Oaks are found across most of the northern hemisphere with approximately 600 species in total. As well as England, the oak is the national plant of many nations, including the USA, France, Germany, Wales, Jordan and Poland, primarily because it symbolises strength and endurance.
Their impressive longevity means mature oak woods are examples of a stable and largely undisturbed environment, rich in biodiversity where many species, from fungi and invertebrates to birds and mammals, thrive throughout the year. According to the UK’s Woodland Trust, oaks support more life forms than any other native tree.
Oaks are deciduous and their changing leaf colour is a major attraction for many photographers visiting native woodlands to capture this popular feature of autumn. But when the leaves have fallen and lie mostly forgotten, that is when they are of greatest importance to the surrounding environment: on the ground the soft leaves of English oak break down with ease and form a rich leaf mould beneath the tree that nourishes numerous invertebrates and fungi.
Acorns AND nests
The oak found in most of Europe is the sessile oak (Quercus petraea), and differs from the English oak (Quercus robur) by having stalkless acorns. As many children know, ‘big trees grow from little acorns’, but an oak is at least 40-years-old before it produces its first acorn and is most productive after 80 years. Acorns are the fruit of the oak and turn from green to brown before falling to ground. Most acorns never get to germinate to produce new saplings the following spring as they are a rich food source for many wildlife species, notably jays, mice, badgers, squirrels and deer, eager to fatten up before winter freezes the forest floor.
During spring and summer, a mature oak 20 metres or more high can provide ideal nesting spots for many birds, while bats often roost in old holes bored by woodpeckers. Owls also use trunk and bough cavities as nests, and with hundreds of insect species in the bark and tree canopy there is a plentiful food supply for all the resident animals.
Oaks also reveal their starkest beauty in winter when hoarfrost or heavy snow creates an image of a bare, almost skeletal tree against a white background – a stark contrast to summer’s lush greens. Look for that ideal winter rural image of an isolated oak on a clear day after a fresh snowfall, set against a morning sky of cobalt blue.
For many creatures the English oak is a tree of life, and with so many species to be found, an oak wood offers the wildlife photographer plenty of subject potential for the camera. This is prime habitat for large mammals, especially deer. Red deer are the largest land mammals in the UK, but roe deer are the most widespread and therefore more likely to be encountered. Spotting a truly wild deer in open woodland is not easy because these animals are wary of humans and lie in the undergrowth for most of the day.
When photographing these creatures and other mammals in an oak wood, a slow and steady approach is needed when moving into position. Key tips are to stay downwind of your subject, don’t make sudden movements with camera and lens, and maintain a fast shutter speed by choosing wider apertures and faster ISO speeds. Longer lenses are essential to make frame-filling portraits from a distance, and also for depicting mammals in the context of the woodland setting. The versatility of a telephoto zoom provides the options for making both types of image from the same position, without changing lenses.
Other well-known oak wood inhabitants include foxes and badgers. Foxes are active by day, and are most likely to be seen in the early and late daylight hours, but badgers are more elusive, being nocturnal and virtually invisible during winter when they spend most of their time in their setts underground. A typical entrance to a badger sett is a gaping wide hole in the ground, often near the roots of very old oak trees, so should you find one it might be worth waiting patiently close-by – and downwind – to witness any badgers emerging just before dusk.
Close-up or wide-angle
The deciduous seasonal patterns of early spring growth, full summer leaf and changing autumn colours, make oak trees a subject of enormous potential for landscape photographers. Autumn colours have enormous appeal to many, whether photographing a single oak in a rural field, or a section of a more substantial forest. The wider view, including a whole tree in orange and gold with a background of blue sky and green field, is often the first composition that comes to mind, but there are other creative possibilities. Close-up shots of several leaves, each of a different hue, lying on the forest floor, are worth looking out for on an autumn woodland walk. Oak leaves have a distinctive soft, wavy edge, easily recognisable from the foliage of other broadleaf trees.
There are distinct advantages for choosing to shoot close-up studies with longer focal length and macro lenses, compared to the more general scene taken with a wide-angle lens. For one, a tightly composed close-up can be made virtually anywhere and in most weathers, and requires minimal space. By contrast, the success of a wider landscape view is far more prone to the prevailing light and fickle weather conditions.
In the summer months, the sun remains overhead and the oak’s dense crown of leaves means the woodland floor remains in shadow for much of the day. However, shafts of light do penetrate the forest canopy with a resulting mix of shadow and highlight. This is a high contrast scene and is tricky to expose for, but it creates a chance to compose a wider view looking up to the tree canopy, the dark wood of the trunk and branches rendered almost silhouette as you expose for the rich backlit greens of the foliage. After this, try zooming closer to pick out natural patterns and more graphic elements of the relationship between branch and leaf.
