What I Learned Photographing The Californian Redwoods
For the last five years I’ve taken spring trips down to the Californian Redwoods. Each year I take the trip with the hope of photographing the stunning rhododendrons with the fog and mist that occurs frequently in spring and summer. The last few years I have either been too early or too late. I have witnessed some stunning weather conditions in terms of fog and mist, which produced stunning crepuscular rays but no flowers. From past experiences it seemed to always occur in late morning light as the fog would rise and the sun breaks through.
This year I had the fortunate luck to have some fellow Photo Cascadia members teach a workshop down in the Redwoods a week earlier. They reported the rhododendrons we’re just about at peak and if I were to head down right away I would be arriving at the perfect time. So I packed up my bags and convinced the wife when needed a getaway. With some begging and pleading we headed down to California. As usual, we made a few stops along the southern Oregon coast and made the most out of the trip. In terms of weather reports I usually scout out a week early to see if the conditions are favorable but this this time I had to just head straight down there with no delays. The last four years I’ve seen crepuscular rays almost every day I’ve ever visited the redwoods in spring. So now all I needed to do was find a pleasing composition with both the fog and the rhododendrons, and possibly a burst of sunrays to top things off.
If you have never been to the California redwoods it is an oasis of larger-than-life trees. Knowing where to photograph if you’ve never been or not done your research beforehand can be very challenging. With the Redwoods being as large as they are, it helps to know the best trails to capture all of the elements in one scene. The redwoods are broken into several areas that are quite spaced apart. Although similar to each other, each has its own distinct look when it comes to the layout. Every year it changes quite drastically in terms of where the rhododendrons are best for photographing. For my visit, the first thing I did was go to the visitor center and seek advice. They were very helpful in suggesting several trails that were excellent at the time. They also advised me in terms of where to be and when tin terms of placement of the breaking sun and fog.
Although I saw several sets of rhododendrons along the main highway in Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, I would suggest not stopping along the highway as the cars came to close to the side to comfortably photograph. As in past years, I was recommended to hike the Damnation trail, which had several stunning areas of rhododendrons with the trails not being too busy with other people. To avoid crowds I suggest getting there first thing in the morning. Going early allows time to find a pleasing composition while waiting for the light to be just right. On a side note, many cars early in the morning were broken into in the parking areas as the highway is right there and is quick access for the thieves. On both mornings I was there cars have been broken into before I got there.
When it comes photographing, the rhododendrons in the California redwoods it helps to pre-visualize some possible compositions or scenarios you would like to shoot. I never visit a place with just one composition in mind, but I do research on the Internet beforehand. This allows me the opportunity to see what others are doing, and trying to take it on step further in terms of creativity and impact. For example, one of the images that stuck with me, was an image of the rhododendrons taken from the ground looking up at sky to also include perspective of the gigantic Redwood trees. The combination of these two together when photographed properly really brings a story to life. When light is available I always strive for mist or fog because this seems to really enhance the pink in the rhododendron flower and makes it pop in the image. Shooting later in the afternoon when the sun is out can be almost next to impossible to really get the impact of the color due to the harsh light. So to maximize the color in your images strive to photograph when the mist is present in the morning.
One of the challenges of shooting the rhododendrons is that many are located very high up on the tree. For this reason I would photograph with a lens that is medium telephoto. When I photographed with my ultra wide angle (14-24mm), the rhododendrons got lost in the scene. So I photographed with a 28– 300mm lens that allowed me to really bring the rhododendron in tight and maximize impact.
Because of the telephoto lens, compression also enhanced the important elements in the image. If you do shoot later in the afternoon when the sun is out, you will have to shoot multiple exposures or HDR. This is due to the extreme total contrast between the shadows and the light areas, which can be very challenging in the forest. I did shoot quite a bit in the afternoon, using multiple exposures. Unfortunately I was not happy with most of the results from shooting at this time.
So in summary, photographing the California redwoods is one of the highlights of my photography journey. Until you see them in person, it’s hard to grasp how tall these trees really are. When you combine these tall redwoods with all the elements at the same time it is pure heaven. To have success photographing the redwoods do your research, find where the rhododendrons are and try to time your visit with early morning sessions. But the most important thing is ,be patient and wait for early-morning weather changes when the fog rises and the sun breaks. This is more frequent than you would think, always leads to some spectacular images.