#1025. Photographing the Trees of Hatfield House

By pascaljappy | Art & Creativity

Jul 20

My recent trip to the UK didn’t go quite as planned πŸ˜‰ Weather was in total contrast to previous (and following) weeks: wet wet wet. And the UK government proved as reliable as our own by announcing an end to self-quarantine for French visitors on the 4th, no wait, the 6th, no wait, the 10th of July. So we had to spend much of our stay indoors. But, on the 10th, our very last day there, the rains and travel laws eased simultaneously. And Hatfield House was the glorious setting for this glorious conjunction.

 
 

As the guides inside the palace were all-too-eager to narate – this was reopening day after months of closure, and the information that they couldn’t deliver over that period had obviously built up pressure like steam in an engine – it was in Hatfield that young Elizabeth I was kept under house arrest, (presumably) molested by much older step father Thomas Seymour and held her fist council, hours after hearing of her succession to the Throne.

Historical credentials aplenty, then. Even for bone heads like me who have developed a healthy reticence to all facts historical as a defence mechanism against death-by-boredom at the hands of teachers who had never heard about storytelling, the house has a cool X-Men/Batman vibe to it as well. If thin Lizzy and her 1000 knights leave you cold, you can well imagine Bruce Wayne licking his wounds behind one of those windows as alternate mythology.

And the grounds are lovely too, in a way that has been imitated by many but is truly typical of gardens of the UK.

 
 

And follies and other interesting side-buildings …

 
 

But, most of all, they have trees. Amazing trees. Trees with unusual shapes. Very old trees (up to 700 years old) that witnessed a lot of that history guides and teachers are so keen to narate. Trees that must have known the Ents πŸ˜‰

I love trees, and find that we don’t have nearly enough respect for them. Last year the local council ripped out 4 plane trees in our little town, each of which was probably older than anyone on the council, to create 4 parking spots … and that gave me unspeakable throughts of revenge for weeks. Neighbours built a swimming pool and cut down a majestic pine tree so that no needles would fall in their blue water … … and that gave me unspeakable throughts of revenge for weeks. Hannibal Jappy at your service πŸ˜‰

When those angry-6-year-old thoughts of fierce fleecing frenzies and sadistic slashing sessions receed from my offended psyche, the desire to document what trees I am fortunate to meet along my ways feels like a more positive and useful channeling of my admiration for those tranquil creatures. Besides, I don’t have a chainsaw and the neighbour obviously does πŸ˜‰

 
 

But how do you photograph trees ? So much depends on their surroundings, the light and many other factors beyond the photographer’s control …

Surroundings affect the photographs in (at least) two ways relevant to photography : colour and composition.

For me, colour is the toughest of the two. Separating a tree from its background is made a whole lot easier if the foliages have different hues, which is seldom the case. Thousands of green leaves superimposed over thousands of others can make for an unintelligible story.

And green is the toughtest colour to get right out, of the box. Add a cast to a red Ferrari and it will just look like a Ferrari. Add a cast to a blue sky and the photograph won’t be any less interesting or beautiful for it. But our eyes immediately react to hue imbalances in green leaves. Yellow is immediately apparent as parasitic. Too much of it sends you spinning down the mustardy history of early Sony A7r cameras πŸ˜‰ Too little of it and a sickly, muddy feeling can spoil the image.

 
 

My lazy solution to this is black and white πŸ˜‰ In fact my default setting for all photography is b&w, unless the photograph is about the colour itself. That conveniently brushes the green cast issue under the carpet.

But grey on gray doesn’t generate much more excitement. So, as is so often the case in b&w photography, you need as much help from the light as you can get to delineate shapes and zones in the photograph and give it some sense of deliberate composition. Imagine the photograph above if the contrast was brought down to a uniform sea of grey … yuck, right ?

 
 

Then, there’s composition, dominated by garden design and light.

Hatfield House gardens aren’t botanical jewels such as Kew, horticultural Mecca such as Wisley, or monuments to visionnary gardening such as Great Dixter or Sissinghurst. Nor did Capability Brown rework the landscape to pretend Earth was created after an early Turner painting (though he did redesign some of the lake).

