The coast redwoods are the tallest trees on earth. Majestic and colossal, their 27-foot-wide trunks soar to heights of more than 350 feet, as tall as 35-story skyscrapers. Their lifespan is as humbling as their size. The largest redwood, General Sherman, is estimated to be 2,500 years old, taking root nearly 300 years before the Great Wall of China was built.
Before the Gold Rush, California’s redwood forest covered more than 2 million acres, even stretching across the Santa Cruz Mountains. But by 1968, 95% of the old-growth forest had been hacked down to build and rebuild San Francisco and San Jose. If you’re in search of these giant trees, though, don’t worry. While only 4% of the virgin redwood forest exists, you can still see and photograph these relics of another age, and the delicate pink blooms of the wild rhododendron, in several places such as Redwood National Park, Humboldt Redwood State Park and the Big Basin Redwoods State Park.
Tucked on a narrow, 450-mile coastal strip, the redwoods are home to swirling, gray fog, spotty showers and dazzling god rays— elements that keep amateur and professional photographers on their toes. Conquer the giants’ landscape with our photo tips and gear recommendations.
Redwood fairy rings:
Insect and fire-resistant, redwoods can sprout new trees from their root systems, stumps or basal burs even after being struck by lightning or burned in a forest fire. These “clones” form circles around the decaying redwood trees, leeching their nutrients. As they continue to grow, their trunks appear to spiral into the clouds, creating a walkthrough grand cathedral. You’ll want to use a wide-angle lens, like the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G Wide Angle Lens, to capture these “fairy rings.” To emphasize the redwood’s size, you’ll also want to avoid large patches of bright sky in your photos’ backgrounds. Another rule of thumb to follow: take one vertical picture for every horizontal one.
The coast redwoods receive 80 to 140 inches of rain per year, stripping the soil of most of its nutrients, so you’ll want to use a waterproof camera. In a pinch, you can wrap your gear with your jacket or stick it into a Ziploc bag. While downpours are rare in the coast redwoods, winter and spring showers are common. They create subtle environmental drama, providing an opportunity for memorable and artistic shots.
In this low-light condition that requires longer exposure times, you’ll want to couple a lightweight tripod with a camera that has a fast lens (between f/4 and f/1.4). If your camera has a slow maximum aperture, you can raise its ISO speed. However, raising its ISO speed too high will result in digital noise. Rain tends to pop more against darker backgrounds like blurred foliage, sprawled roots and curved mushroom caps. You can even “freeze” rain by using a fast shutter speed (1/1000 of a second or higher). If you want the rain to look like slightly blurred sheets, use a slow shutter speed (1/125 to 1/60 of a second).
During the summer, fog rolls through the grove masking the redwoods. Their faint outlines are moody, intimate and otherworldly. The fog slowly drips from the evergreen and blackberry bushes onto the forest floor, forming highly reflective puddles. Fog acts as nature’s softbox. The light is diffused, yet highly reflective. Its scattering light rays may muddle with your camera’s autofocus and light meter, resulting in underexposed images. You’ll probably need to shoot in manual mode while compensating one to two stops.
You won’t have to worry about shadow or light clipping, though. Fog allows the redwoods to melt into the background while flaming azaleas or sword ferns provide depth of field and a color-burst. However, fog can throw off your camera’s white balance. You’ll want to use your “overcast” white balance setting or shoot in RAW, which will allow you to correct the white balance in post processing. Fog zaps color saturation, so you’ll want to consider shooting some of your pictures in black and white. You can enhance the foggy day mood by adding a blue cast post-processing.
In the late morning and evening hours, god rays – streaks of light that illuminate atmospheric haze or dust particles – break through the clouds, shining between the gaps in the redwood trees and creating a surreal composition. Luckily, the forest floor is an ideal low-light location. To capture the liquid feel of the slanting god rays, position the sun behind the redwoods. In this high-contrast situation, you should lower your light meter by one to two stops; select an aperture of f/16 or smaller, and use a slow shutter speed of 1/500 of a second or slower. If your shutter speed is slower than 1/30, you’ll need to use a tripod or a lens with built-in image stabilization like the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM Telephoto Zoom Lens.
Photographers flock to the coast redwoods mid-May to early-June for a chance to capture their giant rhododendrons. Unfortunately, these delicate blossoms are highly susceptible to wind-rot, and after powerful pacific storms, rhododendron petals usually carpet the forest floor. The fleeting blooms are a poetic contrast against the ever-present, larger-than-life redwoods. These native flowers grow around the base of the redwood trees and often snake up their trunks.
Using a wide-angle lens will cause the rhododendrons to disappear in the redwoods’ shadows. You’ll want to use a short telephoto lens to bring the flowers in tight and maximize their impact. In the late morning, as the fog moves in and the god rays break through the redwoods’ branches, this king of shrubs, dotted with water droplets, creates a magical shot.