Shooting on the ground
The forest floor of an oak wood is best photographed in spring, during April and early May when the branches are still bare and the sun can reach the ground to illuminate wild flowers such as primrose, bluebells and wild garlic.
This combination of spring colour from the woodland flowers, small points of green from emerging leaves and a low-angled sun casting raking shadows from the broad dark trunks, is a favoured opportunity for photographers focusing on oaks and other native woodland trees.
At such times, many photographers will reach for the wide-angle lens, confident in the knowledge that these short focal lengths will deliver enough depth of field to achieve a sharply focused image from front to back.
With such a wide view, the foreground is critical to the balance of the overall composition, and low-lying woodland flowers of yellow, white and blue are perfect subjects for this part of the frame.
In low sun, watch out for flare in the viewfinder caused by direct sunlight shining into the lens. In these lighting conditions contrast can be extreme so it is advisable to choose an exposure that will produce an accurate rendition of the colours within the frame. This will involve trying different shutter speed and aperture combinations, as there is no single correct exposure in such lighting. Using your camera on a tripod will allow the greatest range of exposure options for a sharp result, while a wide-angle zoom lens offers flexibility when framing the scene from your preferred position.
While oak trees are abundant in the temperate climate zones of the northern hemisphere, they remain as threatened as any tree by deforestation. Britain is one of the least forested countries in Europe, but every year more trees are being planted than felled and increased efforts are made to protect oaks by nurturing saplings. Earlier this year, Norway became the first country in the world to declare its public procurement policy deforestation-free. This banned the import or use of any product that contributes to deforestation as a result of its manufacture.
Many more people now value their local woodlands and participate in community tree-planting schemes. The beauty of the venerable oak as a photographic subject is that, whatever the season, there is always scope for a fresh perspective. Weather conditions play a huge part in how trees are depicted in the landscape, and in Britain at least that means the photographer has a myriad of possibilities.
Explore your local oak wood to find the best locations for photography. Observe the position and angle of the sun at different times of day and contact the local wildlife or woodland trust to learn about what species can be found.
Check the weather forecast. Seasonal conditions like mist and fog or a heavy frost can help you prepare for the type of scene you can expect in the wood.
Bracket your exposures. In an oak wood, light levels can vary dramatically so no exposure is likely to be ‘correct’ across the whole of the frame. Try several exposure variations and check the results on your LCD monitor.
Forget the tripod. With the camera on a tripod you can maximise the number of exposure options and stop down your lens aperture for greater depth of field, no matter how slow the shutter speed.
Make too much noise when walking around the woodland. All wildlife species are wary of humans and have keen hearing so will take flight or hide if alarmed. Move quietly and spend time in set places and waiting silently with your camera in position.
Shoot with the sun shining directly into your lens. This will cause flare. Look for a position that allows you to place a tree trunk or enough leaf cover between you and the sun.
The British Oak, by Archie Miles; Constable; £35 (hardback)
The Secret Life of an Oakwood, by Stephen Dalton; Ebury; £15.99 (softback)
Britain’s Tree Story, by Julian Hight; National Trust Books; £18.95 (hardback)
Lens option: Wide-angle zoom
Until recently, Sigma’s Art series of lenses comprised fast aperture fixed focal length ‘prime’ lenses of the highest optical quality. The Sigma 24-35mm f/2 DG HSM Art Lens (£700) covers the traditional wide-angle focal lengths of 24mm, 28mm and 35mm with a constant f/2 maximum aperture. This is neither a compact or lightweight lens, but it is one of the best wide-angle zooms around.
Accessory option: Compact tripod
For woodland walks, a compact, lightweight, yet robust tripod is ideal, and Benro’s Travel Angel series (from £120) is as good as any. The legs fold back 180 degrees to close in on the centre column and when fully extended, the tripod reaches eye level. By unscrewing one of the legs and attaching it to the center column, you even have 180cm monopod.
Camera option: Tilting screen SLR
The D750 (£1,250 body only) is still Nikon’s only pro model DSLR to feature a tilting LCD monitor, making it easier to compose images when shooting close to ground. It’s also excellent for low-light shooting with an impressive ISO range of 100-12,800, extendable to 50-51,200. Nikon even redesigned the 24.3 megapixel CMOS sensor on this camera to achieve cleaner results at higher ISO settings.
This was published in the August 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.