Capturing a Ghost Tree

Whilst walking through a forest, myself and my partner game across a clearing containing a fallen dead tree.

It’s sad to see something so tall laid still on its side, but this is an important part of the forest’s life cycle. Without the felling of dead and dying trees (and the associated yearly thinning of the forest), the forest itself would weaken and fall down.

I took some pictures.

If we assume the forest itself as a living organism then the dead tree is still alive because it remains part of the forest’s ongoing lifecycle. I wanted to illustrate this in my photos. In short, I wanted to photograph a ghost tree.

The dead tree looked very striking in real life but not as striking as the ghost tree in my mind’s eye: a multi limbed leviathan. An organic whipping writhing thing slowly breaking itself apart to give itself up to the living.

Dead tree, as shot
Dead tree, as shot

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the results of my initial photography were less striking than my imaginations. My camera recorded a static green moss covered tree lost against an equally green forest.

High Dynamic Range sequence; -2EV, 0EV, +2EV
High Dynamic Range sequence; -2EV, 0EV, +2EV

Luckily, I figured I would need a lot of post-processing, so I took a series of shots 2EV apart (-2, 0, +2) to process for High Dynamic Range and/or composite for colour. As HDR images by definition contain a lot more range (both colour and tonal), they are very useful for post processing (they are much less likely to create clipping or banding, as well as maintaining textures better). Even if I didn’t end up using HDR, the use of bracketting would later allow me to pick the best exposure as a starting point for my post processing (nothing brings out exposure deficiencies in a shot faster than post processing!).

HDR output; Colour (left) and tonal (right)
HDR output; Colour (left) and tonal (right)

Back home at the computer, I created 2 HDR images; a ‘realistic’ HDR image, and a high contrast tonal HDR image (the latter being for the reasons discussed in this post).

Although neither image met the specifications of the thought in my mind, a little more thinking got me to the living moving tendrils of the ghost tree. I used the tonal (B&W) image as the final image, and colourised the tree using saturation values from the colour HDR image;

The Ghost Tree
The Ghost Tree

The organic movement and the sense of otherworldliness comes from my choice of ultra wide angle (11mm). The dead tree is separated from the rest of the forest by colour. Further, by colouring only the dead tree, my hope is that it ends up looking like the only living thing in the scene.

Click here to see a larger image of the final piece (1200×800, 1.1Mb, opens in a new browser/tab).


Most times, the creativity in photography is stepping over optical and digital inaccuracy to get the camera to reproduce a realistic shot. Sometimes though, you need force the camera (and yourself) to stop reproducing the scene and instead make it run with your imagination: you need to make the camera see what you see.


Tools used

  • High Dynamic range images created with HDR EFEX Pro (as a Plugin for Lightroom 3).
  • Composite created  in Photoshop CS5.
  • Camera/Lens: Sony A500, Tokina 11-16mm lens.