Old GROwth FORests Of The East
Abundant Photo Ops Await In Hard-To-Find Places

Holly Creek area, Chattahoochee National Forest, Georgia. During rain the colors become saturated--and slopes become slick! Example of chaos and randomness. (Mamiya RZ Pro II, 75mm short barrel lens, polarizing filter.)
Photos © 2003 Clint Farlinger, All Rights Reserved

As I slipped and fell helplessly to the ground for the 102nd time that afternoon (give or take a fall or two), I decided not to get up again. Despite the fact we were still a good half-mile from the trail leading out of the forest, frustration from the extreme terrain made me want to stay exactly where I was. "That's exactly how these trees escaped logging. They're simply too hard to get to," Jess explained as he helped me back to my feet--again. Jess has spent a lot of time in the north Georgia mountains and particularly Chattahoochee National Forest looking for the overlooked forests that have escaped logging and other disturbances to remain today as old growth forests. As he guided me to several different tracts of newly discovered old growth forest, I couldn't help but be awed, both by the forest and the abundant photo opportunities.

Old growth hemlock forest, Leopold Memorial Woods (TNC), Wisconsin. These trees are high up on rocky slopes that protected them from both the logger's ax and the cow's grazing. (Mamiya RZ Pro II, 50mm lens, 81A filter.)

WheRe TO Find Them
While the term "old growth forest" brings to mind the grandiose forests of the Northwest US, every state has old growth forests remaining. Some of these areas are large, impressive, and well-known, such as the Porcupine Mountains in Michigan while others are small and known to only a few people. And, as I found out in Georgia, still others are waiting to be discovered!

Defining "old growth" is difficult and often controversial, but in general, old growth forests are those forests that have escaped logging and/or grazing and remain in approximately the same condition as they were when European settlers arrived in the New World. Many researchers also require the presence of trees that are old relative to their life expectancy. In my search for old growth, I've borrowed the admittedly arbitrary division of the US between East and West as the imaginary line that would run down Minnesota's western border and continue south through eastern Texas (Old Growth in the East: A Survey by Mary Byrd Davis, published by the Wild Earth Society, 1990). This seems logical to me although it could be argued the larger changes in ecosystems occur closer to the Rocky Mountains.

Bunchberry, Chippewa National Forest, Minnesota. The unusual history of the Lost Forty mentioned in text. (Bronica ETRSi.)

HOw Did They SuRvive?
How these forests escaped disturbance varies as much as the forests themselves. Many, like the forests I visited in Georgia, were too difficult to reach because of the mountainous terrain. In flatter parts of the country trees in lowlands were too difficult to log because of wet, muddy conditions or soft soil. Same other forests were the beneficiaries of far-sighted individuals and families who thought it best to preserve a portion of their holdings.

In locations where growing conditions are harsh, trees often do not reach a large enough size to be of commercial value and were spared. Some tracts were passed over because of human errors. The "Lost Forty" in Chippewa National Forest in Minnesota exists today because of a mapping error. The area was being mapped as winter began and the surveyors began rushing. In their hurry they sloppily overestimated the size of a lake by many acres. Consequently, this forest appeared as a lake on early maps and was overlooked by loggers.

Old growth black oak and sugar maple trees, Wyalusing State Park, Wisconsin. Example of repeating lines of straight trunks. (Mamiya RZ Pro II, 180mm short barrel lens, 81B filter.)

DiveRsity Reigns
One of the exciting aspects of old growth forests in the East is the diversity of types of forests. Northern hardwood forests, park-like savannas of long-leaf pine, stunted oak forests on dry ridges, huge bald cypress stands rising out of black water bayous, and stately white pines in areas with names like Cathedral Pines are but a small sampling of the differing ecosystems. To list all the variety would require its own volume. Characteristics of these ecosystems include abundance of old trees, unevenly aged trees, large diversity of species, fallen trees, dead standing trees (snags), and gaps in the canopy.

PhOtO OPPORtunities And TiPs
If I ever run across a thought to be extinct ivory-billed woodpecker in the thickets of eastern Texas and have the chance to snap a frame or two, I'm not going to be too concerned with composition. I figure the subject will carry the photo. However, most other photos need to be carefully composed because they lack that spectacular stand-alone subject. Fortunately, trees contain a vast array of compositional elements including:
· Repeating lines of straight trees growing side by side;
· Leading and diagonal lines
created by branches reaching away from the trunk;
· Contrasts of color, tone, and shape between leaves and branches;
· Balance created by spreading crowns;
· Chaos and randomness that somehow work together in perfect harmony.

