Photography: Portraits and Woodlands

And portraits in woodlands

What an interesting time I've had since returning from England.


Among other things, a national advocacy/support organization asked me to do some portraiture for them, and that was i) wonderful to be involved in something meaningful and ii) a great time spent with a fascinating subject.

This was private commission, but the client has been very pleased with the work, and the subject said this:

"Wow! I'm so impressed Charles! I actually like those pictures of me... even the rather prim one. I'm impressed. I usually hate the pictures of me, but those I do love. Thank you ever so much."

I'm blushing (a bit), but ...

... portraits, people! Here's something I have never heard: "I regret having Charles make portraits of me." Doesn't happen. I'm just sayin'.

Charles a few -ahem- years ago

Nobody regrets well-done portraits. On my services-page, I include this little hint:

"... excellent results with those who consider themselves unphotographable". If you're not sure, then mention this blog and for this specific thing I will offer a money-back guarantee.

With apologies to the long-ago photographer who made this image of me, I just enjoy the memory, and so do my family and friends. (So don't be so selfish - get your portrait done!)


For the second time, I did a volunteer photography session for the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

This organization protects and manages wilderness, essentially. Our previous shoot was in Autumn, and this time they asked me about Winter. Winter photography just isn't as popular, for obvious reasons (such as "cold"!), and yet it can be such a gorgeous time of year. They may be using some of these photographs in their marketing, but you could short-cut that and just go to their website now, and donate.

-from the earlier session: Nature Conservancy land, north of Kingston, Autumn

Now, on this particular day, let me just be honest and state that conditions were more challenging. I'm not making excuses, but could delineate several reasons why this time I had to work harder. The light was flat, dull, and the bare branches carried no snow—that was all true. The Eastern White Pine, a truly impressive tree, has little of visual note between the snow ("show Winter" being one of my assignments) and the crown.

Eastern White Pine in Winter (fisheye lens)

My job as photographer is to overcome those obstacles, not to whine about them.

Anyway, I was delighted to have my cheerful former guide back, Megan, and she was very helpful, plus it was just so heart-warming to see her passion and devotion to the lands under her care. I learned so much that day about forest biology, and in return I talked about the craft of photography, and we each very amiably agreed not to send out post-tests.

This time we were asked to work at Gillies Grove, and that's a story. A coupla' hundred years back, a lumber tycoon had a (somewhat ironic?) conservation ethic, and so established this grove, named after him, right smack in the middle of Arnprior, Ontario. (It might have been on the outskirts when established.) Fast forward to about twenty years ago, and of course a developer wanted it (and why wouldn't they?). My understanding is of a grass-roots uprising, and the townspeople quite forcefully got that stopped, and the Nature Conservancy bought it, and in cooperation with other local groups, protects and manages it.

Megan has written eloquently about Gillies Grove recently. (Read it—it's great.)

The Grove is a rare stand in Eastern Ontario of old-growth forest. Most people don't realize that most of our old forest has at some point been cut down, and what we have now is "new." The definition of "old-growth" is a bit nebulous, but I'm going to say "stable", as in the mix of species, and of old and new growth, isn't changing much. Newer forests will look quite different a hundred years further along as they mature, older forests not so much.

Some arboreal biologist please help me here.

The oldest Eastern White Pine on record was assessed as about 500 years old (but here more like 200-300 years), and they can reach heights of over 60 m. (!!!) That might help describe "old-growth".

Eastern White Pine

Quite amazing.

However, and again pardon my forthrightness, but I felt that neither of the two photographs above is going up on my wall. They are nice, competent, documentary pictures, certainly more than snapshots (if I may say), but how to make art, that day? I had to think.

(I can add that, with the benefit of a week or so since the session, the photographs are growing on me.)

One gambit, when vistas do not magically appear in front of my lenses, is to find details.

Yellow Birch - characteristic scroll-like bark

Good. I felt like I was getting somewhere. But where does that photograph convey "winter"?

