Teaching workshops has made something very clear to me: most forest photographers are very, very scared of sky. I myself am very wary of bright patches in moody forest pictures, but it is important to know WHY you should be cautious of it. Forests are dark places and if you are setting out to capture an enclosed, intimate forest scene, one bright patch of sky will be tremendously distracting. It can ruin an otherwise good picture.
In the case of this birch lane I was very careful to exclude the sky surrounding this scene, because I wanted to make this look like an intimate path.
But...this does not mean that sky or other negative space in forest and tree photography is to be avoided. Without negative space, your subjects would not have a shape. The surrounding area that is not your subject (it could be a blurred background, bokeh, sky, fog, water or a wall) helps define the shapes of your subjects and it will help you achieve a visual rhythm in your pictures. Trying to avoid sky or negative space at all cost can lead to pictures that look a bit claustrophobic with trees that look like they have been awkwardly chopped off.
In this picture I included negative space because I wanted to emphasise the shapes of the trees. Negative space is the space which envelopes your subject and gives it its shape. Had I framed this tighter, lots of the character of the tree on the right would have been lost.
Now that winter has started, you can see the silhouettes of the trees because of the negative space surrounding it. Large areas of negative space can help make a subject like a tree stand out even more. Remember that a picture is all about the subject and making it stand out and removing all that distracts from what is most important to you in the frame. In some forest pictures opting for hardly any negative space will capture the essence of that scene best of all. In a dense forest one bright spot at the wrong place will ruin your picture. If you are taking a picture of a boulevard or lane lined with trees there is a rhythm of tree, negative space, tree, negative space, tree....almost like the keyboard of a piano. The shapes of the trees are defined by the sky or fog in between them. If you are going for an enclosed feeling, by all means use your telelens and get rid of the empty spaces between the trees, but if you want to emphasise the natural rhythm of this scene, having space in between the trees will definitely be desirable. It is all about what you want to capture in the end. If there is just one bright spot on one side of a path and it breaks up the symmetry.....you need to avoid it. If you have a bright spot in the end of the path, where the eye needs to go, this usually does not distract, but can even make the composition more powerful.
Space between the trees to emphasise their shapes and the natural rhythm of the tree trunks and the open space
A similar oak lane picture,but zoomed in tightly, because in this case I wanted the picture to be intimate and all about autumn colours. Bright open spaces would have ruined the story that I wanted to tell in this image...
In this case you could argue that the background is the negative space surrounding the main subject which is the red oak tree. Negative space does not have to be empty space, it can be a background that does not distract, but gives a sense of place and enhances the subject. In this case the hazy background contrasts nicely with the dark and colourful oak tree and it ties the scene together...
This is an example of a picture with hardly any negative space at all. I wanted to show the scene as chaotically perfect as it was and opted for this frame, rather than one with negative space (which could have been achieved by choosing a lower F stop and blurring the background in that way)
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If you care about the shape of the tree, you need to include negative space, but you need to think carefully about this negative space. The picture is all about your subject and the negative space must enhance it and not distract from it. Let's say you are photographing a mushroom and you have a blurred background, but there is one extremely bright highlight in the background. This will automatically grab the attention. The negative space is not there to grab the attention, it is there to help direct the attention to the subject. Bright spots will always be the first thing a person sees (or contrasting colours). Let's now think about this mushroom again photographed against a bright sky. In this case it is surrounded by one area of brightness that has no shape and it emphasises the shape and colours of the mushroom. In this case it enhances the mushroom instead of distracting from it.
In this picture I opted to include the sky because the pale blue contrasts with the yellow and emphasises the colour of the birch tree. Blue brings out the best of yellow and so this was a very conscious decision.
A rare example of loads of negative space in one of my photographs. In this case I wanted to emphasise the desolate feeling of this bitterly cold morning and a sense of solitude, which was achieved by adding lots of negative space around my main subject; the willow tree
Always ask yourself if your composition will benefit from having more negative space or removing almost every bit of negative space depending on the story you want to tell with the picture. But don't avoid negative space in forest photography at all costs. I would say that winter is the perfect time to think about using negative space more, to show the utter beauty of the tree silhouettes. Don't have your camera hibernate in the upcoming months, see if you can learn to see in negative and positive space (the positive space being your subject) and how one can bring out the best of the other.
Learn more about capturing the magic of forests and trees in my eBook The Magic Of Forest Photography