#1116. Recovering Redwood Forest

By Frank Field | How-To

May 11

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.

Ancient Redwoods, Stout Grove, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, Del Norte County California

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.

Redwood Forest Panorama, 125 Years After Logging

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.

Chaotic Forest Floor, 125 Years After Logging

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.

Autumn Light Peaks into the Forest Floor
Clonal Rings of New Growth Fighting for Light Along the Gualala River

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.

Successful Regrowth Along the Gualala River

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.

Ferns Sprouting in Redwood Duff
Mushroom Explosion After First Rains, Redwood 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.

Growth Rings in Two Dimensions, Vertically Split and Charred Redwood Stump

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.

Sag Pond, Redwood Forest in Winter

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.

Lessons from Photographing a Redwood Forest

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.

Afte the Rains: Ferns on the Redwood Forest Floor

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.

Moss Growing on Charred Redood Stump

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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  • Lad Sessions says:

    Frank, How fortunate you are to live close enough to these magnificent creatures! How fortunate we Dear Susanites are to see your outstanding images! And my cup runneth over with your sage advice about photographing in these canyons. I am thrilled with everything you have shown us, not least the lovely ferns and mushrooms, both of them favorite subjects of mine. Foliage is wonderful when wet, and you have captured its allure. Thanks so much. (The pandemic was not solely tragic; it also birthed such projects as yours.)

    • Frank Field says:

      Lad – Thank you for your kind words. It was an interesting project and one that I had postponed for a long time. With the pandemic lock-downs and cautions, I finally had the time and the ability to focus on this challenging subject. Frank

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    It seems that photographing these forests is another “specialty”, requiring a whole new skill set and a great deal of planning.

    Thanks for sharing these photos – as a small kid, the lady next door used to look after me when I came home from school, until the rest of the family turned up. And she spent her honeymoon here & near Banff, so I was shown heaps of photos of sequoias and these forests. Then as a teenager, in secondary school, one of my class mates lived in the middle of a vast state forest here, on the other side of the world – his father was the manager of the forest! – so I spent a lot of time wandering through the forest with him, during school holidays. And still later, I had a friend who lived in the karri & jarrah forests, south of here – he obsessed over them – he ended up disappearing from my life, to go to our national university in the federal capital, to get a degree in forestry – but before that, I stayed with him at his uncle’s house, where he’d grown up, and he took me out on “guided tours” of the forests nearby – watching my every foot print, making sure I never trod on any plant he considered precious!

    These forests all have several things in common. The lighting effects you refer to, Frank. Moisture/humidity – the levels are quite different, in the midst of a forest. A silence which lands right on top of you, as you enter this space. A feeling of wonder, at the majesty of nature. Funghi – fascinating in their variety, but “don’t eat”.

    Humans come along and destroy – we’re a truly horrible species! I much prefer that we leave natural plantations alone, and if we MUST harvest timber, grow the bloody trees ourselves, first! As my forestry friends taught me, this is not just about the trees themselves – there’s a whole world under their majestic canopy, and ALL of it deserves to be treated with respect, and preserved – even tiny plants on the forest floor.

    Like our karri and jarrah, your sequoias deserve better.

    Thanks for sharing these photos, your comments, and your tips on photographing these wonderful trees, Frank.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Ah, those forest you refer to, South of Perth are one of my favourite places on Earth. There’s a bend on Cave road, in Boranup forest, where all the trunks are white, the light is unreal and there are ferns everywhere. It’s magical just to think of it. What I would give to be back there now …

    • Frank Field says:

      Pete — There is a growing understanding of the importance of the forest floor and the web of life that it holds. In Redwood National Park, north of Eureka, California, there is a strict daily limit on the number of visitors allowed near the tallest trees because of concern about compacting the soils and ecosystems that nourish the shallow root systems of the redwoods. Muir Woods, a U.S. National Monument protecting original growth redwoods and located about 20 km from the Golden Gate Bridge, now has a similar reservation system to protect the whole ecosystem. Frank

