5 Frames in the Forest with a Pentax 6×7

Portola Redwoods State Park lies on the west side of the Santa Cruz mountains, where the land slopes down towards the Pacific, and the cool sea breezes create the ideal climate for California Redwoods. A creek runs through it; easily fordable in a dry summer, and waist high in a wet winter. I have been fortunate enough to go on many walks along its network of trails, taking a camera with me.

The redwoods can make for a difficult subject. Rays of sunlight strike through the forest canopy, creating pools of bright light and leaving deep shadows. The first time I visited Big Basin forest I was using Fuji Velvia transparency film, which struggled with the extreme contrast. These days I stick with B&W negative film, which does a much better job of handling the lighting conditions.

The other problem is that the forest can be a visually busy place, full of a complex array of leaves, branches, and intersecting shapes. It is all too easy to find a view or scene that interests you, take a photograph of the central subject, and then find that the final image is full of distracting background details that you failed to notice in your enthusiasm. Photographing in the forest really teaches you to look at the whole image in the viewfinder, and not just the central subject.

Finally, there are times when you need to move quickly. The lone ray of sun that perfectly strikes a single plant can move surprisingly quickly. By the time you have set up the camera, changed lenses, shifted the tripod, and checked the exposure, the sun will have moved, and the moment is lost.

It has taken me a while to learn all of these lessons, if indeed I fully have, and my files are full of unsatisfying negatives. But all this simply means that I have an excuse to go back to the forest and try again, and having to take another walk on beautiful woodland trails is hardly the worst thing that can happen to a photographer…

For my most recent trip I used a Pentax 6×7 with a 45mm f4, 75mm f45. and 165mm f2.8. These are all good lenses, and any lack of sharpness is more likely my fault than theirs. I shot on Ilford HP5+, which handles the wide dynamic range very well. The ISO rating of 400 is also useful for the subject matter – despite it being a bright day, the forest floor is surprisingly dark, and exposures on slower film can be quite long. When branches and ferns are bing stirred by the wind, this can be a problem.

Setting up the camera for my first shot, I realised that I had left my spot meter back in the car. Fortunately I have a metering prism which I used for most of these images, and which gave surprisingly good results.

This first image shows how busy and complex the forest can be. I think the overall composition still works, and I was fortunate enough to get an exposure that still captures detail on the main tree trunk.

Pentax 6×7, 75mm F4.5. Open in new tab for full size.

One of the things I have learned to do is to try and concentrate on a few details, such as these brightly-lit leaves of grass in front of some sawn logs.

Pentax 6×7, 165mm f2.8

Or this small pine seedling in front of a huge redwood trunk.

I like the 165mm for closeups and details, especially with the shallow DOF it offers. But sometimes you need to go wide. The 45mm allowed a bit of lens flare in this shot, but I think it shows how the sun was spilling through the trees.

Pentax 6×7, 45mm f4. Open in new tab for full size.

Finally, a backlit shot of a spiderweb. I am reasonably happy with the exposure here – the back of the treetrunk still shows plenty of detail, and although the highlit strands of silk are probably pure white, that reflects how the scene appeared.

Pentax 6×7, 165mm f2.8.

All shots were made using mirror lockup and a cable release. I shot 2 rolls of HP5+, developed in Eco Pro (Xtol) at 1:1 dilution for 12 minutes at 20° C. All of the images are straight scans with some minor tweaking of levels. I have not yet made any darkroom prints, but I think they would come out reasonably well.

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16 thoughts on “5 Frames in the Forest with a Pentax 6×7”

  1. Phenomenal photos! I love how HP5 rendered contrast between light and shadow. I also appreciate the tip at finding something to focus on even though it’s a busy scene. That photo with the grass turned out great.

  2. Some very nice images, especially with the 165, thanks and thanks for the forest photography lesson – I find it a very difficult subject. Agree, detail is easier and often makes for better images in my opinion. Tempting camera too ….

    1. Alasdair Mackintosh

      Thanks! The 165 is a nice lens. Not too big and heavy (well, by 6×7 standards) and it can do a great job of isolating the subject. The whole system is great.

  3. I think with your first photograph, looking up to the backlit forest canopy, you have managed to overcome all the challenges you described. The wonderful glowing light filtering through the leaves, the soaring trunks cutting through the detailed backdrop of leaves and branches. With that big 6×7 neg I would print this one large!

    1. Alasdair Mackintosh

      Just did an 11×14 print on Ilford Warmtone FB at grade 2, and it came out quite well. I have two different exposures, one slightly darker than the other, and I’m still trying to decide which I like more 😉 It partly depends on how bright the room lights are when you view the print.

      Bigger would be fun, but is stretching the resources of my darkroom a bit 😉

  4. These are really striking! Forests can be so tricky to capture and finding a balance between geometry, lighting, and something to focus on can be a nightmare. You’ve navigated the busyness of the forest quite well and created some super calming shots!

    1. Alasdair Mackintosh

      Thanks. As I said, I have a lot of unsuccessful negatives, but I’m lucky enough to live in an area where I can easily go back and try again. And you can find something new each time.

    1. Alasdair Mackintosh

      Thank you. I agree, they are amazing places. I’m not sure photography can really capture the experience, but it’s worth trying 😉

  5. Alasdair, this is a super read. Forests are such great, but challenging locations. Absolutely agree about the visually busy challenge of finding a composition. Your images demonstrate that you have overcome the challenge though and they are very engaging and well seen in my humble opinion. I have two Pentax 67 lenses, a 45mm and a 75mm, that I use with adaptors on my Pentax 645N. your article is adding to my temptation to take the plunge on a 67. Lovely work and an inspiring written narrative.

    1. Alasdair Mackintosh

      Thanks a lot.

      The 45 and 75 are both great lenses. Switching to a 67 would really let you see how wide they are 😉

  6. Dean Lawrence

    Wonderful images. I’ve only ever tried woodland with digital, it’s far too difficult for my skill level. For some reason I’ve never thought about using mono, your images have definitely given me food for thought.
    I hope you continue to revisit the area and produce more beautiful images. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Alasdair Mackintosh

      Thanks – I’m glad you liked them.

      There are definitely times I notice the colour. The way the green leaves stand out against the dark redwood trunks can be very lovely. But every time I’ve shot in colour, I’ve found the end results disappointing, somehow. I’d certainly recommend trying B&W sometime 😉

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