Photo Insight with Simon Baxter: Guardians of the Forest
August 29, 2017
Living in a small town in North Yorkshire, I spent much of my childhood playing in the local forest – exploring and building hidden dens. In later years, I continued to spend many hours in the forest as an avid mountain biker. I’d tear through the trails, passing the trees with as much speed as possible. This ended abruptly upon injuring my back in 2012. The difficult years and resulting chronic pain that followed changed my view of the natural world forever.
I struggle to feel content without progression within the things I’m passionate about, so with mountain biking out of the picture, it was time to rekindle my casual interest in photography. It was in early 2015, while photographing a local landmark in the company of our labradoodle, Meg, that I suddenly became aware of a reduction in pain. The fresh air, natural movement and genuine distraction that the process of landscape photography provided were profoundly beneficial. But I craved more distraction. I needed to become truly absorbed within the landscape – always on the move, always exploring, discovering and enjoying. Woodland photography became the answer, and since late 2015, it’s been both a necessity and my passion.
In May 2016, I visited Snowdonia with some other photographers. During a flat, grey afternoon, we found ourselves in a forest where we all wandered off in different directions in search of a shot or two. I came across these two moss-laden oak trees and was immediately drawn to them, with their almost symmetrical appearance and imposing trunks forming a gateway to a woodland waiting to be discovered. I knew instantly that, under the right conditions, it would make a fabulous image, encompassing many of the things I enjoy so much about woodland photography. It’s all about the mystery, mood, story and the feelings of solitude and discovery.
There are two things I crave in woodland photography – mist and being alone (except for my dog). Being alone allows you to get into the zone, let your mind wander and create a true connection with the landscape. With this in mind, I returned to this spot on my own in the early hours of the following morning with my fingers crossed and a vision in my mind. What transpired was far better than I could have ever hoped for.
My 55mm f/1.8 prime was my lens of choice. Primes are great fun to use in woodland as the constant shuffling around and repositioning slows the process down and helps you to nail the composition. Set up with my Sony A7 II, a tripod and a cable release, I took a series of images as the light slowly moved from left to right, until it eventually filled the centre of the image and created magical rays. The thin mist also adds to the depth, mystery and mood. I used large pine trees to the left and right to create a natural and dark frame. The intention was to show off the wonderful character and shape of the oaks and then be invited underneath their arch and into the light.
Wait for the light
I spend many months or longer hoping and waiting for conditions like this in my local area, so for this to happen on my second visit to this scene felt incredibly rewarding. It is a real privilege to witness and be absorbed into the atmosphere and uniqueness of moments such as this. Was I thinking or worrying about pain at the time? Absolutely not.
My need to venture out on a regular basis means that I continue to explore any small pockets of woodland I can find tucked away in my local area. The standout images are very few and far between, but the process is therapeutic and enriching, and serves as a reminder of how landscape photography is about far more than a photograph.
It was with great surprise and pleasure that this image was commended in the Take a View, Landscape Photographer of the Year competition. It then went on to be featured in the 10-year anniversary edition of their awards book.
Simon Baxter is a landscape photographer who specialises in capturing the atmosphere and character of quiet and obscure local woodland. He has a YouTube channel with video blogs offering tips and inspiration as he explores the great outdoors with his dog, one-year-old labradoodle, Meg.