Blurry Trees: A Different View Of The Forest
By Sean Bagshaw
Many of the images you see on the Photo Cascadia website feature what I call a hyper realistic style. In creating these images we pay very close attention to the quality of light and use wide angle lenses with apertures to create razor sharp wide depth images. In addition we look for compelling and dramatic compositions in an attempt to communicate a scene in its most definitive place in time and space. While I greatly enjoy making and viewing “hyper real” images, sometimes I also like to capture nature with a softer, more vague and impressionistic brush stroke. One technique I use to create images that are more surreal is camera panning, or as I like to call it, the “blurry tree technique”.
As David Cobb pointed out in the Photo Cascadia blog last week, forests can be very difficult to photograph well. Forests are busy and disorganized making it difficult to isolate a subject and keep the composition simple and meaningful. Using a vertical panning motion combined with the right shutter speed is one way to smooth the clutter and create an image of a mysterious and surreal imaginary forest. I don’t know who invented this technique, but well known photographers such as William Neill and Eddie Soloway have used it to great artistic effect and it has become increasingly popular with the current generation of outdoor photographers.
Using the technique is simple in principle, but can be difficult to execute successfully. I often take dozens or hundreds of panning shots to get one that works. The technique works with any focal length lens, but I most often use a mid range focal length in the 40-80mm range. A super wide lens will tend to create curved distortion in the image when panning and a long telephoto limits your composition choices.
The two most important elements of the technique are the shutter speed and the panning motion. I have the most success at shutter speeds between 1/20 and 1/8 of a second. I make adjustments to aperture and ISO and even use a neutral density filter or polarizer if necessary to achieve the required shutter speed. Hand holding the camera, I look through the viewfinder to line up my composition and then pan upward in a quick, straight and smooth motion while pressing the shutter release.
Setting a shutter speed between 1/8 and 1/15 of a second and moving the camera vertically while taking the photo sounds simple enough, but there are a host of variables at play, so getting a good result is difficult. Here are a few tips.
The technique really works best with trees that have straight, vertical trunks and very few branches low down. Since you will be panning in a vertical motion, it looks best if the main objects in the frame follow the direction of the camera movement. The vertical trunks will be smoothed and elongated by the panning motion, while distracting background elements will be hidden in a colorful blur. Trees with crooked or leaning trunks as well as large branches will become confused with the background elements and lead to a disorganized result.
It is also important to keep your panning motion very straight, fluid and mono directional. If your pan veers slightly to the left or right your trees will be blurred off access an their vertical lines will be lost in the background blur. If your pan isn’t fluid, instead of smooth elongating of the vertical tree trunks, you will end up with blotches, jagged edges or a dashed line effect. If you change the direction of your pan before the shutter closes you will have loops or hooks on the end of your straight lines.
Some trees grow straighter than others. A few of my favorite tree varieties for vertical panning images are aspen, redwood, lodge pole pine, ponderosa pine and tree farm grown poplar trees.
Look for proper spacing between trees. It is important to have separation between trunks so that each tree stands out from the others in the image.
I have also picked up a couple of post processing tips for enhancing the blurry tree effect. I find that I often get a nice look and better separation between trunks and the background by increasing the contrast using either a curves layer with an “S” curve or a curves adjustment layer with the blending mode set to “Soft Light”. I sometimes will also enhance the blurring in the image using the motion blur filter in Photoshop. This filter can help to increase the smoothness in both the trunks and the background. It is important to line up the direction of the blur filter with the direction of the trees.
Since the blurry tree technique is limited to forests with vertical tree trunks, I like to look for different lighting and color palettes to create variety. It can be fun to experiment with different types of direct and indirect lighting conditions, and using the techniques in spring, fall and winter to get different color combinations.