What you’re getting instead is vast, formal open land and exquisite forest peppered with extraordinary tree specimens. This means you’ll have to find the right angle, wait for the right light and post-process the living daylight out of the photograph to highlight shape and ‘personality’. You can’t count on the tree miraculously being the focus point of a perfectly predefined composition as in a place such as Blenheim Palace. You’re on your own, and that can show in the final results … πŸ˜‰

 
 

Here, filters come in handy. No, make that vital. During conversion to monochrome, lighting up the green by pushing the corresponding slider and bringing down the brown through the orange slider sets a benchmark frame on which is it possible to work more locally. Depending on taste, you can also alter clarity, and lowering it brings in that “infrared” vibe that can be interesting, or vile, depending on dosage.

My personal jury is still out when it comes to several of the photographs on this page, but waiting for me to be satisfied with all of them would have meant publication in 2024. So let’s consider these as a work in progress. For now πŸ˜‰

 
 

It would be possible to invert the slider swings while maintaining equal tonal separation between trunks and leaves. But maybe adding a “negative” vibe to an already very cleaving “infrared” disposition might be taking things a little too far, even for someone as unconstrained by good taste as me πŸ˜‰

Still, though, it’s anyone decision and, like chefs, photographers (or, rather, their master printers) must season to taste.

Unfortunately, the recipe isn’t universal. And when a moss-covered trunk react to slider-sliding very similarly to unlit mature leaves, you’r $hiΒ£ out of luck to get any contrast between the two using this method. Here (below) it’s more likely that doding and burning, a la Ansel, would yield more impressive results. At the expense of that ghost effect that creeps in when you start of with raw material of extrely low contrast. Compromises …

 
 

Modern PP software gives you more options. We are spoilt for options, compared to Team F/64 … So it is possible to use local dodging and burning exclusively in the highlights, or exclusively in the mid tones, or exclusively in the shadows, or any combination thereof. This can bring up some detail without acting on a darker background, for instance.

 
 

But, really, I’ve come to the conclusion that photogtaphy isn’t the act of drawing with light. Rather, it is the act of drawing light itself. And this is particularly true of b&w.

No light, no photograph. Only one messy mid-grey mass.

And, deep in a dense forest, on an overcast day … let’s just say my work was cut out for me πŸ˜‰

 
 

Considering the conditions, and my constant running to catch up with a distinctly non-photography-oriented family, I acquited myself fairly decently of this homage.

Some are good, some are … well, they have the merit of showing you the tree, so that you may pay your respects πŸ˜‰ Were this a gallery setting, I’d have to be far more selective, or return frequently to find the proper lighting for each tree. But it’s a blog post, I’ll play the “quality-inclusivity” card and show you “all I got” πŸ˜‰ (messed-up stitching, and all, as you’ll see)

Wadjathink? Are those beautiful trees or what?

 
 

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  • NMc says:

    Pascal, very enjoyable, thanks.
    The beauty of trees can often be difficult to capture and do justice. Some time we just have to be grateful for a reasonably decent attempt. Perhaps a bit like the face of god, not meant to be fully seen, captured or depicted.
    Regards Noel

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    I shan’t comment on your colour problem – you seem to have solved it already, at the flick of a switch.

    The photos are another matter.

    My very first ever photo was a photo of a tree that I worshipped as a small child. As soon as I unwrapped my birthday present on 7 August 1952, I loaded the roll of 620 B&W film I had been given, into the second hand Kodak Box Brownie camera that I had been given, tore outside, and took my first photograph – a majestic gum tree (eucalypt), about 150 feet from where I stood.

    So I fully appreciate the fact that you focused on the trees, rther than the palace.

    I had a friend once, many years ago, who had been party of a scientific team allowed to explore one of the most remote and most high altitude sections of the Rocky Mountains – an area where not even the US President is allowed to step foot, because the ecology of the environment is too fragile to allow anyone except the few scientists who must do this work. And he had photos of trees that were 6,000 years or more, old – gnarled and contorted into the most extraordinary shapes, by a combination of wind, weather and old age.

    These tree photos fit somewhere in between – way older than the rest of us, way younger than 6,000. Isn’t it wonderful to see something so incredibly old, still allowed – encouraged! – to continue growing, continue soaking up carbon dioxide, continue to make this a more pleasant planet to live on.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Indeed it is. And I wish more people saw life that way. Everyone says they want a healthy life and environment but most people rely on others to keep the Earth that way. They’ll cut a tree down without a second thought just because it is “in the way” (of something they built on the tree’s turf …)

      Oh well, I’m glad somebody else loves trees πŸ˜‰

    • pascaljappy says:

      I would love to see those 6,000 year-old trees, that much is certain !!

