The Coast Redwoods, sequoia sempervirens, are the world’s tallest trees. They grow in a 450-mile / 725-km strip along the California coast from Big Sur to the southwest corner of Oregon. The tallest known living redwood measures 379 ft / 115 m high and is protected in the Redwood National Park, north of Eureka, California.
The Giant Sequoia tree is a cousin of the Coast Redwood. While more massive, the Giant Sequoia is not as tall at the Coast Redwood. The Sequoia grows only in the Sierra Nevada of California. Both species are very long-lived with many examples of trees living well over 1,000 years of age.
Prized for its long, straight grain, few knots and resistance to insects and decay, redwood has been sought for construction. Over 95% of the redwoods that existed when Western settlers arrived in California have been cut for lumber. Indeed, the city of San Francisco was built and then rebuilt (post 1906 earthquake) with redwood timber from the north coast. Fortunately, a series of California State Parks, a U.S. National Park, and a U.S. National Monument protect some of the remaining original growth groves.
One of my favorite old-growth groves is the Stout Grove, in the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park in Del Norte County. This grove, located in the alluvial flood plain of the still wild Smith River, is prime habitat for redwood seedlings to sprout and grow. Image 1 provides a glimpse of this grove and, for scale reference, a 70 inch / 178 cm tall photographer. Original growth groves are magnificent forests to visit. The giant trees form a canopy that almost totally blocks direct sunlight from the forest floor. The first branches of these trees are usually at least 100 ft / 30 m above the ground. The giants have won the competition with other species and less vigorous redwoods.
We live in redwood country. But our area was a prime source of redwood lumber and nearly all the original growth has been cut. A section of the redwood forest, a short walk from my home, became a favorite spot to visit and a challenge to photograph during the 2020 – 2021 COVID-19 pandemic.
Local experts, matching growth ring patterns from stumps in this tract with those in a recently logged tract nearby, estimate our subject forest was logged in the 1890s, or about 125 years ago. Visit the tract many times and you begin to understand that the dynamics of regrowth are still very active. While many regrowing redwoods are over 100 ft / 30 m tall, some perhaps 150 ft / 45 m, the redwoods continue to compete with some hearty Douglas Fir trees. The redwood canopy does not yet fully filter direct sunlight; multiple species of bushes compete with the ferns at ground level. Logged redwoods that apparently shattered on striking the ground are still present. In short, the forest floor is still chaotic. You need to visit many times to begin to understand the story that you want to capture and what you want to frame with your camera.
Redwoods reproduce both by seed and clonally. Many stumps from the 1890s logging still have six or more clones sprouting from them and fighting for light and water. In the end, at most one will dominate. The panorama of the forest shows multiple stumps, each with many clones competing.
This forest tract is located along the west bank of the Gualala River. The river’s flood plain is prime territory for seedlings to take root and grow vigorously given the added sunlight available owing to the river’s break in the forest. Indeed, some of the largest regrown trees are along the river’s bank yet even these trees are no more than 4 to 5 ft / about 1.5 m in diameter. The sixth image shows one of the more successful regrowing trees in comparison to a nearby stump from the logging.
California enjoys a Mediterranean climate. This means that nearly all annual rainfall occurs in the months of November through April, with the heaviest rains from mid-December to mid-March. When the rains do finally come, the forest floor starts to come alive. Ferns that have been covered in dust are washed and new growth sprouts. The first rains bring an explosion of mushrooms on the forest floor.
Outside the rainy season, weather becomes highly predictable: morning fog along the coast, generally clearing by mid-day, leading to severe clear weather. The fog is the major source of water for the redwoods as it condenses on needles on the upper branches. Some is absorbed directly through the needles, some drips onto the forest floor, feeding the shallow root system of the trees. (Surprisingly, the coast redwoods do not develop a deep tap root.) Owing to the importance of the fog to the trees, the coast redwood is mostly confined to a 25 mile / 40 km band from the coast inland.
Native Americans understood the importance of fire in maintaining a healthy forest and did set what we now call controlled burns periodically. Fire tends to clear out competing plant growth from the forest floor. The redwood tree, containing relatively little sap and a very thick outer bark, is highly resistant to fire. Signs of 8. Explosion of Mushrooms After First Rain past fires are visible on some of the regrowing trees and even more so on the stumps of the logged original growth trees.
The Gualala River flows along the infamous San Andreas fault. The fault ruptured in the 1906 earthquake. In our area about 100 mi / 160 km north of the Golden Gate the Pacific plate, roughly the west bank of the river, shifted north 15 to 18 ft (4.5 to 5.5 m) relative to the North American plate. That shift cut-off the beds of streams that flowed from the ridge to the river and the water now accumulates in sag ponds in the forest.