Yellow Birch in winter context

This is a slightly-different-looking Yellow Birch—and I was learning the names of these trees from my guide as we worked—and that may partly be because it's at a later stage of life. And it does show snow in behind it, if only technically.

So, what else could we do?

Well, Nature is bountiful, and provides—in this case: curiosities.

A hole in a tree

Now, how do you get "inosculation" (vocabulary courtesy of Megan) in a tree? I learned that perhaps the most common way is for a "childhood" injury, possibly two trunks growing too close together, abrading each other, and healing with a scar which turns into a bridge. Wow. Not common.

To compare: the hole-tree as a (blah?) photograph

There is however another thing which you may have noticed about that photograph: it has been transformed digitally to resemble an oil-painting. So, two things about that:

  • you may or may not consider that to be "photography", and the only question in my mind is always "is that what I want in the frame?" How it got there is far secondary to me; see my blog-entry #1 from a few years back, "A Proper Photograph", which says "A proper photograph satisfies the photographer";

  • this resulted as I cast about for ways to combat the drab, flat light which circumstances had bestowed upon us that day, and many of the following images have some degree of a similar treatment; obviously I like it or I wouldn't have done it. YMMV.

Eastern White PIne Triplets

Apparently they grow as twins quite often, but triplets occur much less commonly.

And then, we found a tree growing from a tree:

A tree growing from a tree

Apparently again this likely relates to some early injury, which in this case might have been close to fatal, but then a shoot emerged, the tree overall squeaked through and became healthy again, and over many decades, produced this.

Finally, you might not have heard, but Nature is cruel, and this is what happens when one deceased tree falls right into one beside it:

Tree fallen into tree


It can simply only be good when some endearing wildlife shows up, and then, in as much apparent curiosity about me as I was about it, virtually posed for me:

Red Squirrel

Old-growth forest in Gillies Grove

One of my teaching refrains is this: don't just point your camera into an appealing woods and expect to get a good photograph. It rarely works out. I could hypothesize about why, and it has something to do with actively seeing, but my plea is to think much more critically about whether to show such a photo.

So, I said that to Megan, and then ignored my own maxim and pointed my camera several times towards appealing areas of the woods (carefully, thoughtfully) and released the shutter. Not doing so is only a guideline, not a rule. The Autumn and Winter Nature Conservancy photographs near the beginning of this blog are other examples. And this:

More of Gillies Grove

It's hard to show how beautiful it was in person. Megan exulted, as we ambled through the Grove, that at every turn, the forest looked different. And indeed it did. But I might not have appreciated it had she not drawn it to my attention.

Megan of the Nature Conservancy of Canada

The folks back at NCC HQ had given me a parallel assignment: photograph their staff at work. Okay. I can do that. See my portraiture-entreaty above.

We also made several photos of her engaging with passers-by—and being inside the city, I shouldn't have been but was surprised by the number of walkers, some just out for a stroll, others clearly going somewhere—and everyone we spoke with was very generous and gave permission for use of their images by the NCC for marketing purposes.

But I think that I will leave that with the Nature Conservancy of Canada, for the moment.

The highlight of my photography session that day, towards the end of our photo-stroll, came as we passed by an enormous, very old Eastern White Pine, and without any planning or scripting, Megan said, "I have to hug that tree."

Megan, the self-described tree-hugger

Although never known for my lightning reflexes, I managed to capture this moment of spontaneous bliss. After a minute, she released the tree and let it go about its business, and said, still clearly basking in the joy of the experience, "Who could resist hugging a tree like that one?"

I'm just going to hazard a wild guess that this is more than a job, for her.

It helped make it more than just a job for me.

While You're Here ...

May I forgo my usual commercial closing pitch? It's easy to find elsewhere. I want to leave you thinking about preserving wilderness, and about the unusual example of the urban old-growth forest called Gillies Grove.

Thank you so much for reading.

Charles T. Low


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