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        Like everyone else – you’re not allowed to. The ecology of the environment in that park is too fragile to allow tourists of any kind. A foot print on the grass, from 2 or 3 years ago, is still there – the blades of grass still bruised by the impact. NO ENTRY!! Unfortunately I’ve lost track of my friend, over the years – he’s moved elsewhere – scientist do that sort of thing. So I can’t even ask for copies of his photos. It was like something from a SciFi film, you had to rub your eyes and take another look!

  • JohnW says:

    Make that three people who loves trees. Like JP, my first real “photograph” was of trees – winter trees atop Mount Royal in Montreal on a bitterly cold (-17F) January afternoon in 1962. I still have it. And, I’m privileged to live in a “rain forest”. But, this is about your trees …

    My sole comment is “I want them! All of them”. I’ve never seen such a collection of incredible trees in one place. Who need the palace … the trees know far more secrets than any collection of docents or guides ever will.

    A few nights ago I watched the first instalment of a series on Japanese art (I adore Bonsai). Looking at these images gave me a totally mad idea (but then I’m certified demented anyway) … what if you could reduce all this to a Bonsai garden in your backyard, reduce yourself to the size of a toy soldier (with a tiny little Blad) and photograph from that perspective … OK! OK! I’ll go take my drugs.

    • pascaljappy says:

      It’s wonderful that you still have that first photograph πŸ™‚
      And I woud gladly sell the palace and keep the forest too πŸ˜‰

      Bonzais from a toy soldier’s perspective … that sounds like a great idea. Feasibility is another matter entirely as few bonzai owners will let loonies like us close to their proteges. But maybe in Japan? Next time? That would be very interesting.

  • Lad Sessions says:

    Pascal,

    This is a wonderful post, engagingly narrated. I’ll just express general admiration and mention two points that will not be news to you.

    I’m a great fan of trees too, for many reasons, including their visual virtues. I love your B&W renditions on your high-resolution camera, rather pleasingly infra-redish, to my eye. Color can be a distraction, especially when it’s monochromatic green. But in the spring and fall, the colors are what you need: fresh subtleties and palettes in the one, vivid rainbows in the other. I know you are an opportunist here (scant opportunity well utilized on this occasion), but you should return in prime Tree Time this fall or next spring: I for one would love to see those amazingly gnarled ancient trunks festooned, or at least surrounded, by colors that are also interesting.

    Another point: I’m equally fascinated by other tree parts than trunks, branches, leaves: tree roots, or rather the juncture(s) of trunk and roots into the soil. Texture, color, structure, pattern all interweave. It’s fine to look out to textured trunks and branching…well, branches, as well as up toward the swelling canopies, but it’s equally instructive to look down, at the foundations of all that finery. You have a couple of images that venture in this direction, but I wonder what would happen if you were to turn your discerning eye downwards more often. Hint hint.

    Lad

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you Lad.

      Hatfield House is quite a journey from my home and it might be difficult for me to return at will at the most vibrant periods of the year, but I will try (possibly this October) and can certainly try in more local forests πŸ™‚

      It would have been lovely to spend more time looking at compositions that include the roots and less traditional photographs. It was difficult while catching up with my family but, again, it is certainly a great idea in more local forests πŸ™‚

      Thank you for the suggestions!

  • Nancee Rostad says:

    I too love trees, even though they can be notoriously difficult to photograph. It would seem that trees would be easy subjects due to their stoically solid structure, but no! Their branches tend to whip about in the wind, their leaves hide and reveal any sunlight at will, and those trunks, those beautiful trunks can lose drama in front of the camera. As you’ve discovered, b&w is the way to go. All post adjustments reacting positively, able to add to light and dark areas in ways that are impossible with color images.
    Favorites? Number 19 for its mysterious drama as the branches twist up and disappear off the edge of the image. And number 23 for the surprise of finding a curious face sprouting from the bark.
    Well done, Pascal – thanks for sharing!

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you Nancee. I’ll try to produce more mysterious shots, and few head on ‘portraits’ on future visits. Local tress are not as spectacular, but every bit as twisted. So that will be a great place to start πŸ™‚ Cheers

  • Patrick says:

    What a magnificent display of trees, old and not-so-old, with such fascinating postures !
    A real eye-opener…….nice work !

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