So, the competition for light, moisture and nutrients continues in this recovering redwood forest. While we are happy this tract will not be harvested, we should walk away with a lesson about the centuries required to fully regrow a redwood forest. Think, think and think again before harvesting a redwood tree.
Want to know more about the redwoods? I was surprised to find relatively few good references beyond the usual terse citations in handbooks. My best reference has been:
John Evarts & Marjorie Popper, editors, Coast Redwood: A Natural and Cultural History, Cachuma Press, Los Olivos California, 2001. ISBN 0-9628505-5-1. This book is out of print but readily available from the usual sources of quality used books.
A forest is a challenging place to photograph. My respect for successful woodland photographers such as North Yorkshire’s Simon Baxter has only grown throughout this project. Here are the lessons I learned.
1. Visit and re-visit. Always true but even more important in capturing a difficult subject. This is a forest still recovering from logging over a century ago. While the redwoods have gained a lot of ground, there is still competition among species, notably the Douglas Fir. The forest floor is still very chaotic. You must visit many 10. Sag Pond in Winter times to begin to understand the story that you want to capture and what you want to frame with your camera.
2. It is impossible to frame a full image of a single 100 – 150 ft redwood tree when that tree exists in a dense forest of similar trees competing for light and moisture. You must find alternative ways to tell the story. Too, the forest is far more nuanced than an image of a tree alone.
3. Even with today’s high dynamic range cameras, full sun still means deep shadows and bright highlights, though we now have the possibility of retaining texture in each. The resulting images are frankly unattractive. Just wait for an overcast day or, better yet, a foggy day. With a light overcast or a fog, there is still directionality to the light to help impart a sense of depth in your images.
4. Do bracket your exposures. I found that a bracket of -1, 0 and +1 eV was all I needed to help retain texture in highlights and shadows in finished images. Depending on your camera, you may want a wider bracket. I found it better to blend images in PhotoShop manually rather than using an HDR tool.
5. The old rule “use a polarizer when photographing foliage” remains true. The specular highlights from light reflecting off foliage rob saturation and texture. A good polarizer solves most of the problem but does leave images a bit over-saturated. Be prepared to move the saturation slider to the left in post. Use a quality polarizer; lesser models tend to leave colorcasts and this subject already has colorcast challenges.
6. Color balancing is a major challenge. We are dealing with light that has been filtered and diffused through the forest’s canopy. It bounces off surfaces that are deep brown, red and green. The resulting ambient light near the forest floor is generally very blue-deficient. No Auto White Balance algorithm is going to solve this challenge. The use of a white-balance card with correction using the eyedropper tool in ACR or Lightroom leads to hideous color casts. Our eyes and brains cannot totally remove those color casts either and thus we are accustomed to the look of a forest that depends on a certain color temperature that may be quite different from daylight. The problem is less severe in forest along the river, where a good fraction of the light is scattered, unadulterated skylight, and more challenging deeper into the forest. I eventually came to simply set my camera’s white balance to “daylight” and adjusted white balance to taste in post, trying to maintain a consistent coolness to colors across the entire image set.
7. Tree trunks, especially if damp, are going to end up in zone 1 or 2. Redwood bark is richly textured, and I want my images to convey a sense of texture, even in deeper shadows. I found Tony Kuyper’s Triple Play Tool (part of his TK7 panel for PhotoShop) to be valuable in retaining that sense of texture.
8. Use a tripod. You may need to blend images in post. Light levels are generally low. You need the maximum dynamic range your sensor can deliver (meaning shoot at base ISO or no more than a couple of eV above base as conditions dictate). There is a lot of “stuff” that you want to keep out of the edges of the image; check and recheck framing before tripping the shutter.
9. I strongly preferred to focus manually, using live view with the lens wide-open to place the plane of focus exactly where I wanted it. Too many competing lines and contrasts in the forest are apt to confuse even the best autofocus systems.
10. Capture RAW images only and capture with as much bit depth as your camera will support. Don’t even think about 8-bit JPEGs. No rational person is happy to have a pandemic about, taking innocent lives, inducing pain in those left behind, and wrecking economies. Once we have followed public health guidance (masks, avoid crowds, wash hands, get vaccinated as soon as able), we need to find something constructive to engage our minds and energy. I had long postponed photographing in the redwood forest, understanding at least some of the challenges intuitively. While I am not finished in the redwood forest, I am thankful for the time I’ve been able to devote to this challenging project.
Thanks for looking. You can find more of my work on my website.
Frank Field, www.edgelightimages.com, April 2021
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