  • I was standing on a steep trail in a triple-canopy jungle forest looking around at the beauty as the sun tried to filter through. The thought entered my mind if anyone had ever seen this place before. Even as I was thinking that I scorned myself. I recognized the signs of old scars on the trees that reminded me of why I was here. The scars were made by bullet wounds that had healed on the bark. I knew from so many scars that there had been a big fight here at some time in the distant past. Which was sort of why I was here. My men and I had been trailing an enemy force through the mountains for four days, trying to catch up with them or get ahead and cut them off.
    Not 15 minutes later a tremendous amount of automatic weapons fire erupted from my point….. we had finally caught up with them and they and we were adding some more scars… and bodies.
    Now skip ahead four years and a college degree later. I had finally escaped the oppression of academia and traded it for the oppression of a full-time job. As my escape from the I was spending every possible minute in the forests or fishing in the streams of Tennessee. I still loved watching the beauty of the sun coming up through the trees. The animals and birds beginning to stir. Early morning mist rising over the creeks. I really loved it. That, and the love of my wife and child, was the only part of existence that really counted for anything.
    Now I’m 79 years old and I still love those things plus bird photography as much as ever. But when I’m out I’m still watching the trail for signs of a booby trap or an ambush. I never got over that. And, I never learned how to photograph the redwoods of the Muir Forest so that it did them justice.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Cliff, that’s a very moving testimonial, thank you for sharing it. It’s strange how it often takes a traumatic experience for us to truly appreciate the fundamental aspects of life. People who haven’t been through it get all tangled up in far less important stuff, stuff that just rolls off those who have experienced it, like rain on a coat.

      I’m sure many of us would love to and benefit from learning about detecting booby traps or ambushes from someone who had to learn the hard way, whithout having to go through it themselves. There’s a treasure trove of experiences and learnings, that only those forced to master them, really do, and that would benefit others if they were taught to them in a less difficult environment. I don’t know how, but am sure there’s a precious school there.

      As for never learning to photograph the redwoods … I’ve seen your superb photographs, so it’s definitely not due to a lack of talent. What do you think is missing from your photographs of those redwoods? Could we help in any way? Could that be a interesting project for you?

      All the best and thanks again.

      • Thank you for the offer of help with my photography, Pascal, but it’s too late now. Mostly because I live about 3000 miles from the redwoods. But, my biggest problem was I only had the one opportunity of about two hours and one has to be exceptionally fortunate to capture any image of lasting value in that situation. But, also landscape photography in any forest is difficult because of all the clutter of intervening trees and bushes. And also because of the height of the big trees. Even on overcast days the light can be zone 1or 2 near the bottom of the tree to zone 8 or 9 near the top. But, mostly it is a matter of trying to find an interesting composition through all of this mess. There is a tendency to want to capture the entire height of the tree in one shot. Usually, you can’t get far enough back from the base of the tree to do this, and if you did photograph it from a sufficient distance the majesty of the tree would be diminished or lost. Frank Field captured much of the wonderful mystery of the redwood forest in this essay by editing for bits of interest in each shot and letting the viewer put it together in his/her own mind. Very beautiful work.
        As far as learning about detecting an ambush or a booby trap, the only thing I can say about that is if you are lucky enough to survive the early days you learn to be preemptive and alert. Mostly we learned by doing. We lived on the coastal plains and later in the jungle mountains for four consecutive months without ever returning to base camp. We patrolled in force every day and had some terrific fights and awful booby trap experiences. Then at night we divided up went out in small unit ambush patrols. We took back the night.
        We were always tired, sleep deprived, and dehydrated. I went so long without a change of clothes the first two months that my trousers wore holes where they rubbed together. One of my men had taped the sole of his boot back on before our supply lines caught up with us. But we always had plenty of ammunition, claymore mines, C4, etc.
        With all of this daily patrolling and almost daily combat of some type you just naturally pick up an awareness of your surroundings. At least I did. I wondered about some of them. With every step I was analyzing the terrain without conscious thought. If we get hit I’ll hit the ground there. With every step if a shot is fired you already know what you’re going to do. And I was the leader so I was always scanning the terrain ahead to see where I would set up an ambush or plant a booby trap if I were the enemy. I constantly rotated my machine guns in the march formation to cover upcoming danger zones in the route ahead and to the rear of the formation.
        But all the training, experience and airborne attitude in the world does not trump luck. I came to realize that anything anyone did or didn’t do could save his life or get him killed in the next instant. Experience and caution helps but nothing beats luck.
        I was med evaced to a hospital ship and spent 10 or 12 weeks recovering at a hospital in Camp Zama, Japan.

