Photoessay: Trees in monochrome

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Today, we’re taking a little break from the travel-themed images I’ve been posting of late, and return to nature somewhat. I’ve always found something compelling about trees; I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s some deep-rooted part of our subconscious that calls for an occasional visual break from the uniformly geometric concrete we live in, and an embracing of the naturally fractal and chaotic world for a change instead. Judging from the feedback on previous images and photoessays, I’ve also found this to be the case with a lot of other people, too.

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Infinite loop

Regardless, I’ve also found these subjects to be amongst the most challenging to focus. Firstly, there’s scale: you can’t move or reposition them, and your angles of view are usually quite limited. Then there’s light; it has to be from the right direction to give the surface of the crown/ leaves/ trunks/ branches definition and texture, but not too directional and harsh otherwise the extremely high frequency detail tends to make the image break up at the micro level and lose midtone richness. Compounding things further, there’s context: though you often need some of it to have a sense of scale, some of the more compelling images I’ve seen and photographed are completely lacking in this.

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Finally, I’d like to address the question of colour (or not, as the case may be): it’s often very difficult to get the colour of a stand of trees right; by right I don’t necessarily mean accurate. The perceived colour is usually a lot stronger than the actual colour, and quite different depending on the time of day; I also strongly believe that a lot of the tonal subtlety is both out of gamut for the cameras as well as the display media – be it digital or print. Part of this is down to colour space restrictions, and part of this is down to the fact that plants naturally reflect light in the UV and IR spectra specifically to attract birds and animals to promote pollination.

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This brings us to the use of black and white: with the right light, I feel that monochrome gives the subjects the right sense of gravitas and timelessness. It isn’t at all accurate, but that’s not the point: other than commercial product photography – which is almost all uniformly retouched up the wazoo anyway and composite-lit to the point the products can never physically appear that way in reality – all images are about perception and impression anyway; photography is a conversation between the photographer and the audience. The audience is almost always a willing participant – especially my audience here: you want to believe your eyes and be transported away somewhere.

Anyway, I digress: there are far too many words here for a photoessay. Enjoy the images; they were shot with a huge variety of media and formats; film, digital, large, small, iPhone, the lot. Trees can be enjoyed at any time, regardless of what you might happen to be carrying with you at the time… MT

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  1. Jorge Balarin says:

    Beautiful pics. I like specially the last one.

  2. lifelifedeathdeath says:

    OMG. These pictures is so heavy!

  3. leonroy says:

    Inspiring work. Feeling the itch to buy another print!

  4. Great set Ming. Inspired me to have a little break from colour. Cheers

  5. Carlos Esteban says:

    The last one… beauty.
    By the way the first plane looks like tele and the background looks like wide angle lens. Do you remember witch lens you’ve used? Any optical filter to get all that tones?


  6. Yes Ming, the last image is in a league of its own – nice photo.

  7. Yes, wonderful images, thank you! The junction, the meadow, the trunks, the (shogun?) castle all appeal a lot – and Escape is a corker, and not just because I was born in Geneva…

    Like you, I love trees and find them fascinating – but not easy to photograph. In fact, I’m mystified by a problem which bedevils my feeble attempts to capture them: when I try to use my Canon 5DII for a very green scene, e.g. a detail of a tree trunk surrounded by foliage, or a clearing in a forest, or even just our back garden, what I saw as rich and intense greens and greys often come out of the camera washed out and over-exposed, more than most other subjects (allowing for my crap skills). Is there a technical reason why green subjects might fool a camera’s light meter? What kind of metering should I use? I see it’s set to ‘Evaluative metering’ – I must confess, I now can’t remember why I chose that! (As you can tell, I have a long way to go…)

    Thanks again, always read you even and marvel even if I don’t comment,


    • Part of the problem is I suspect the greens are quite out of gamut for the camera; I’ve not found anything that really does them justice except the medium format digital backs – those extra two bits of color do apparently help. You might want to try underexposing by a stop or so; that might also help since the camera’s meter defaults to middle grey (and trees are darker).

  8. Micke Pettersson says:

    Escape; great photo!

  9. The last one is simply brilliant!

  10. Kristian Wannebo says:

    “… amongst the most challenging to focus.”
    Yes, and hard to find!
    Do I guess rightly, that nr:s 6, 8 and 9 where shot in a Japanese park?
    In a forest I would have to search long to be free from disturbing fore- or background or find that kind of light reaching the ground.

    ( “Then there’s light; …”
    Snow can help. E.g. with not too much damp snow falling on a slightly windy day – as luck gave me ten day ago – the snow clings to one side of the branches and tree trunks and lies lightly on the twigs. And even in a flat light that outlines them in 3D even against an otherwise disturbing background.)

    “… the question of colour …”
    ( The sun made some of the tree stems behind my backyard glow against a faint mist.
    And no in camera raw conversion in my XF1 managed to bring more than a part of it to my Nexus 7 display.
    So much easier to turn the controls slightly backwards for a very sinister rendering …)

    As you say, there are technical reasons.
    But I think when you say:

    >> “The perceived colour is usually a lot stronger than the actual colour …”,

    I believe you hit the nail squarely.

    – – –

    I like your selection, and most of it very much.
    And I love “Escape”.
    ( Especially with that lucky combination of elements to “build” it with.)

    • Yes, they were shot at the Meiji Shrine grounds. Sadly no snow where I am here though 🙂

      Escape was a lucky grab – literally as she was escaping out of the frame…

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        Sadly no such gardens around here. 🙂
        And doubly lucky, what a frame to walk out of …

  11. Reblogged this on A Piney Walk About and commented:
    Amazing work. Thanks for sharing.

  12. The last image took my breath away for its composition, contrasts and possible stories.

  13. I really like the last one titled “Escape”. . .all the images are excellent, but that one grabbed me in a completely different way. Very nice work.

  14. Superb images here! I felt specially moved by the bench and the thick branches captures.

  15. Lovely set of photos Ming. The last one is excellent. Printed version would probably look stunning!
    Excellent thoughts on the use of monochrome as well on trees. Really need to start to look at trees/forest more in what they would look like in monochrome. I usually feel that it is almost impossible to capture the mood/look of the forest that I picture in my mind to color photo. Need to experiment.

  16. Always love to scroll through your posts as they come up in my reader.

    Another great set here.

  17. Well, that’s a bunch of very, very nice shots in themselves…and they’re all left for dead by the last one. That “Escape” is flat out one of the best photographs I’ve seen in a long time. Absolutely fantastic.

  18. Terrific shots all, and as others have noted, “Escape” is particularly striking. Where might that be?

  19. I am not sure I appreciate tree pictures, but ‘Escape’ is a masterpiece, almost like a renaissance landscape painting.

  20. Especially the second half has got some amazing black and white tones! The bench and the tree branches, for instance, they just suck you right in.

  21. Nice shots Ming — especially like the last one. I find that trees, (as with most things!) look best at golden hour — particularly ones with light coloured bark (like quiver trees:)) that seem to shimmer at that hour.

  22. The black and white adds a very compelling quality, well done.

  23. You left the best for last eh. I love Escape!

  24. I love trees!! Beautiful images …love the palm tree lattice thanks Trees

  25. Talk about depth of field! Wow!!!!! Incredible work, Ming!

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