UPDATE (8/20/20): The fire currently ravaging Big Basin and the Santa Cruz area is 0% contained. The historic buildings and camping areas at the park are completely destroyed, as is many homes in the area. Please consider supporting and/or donating to the Sempervirens Fund to help the firefighters and restoration of this amazing park and location.
In August of 2020, I took a road trip from my current home base in San Diego to Big Basin Redwoods State park, a California park that is a protected haven for coastal redwoods. The expansive groves of these towering giants were always on my list of must see destinations, and even though I really want to see them in the winter or spring, I had the chance to see this park with lighter than usual crowds.
The first night was a heavily fog covered abyss. So much so that I could not see a thing while driving in to the cabin around 11pm. Obviously, the trunks of these giant behemoths jumped out at every winding curve of the road, but I still couldn’t see much more than a few feet above the headlights. The next morning, my jaw hit the ground.
Not a soul was in the park, and the fog had lifted before sunrise to reveal 1,000+ year old trees in all directions. I immediately grabbed my pack and started wandering through this forest, but it put a few bits of photographic knowledge to the test. As a subscriber to Simon Baxter on YouTube, I had seen what a master woodland photographer does and how to approach photography in a very different environment, but I was surprised at what looked so easily on video was quite challenging in practice. Here are the seven biggest things I learned while shooting at Big Basin Redwoods state park:
1. It’s really hard to capture scale in a forest or woodland setting.
I mean, wow. The Redwoods are indescribably tall. Hundreds of feet tall. Yet, when I went to photograph these monsters, the size just didn’t translate. I put on my widest of wide angle lenses (my 16-35mm f/4L), set it to the widest field of view, put my camera practically on the ground looking up, and the tops STILL were clipped out of the frame.
The best way I was able to capture a sense of the grandeur of these Redwoods was to put something more familiar in the image with a known general size. This often was ferns, other trees, leaves, etc. Without the leaves in the example below, the size of the towering redwood tree behind them just did not communicate well. This is an important lesson for my next trip to a forest.
2. I may need to look more closely at tilt-shift lenses.
After uploading my images, one thing I noticed is that my heavy reliance on ultra wide angle lenses created a lot of distortion in the trees. One effect of a wide angle lens is that towards the edges of the image, straight lines converge into the distance as the light is bent. I had to adjust the middle image below to correct for this distortion to keep the perspective more natural. The first and third images are examples of this distortion effect due to the ultra wide angle field of view.
One way to capture an image without needing to do heavy distortion correction is by using tilt shift lenses. Now I am by no means an expert on this type of specialty lens, and I don’t even own one, so this is all still conjecture on my end. I did, after all, edit these to my liking. But it chopped a fair amount of detail off the upper corners that I would rather have fixed in camera. I watched a few videos online of creating both horizontal and vertical panoramas with the Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II, and I must say it looks intriguing.
3. A circular polarizer is a must.
Glare is a real detractor in the forest. Sunlight seems to reflect off of leaves and water so easily, and I didn’t notice how intensely until I was dealing with it on location. Thankfully I had put polarizers on both my wide angle and standard zoom lenses.
The polarizer cuts glare and makes the greens and browns of the forest really pop. Even more importantly, this effect cannot be done in Lightroom or Photoshop, so it’s essential to get right at the scene. My recommendation is the CPL from B+W. They are somewhat on the more expensive side, but I tried cheaper polarizers and immediately regretted that decision. Go with the best.
4. Lightroom panorama merging is amazing, but still can require a touch up in Photoshop.
One of the best images from my entire trip to Big Basin Redwoods wasn’t actually in Big Basin at all. Rather, it was when I drove to Santa Cruz about 45 miles to the south. There was a trail there that had the “Enchanted Forest” that completely lived up to the name.
The panoramic image below was handheld on my 24-70mm f/2.8L II, combined from three separate images in Lightroom. However, just as I had previously mentioned about wide angles warping, the Redwoods to the left all were warping to the right in the top, making a strange straw-like shape. Lightroom stitched the three images together flawlessly otherwise. I just had to go into Photoshop to do some Warp Transform adjustments in that corner to correct for this strange looking distortion. Notice how the Redwoods in the top left of the image are all vertical. The end result is a spectacular panorama that I can’t wait to print!
5. Try to seek out the fog.
The biggest disappointment when visiting this amazing park was the complete lack of fog. I know the Redwoods have a reputation for looking absolutely incredible in the fog, so I really had my fingers crossed. I know that foggy days are less common in the summer, especially on really hot days like the ones when visiting.
Shooting in the redwoods looks completely otherworldly in the fog, as it creates a unique sensation of depth that doesn’t exist on a clear day. Check out this video by Nick Page for an example, and compare his results to those that I got here on a much more clear day:
6. Sunrise and sunset time doesn’t matter as much in a really dense woodland.
While a good amount of my favorite images from the trip were shot early in the morning, the sun had already been up for a good hour or two. Unlike when visiting Mammoth Lakes, where getting into position before sunrise was the priority, it felt a bit strange to wake with the sun, make coffee, and slowly walk to a trail.
If anything, the best images on a clear day are the ones where the sun is peeking through the forest canopy with a blistering sun star shining through.
7. Conservation minded photographers and park visitors really need to step up.
This is more of a call to action than anything. I have always been very pro-conservation and support the efforts to do so whenever possible. However, I didn’t realize the true extent of this need until visiting Big Basin, a park that represents a mere 5% of the original size of this redwood forest. That’s right, 95% of the original forest is gone due to logging and urban expansion. These are trees that take hundreds to a thousand years to grow to these immense statures, and they were cut in the 1800’s to make railroad ties. Not renewable or farmed trees that grow quickly, but these ones. The ones that had been growing since the Roman Empire.
It was thanks to the efforts of photographers (as I learned from listening to Let My People Go Surfing on the 7 hour drive, as an MBA grad and avid outdoorsman this book really struck a nerve and piqued my interest) that this park and so many others like it in this world are conserved for future generations. There are so many other areas around the world that are threatened, whether by agriculture, housing developments, clear cutting, or a simple misunderstanding of the fragility of some locations by flocks of people looking to visit Instagram-famous landmarks.
I will be doing my part to limit location sharing to only the best known icons. I will also be looking for additional locations that may be threatened and do my part to share the beauty of these natural places with the world to enhance protection efforts.
I invite you to join me in this effort! I hope you will and I look forward to supporting the efforts of those who we all have to thank for conserved natural parks and areas on this planet.