Pruning Trees and Photo Gear

California lilac

I admit it. I am a bit sensitive to how people treat the life around us that isn’t human. The life on this planet is far greater than any measure of human beings. And in spite of our belief that we can do it all, we can’t actually do it all. We can’t constantly produce oxygen for us to breathe, plants do that. We can’t dispose of waste so that it disappears and is recycled back into our planet, insects and bacteria do that.

And more, of course, but this is not about what nature can do that we can’t. It is about nature photography, too, but I have to set the stage.

Recently, I came across a tree pruning company in our neighborhood pruning trees around a church and its parking lot. At first, I thought they were just getting rid of some dead wood. One of the pines did have dead branches.

Oh, no, not just that.

They cut down a couple of beautiful, old jacaranda trees. These are flowering trees with a stunning blue-purple abundance of blossoms. Unfortunately, the trees drop a lot of flowers. They are “messy”, so some people don’t like them. I am not sure what was going on here because the trees were not dropping flowers on cars or any lawn people used, but I am guessing that someone complained, so they decided to get rid of them.

Then I suspect the tree pruning company told the church that “since they were there,” they could prune the other trees. None of the other trees actually needed pruning. (I don’t say this as a sensitive nature “tree-hugger.” In college, I studied plant and soil science, and while in school, I worked at an arboretum, including with a master pruner.)

But prune they did. They truly butchered the trees. The broad-leaved trees will resprout and should fill in the terrible gaps left. But pines do not respond well to severe pruning. They do not readily resprout. They will never look like they did (these were trees probably 50 years old with wonderful, full, healthy crowns), and they may be weakened enough that some die.

Badly pruned trees. Broadleaf on the left, pine on the right.

Healthy pine trees in area. What they should look like.

That said, the pruners did not technically do anything wrong. They had the right tree pruning and safety gear. They had the right technique in how to cut branches without damaging the trunk around the cut. The had the right technique to cut back to a joint of branches. They just had no understanding of the trees they were cutting, other than objects to cut, not seeing the trees as living organisms that have specific growth needs.

So what does that have to do with photography? If you pay attention to the marketing from the camera and other photographic companies, you will learn that you don’t have “enough.” That better photography will be yours if you just buy some of their newest gear. And I am sure you know some people who pay too much attention to that marketing, as well as paying too much from their wallets and gaining no better photography.

Also, I am sure you know of the amateur photo “expert” who has been to all the classes, read all the books, and can tell you a hundred techniques that will help you be a better photographer. Except these folks often don’t actually have great photos.

You see, the pruners and photographers can be alike. A photographer can have all the right gear. He or she can have all the right training to learn the best techniques. But…

If such photographers don’t have the ability to photograph from the heart, to actually see the subject as something more than an object to be “captured” and “manipulated” by the camera (and I use that word manipulated very deliberately yet it has nothing to do with Photoshop, and all to do with how one uses their gear), their photos are going to be like those over-pruned trees, empty, bare shells of what they could be.

Good photography comes from something much deeper than the gear one owns and the techniques one learns. Gear and technique are important, of course, but as tools to help your achieve your photographic vision. If they are the focus of a photographer’s work, then he or she is missing really seeing the world and its possible subjects.

You will often hear that good photography that engages others has some emotional content. That emotion largely comes from caring deeply about what you are photographing, about seeing your subject as more than an object to funnel into your lens. That may mean learning something about your subject more than it exists as a subject for photography. That may mean getting excited about color or light and translating that excitement into your photos. That may mean falling in love with the subject in front of you.

That doesn’t mean that one is in “love with nature.” That’s kind of a non-statement. A lot of people say that, but what does it really mean? Dig down and find what that love means, use that information to affect how you look for subjects, to influence how you photograph each subject in front of your camera, to change how you see every “individual” (even landscapes) you photograph.

That’s photography with heart. If only those pruners had had some heart about nature and how different trees really grow.

About Rob Sheppard

I'm Rob Sheppard and my mission is to connect people and nature through photography with celebration and joy. Nature photography, for me, is about finding ways to create meaning and joy in your photography and connecting people with the natural world. I consider myself a naturalist, nature photographer and videographer. I have been busy over the years creating many books related to photography, including Landscape Photography: From Snapshot to Great Shot, The Magic of Digital Landscape Photography, The Magic of Digital Nature Photography, and the National Geographic Field Guide to Digital Photography. A Nature Photography Manifesto and Reports from the Wild are available from Apple’s iBookstore. I get around as a speaker and workshop leader, and I am a Fellow with the North American Nature Photography Association. I was the long-time editor of the prestigious Outdoor Photographer magazine and presently am a contributing editor. My education was both as a photographer and a naturalist specializing in ecology and botany.
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7 Responses to Pruning Trees and Photo Gear

  1. Hugh Nourse says:

    Wow! Great story line for nature photography.

  2. Kim Davis says:

    OH, that hurt seeing those misshapen trees! I have partially dead ones from our drought last summer and will find a knowledgeable person to take care of the pruning! Love your comparison and look forward to each posting!

  3. Todd Henson says:

    It’s all about balance. Pruning can help keep a tree healthy if done properly, but done improperly can kill it. As photographers, we need gear to make photographs, and certain types of photographs are easier with certain types of gear. But the gear alone isn’t what makes the photograph. Reading books and attending classes to increase our education can certainly help us grow, but all the training in the world isn’t enough if you don’t have the drive to put the education into practice and heart and passion to imbue the photographs with emotion. The technical side is often much easier than the more artistic, emotional side. But it’s so worth the effort to develop the artistic side, to find what we’re passionate about and really explore it, and maybe learn to develop our vision, as David duChemin has talked about in the past.

    Now I need to get out there and practice that, myself! Another great post. Thanks, Rob.

  4. Allan Morrison says:

    Great article and insight. Thank You

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