  • Mer says:

    Frank, many thanks for posting these images and writeup. I like the insights you’ve gained from multiple visits and a bit of research, a good reminder that time spent understanding your subject is seldom wasted.

    For some excellent images of redwoods, I recommend the October 2009 National Geographic, complete with a central foldout of a 1500yo 300ft tall specimen. Truly astonishing. Here in NZ we have a number of redwood forests that were planted for timber, but have never been logged. Due to climate, they tend to grow a bit faster here, but are nowhere near the size of the ones you get to appreciate.

    There are a few dotted through parks where I live and we have one in our back garden, though it pokes well above the surrounding canopy and gets blasted by the prevailing westerlies. Why someone thought a redwood would be a good choice for a suburban garden is a bit of a head scratcher, but I do like it. It also drops a lot of small branches that make excellent kindling. There’s a hawk that perches there from time to time and a couple of weeks ago, there was a Morepork(small owl) sheltering in the lower branches and getting a lot of attention from a mob of blackbirds that were riled by its presence.

    Once again, thanks for posting these images, enjoyed.


    • Frank Field says:

      Mer – Thank you for taking a look and your kind comments. I had not realized that redwoods had been planted in New Zealand but now I know. Certainly, the climate of coastal northern California is quite similar to the west coast of New Zealand’s south island and the latitudes are about the same. The eucalyptus tree, an Australian native, grows very well in our area and had been used, along with the Monterey Cypress, to grow windbreaks to protect from the frequent strong winds along the coast. Best to you. Frank

  • brian says:

    I enjoyed reading your post about the second-growth redwoods midway through a family trip to the seaside town of Gualala, which is adjacent to some of the forest that you mentioned. Bright, cloudless skies didn’t aid my photographic attempts either during morning walks in the redwoods or late afternoon walks on the coastal bluffs, but this wasn’t a photography-focused trip and we’re enjoying our first post-Covid outing. Next time I’ll be better prepared.

    As a side point: I brought along only the new Voigtlander 35mm f/2 APO-Lanthar lens that last week replaced the lens that I used most frequently for the past two years, the Zeiss ZM 35/1.4 that some here also enjoy. It’s a reasonable trade-off: the Voigtlander gives me much of what I liked about the Zeiss, such as sharpness and wonderful color. Unlike the Zeiss, the Voigtlander is nearly flat field and sharp to the corners at wider apertures on my Sony A7R III; however, the new lens has more pronounced outlining of specular highlights (but the highlights are round at f/2, f/2.8, and f/5.6–to the detriment of sunstars) and somewhat more structure in out-of-focus areas than the Zeiss. I’ll learn more about how to use this lens to play to it’s strengths, but for now I could happily shoot at f/2.0, f/2.8 (which seems to improve the bokeh a bit) and f/5.6 all day. That said, it’s terrific for landscape use at f/7.1. I’m going to keep it.

    • Frank Field says:

      Brian —

      Yes, Gualala is just a bit north of this particular redwood tract. One of the tricks for dealing with full sun, at least in this tract, is to wait until mid-afternoon. This tract is on a hillside, facing generally east. By mid-afternoon, there are plenty of compositions available with diffused lighting only.

      There was a lumber mill in Gualala that closed in 1963. Much of the timber from this area was turned into lumber at that mill. The former mill site has recently been acquired by our local land trust, providing a nice parcel of land protected from future logging.

      Not mentioned in my post, but logging is a major source of sediment in the river, degrading its ability to host coho salmon and steelhead “trout” (which are actually a salmon variety).

      Many of the images in this post were shot with a Micro-Nikkor 55mm f/2.8 manual focus lens from the 1980s. The flat field correction of a macro lens is very helpful for “intimate landscapes” and the micro-contrast of the lens is excellent. All that in a 35-year old lens (and a design that’s probably more than 50 years old). Still, I do look at the Voigtlander 58 mm lens from time to time wondering if I should give it a try.

      Thanks for looking and your comment.


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