remote will help eliminate any shake; the other option is to use the timer on your camera.
- Polariser Wet leaves and damp tree bark can often cause distracting highlights even in the softest light. Controlling the highlights is made easy by using a rotating polariser – a great accessory when shooting moody woodland.
- Tripod Keeping your camera stable while shooting longer exposures in near-dark conditions is a necessity. I use a tripod that can extend to my own eye level and can also be adjusted to shoot only inches from the ground. This helps me shoot at any angle.
Neil Burnell is a multi-award winning photographer from Devon. He studied art and photography at college in the early 1990s and pursued a career in graphic design and marketing. It’s only in the last five years that he has rediscovered his passion for photography and is particularly drawn to atmospheric landscape, woodland and seascape scenes.