Old growth eastern hemlock and eastern white cedar trees, Little Presque Isle Tract, Escanaba State Forest, Michigan. Example of repeating lines of trunks. (Mamiya RZ Pro II, 75mm short barrel lens, 81A filter.)

Lighting Challenges
Lighting in forests can present many challenges and opportunities. The extreme contrast of bright sunlight and deep shadows is too much for any film to record, so photographing in the middle of the day when the sky is cloudless is nearly impossible. However, early in the morning and late in the evening on sunny days can be spectacular. The light is soft, warm, and directional during those times of day. Highlights and shadows drift on and off different areas of the woods creating new compositions every few minutes. As the sun rises or sets the crowns of the tallest trees often glow in the warm light. A polarizing filter will keep the sky rich and create a pleasant contrast between the tree and the sky.

WeatheR COnsideRatiOns
Fog is a personal favorite of mine because of its ability to simplify a scene and create a feeling of mystique. When looking into a forest cloaked in fog, the distant trees seem to disappear into nothingness. I usually increase exposure by about one stop from the meter reading and use a slight warming filter (such as an 81A) to keep the scene looking bright and warm.

Trees and hoarfrost, Bluffton Fir Stand State Preserve, Iowa. One of Iowa's few old growth forests. I photographed this area several times before I discovered that is was considered old growth. (Bronica ETRSi.)

Rainy days are good days to photograph in the forest. The color of leaves and flowers become more saturated when wet and at the same time trunks and rocks become darker. This is often a wonderful combination. A polarizing filter is a necessity on rainy days. If it's raining hard enough it will look like fog on film (and you'll be guaranteed of having the forest to yourself)!

Lighting is soft on cloudy days, which is an excellent time to photograph interesting understory subjects such as flowers or ferns. The soft, subtle light from overcast skies preserves the delicate details of macro subjects that are lost under harsh light.

Cloudy days are a great time to photograph abstract patterns of trunks and leaves. Every forested area is different in terms of contrast. Some scenes appear overwhelmingly two-dimensional and a telephoto lens will accentuate this flatness and create an image that looks more like an ink drawing than a photograph. In this instance I'll stop the lens down to f/22 or f/32 to make sure everything in the photo is sharp. Other times forested areas maintain a nice variation between highlight and shadow and appear three-dimensional even under flat light. In these cases I try to be more literal than abstract. One word of caution--tiny bits of sky that are visible through the leaves appear as white spots and, since the eye is drawn to the lightest part of a picture first, sky spots are generally distracting. A telephoto lens and a carefully chosen camera angle are the best way to avoid these spots.

Ancient sugar maple in old growth northern hardwood forest, Crosby-Manitou State Park, Minnesota. Example of sky spots adding to the composition instead of distracting from it. (Mamiya RZ Pro II, 50mm lens, 81A filter.)

FOcal Length ChOices And ShutteR SPeed
Telephoto lenses combined with shallow depth of field can be used to isolate the subject. It's important to have a background that complements--or at least doesn't compete with--the subject. Muted colors with a subtle design or no pattern at all are usually the most complementary. Small changes in camera position make big differences in the appearance of the background.

Movement by the trees while the camera stays snug on the tripod creates an entirely different image. Leaves twirling in the wind while trunks remain motionless will photograph as sharp trunks surrounded by blurs of color. Even if the trunks are moving the entire photo will appear full of motion. The results vary with how much the trees are moving in the wind and how long of a shutter speed is being used. Shutter speeds of 1 to 4 seconds are good starting points.

Finding YOuR SPOts
Locating these forests can be more challenging than photographing them. Old Growth in the East: A Survey mentioned earlier is an indispensable research tool and a great starting place (Mary is currently working on a revision). She lists known areas, listed by state, along with a description of each tract. Other good resources can be found online at two of my favorite sights: www.old-growth.org and www.nature.org (the website of The Nature Conservancy).

The challenge continues even after you know where to look. Many of these sights are in out of the way locations and/or difficult to reach. I use a lot of topographical maps from the USGS and I now carry a GPS--with plenty of extra batteries. I also reference www.topozone.com on a regular basis.

Finding and photographing old growth forests in the East has been difficult and challenging, but, as with most endeavors, the harder the work the greater the rewards. I began really looking for these forests when I discovered there was one near my home in northeast Iowa (yes Iowa!). As I can attest, no matter where you live, there is probably an old growth forest close to you.

Unless noted otherwise, all photos were taken on Fujichrome Velvia using a Gitzo tripod.