The Northern Forest of northeastern North America extends from eastern Maine and the Maritimes to the edge of prairies in Minnesota and Manitoba. It contains, besides forests, beaches, barrens, cliffs, marshes, swamps, bogs, farms, grasslands, lakes and ponds, and, on the highest eastern mountains, small amounts of krummholz and tundra. It is large, diverse, and surprisingly continuous. By any standard it is a great forest. In a world in which much forest has been lost or damaged, and where natural carbon storage is critical to the future of the planet, it is also a very important one.
The continuing importance of the forest depends on its integrity and health. Given the threats of the coming century—population, pollution, climate disruption, resource extraction, disease—neither can be taken for granted. Its survival will depend both on its resilience and our stewardship. It has, after three hundred million years of evolution, remarkable endurance and flexibility. We have, if we choose to use them, equally remarkable abilities to observe, appreciate, and protect.
The Northern Forest Atlas was created to document the current biology of the forests and to provide tools for the next generation of naturalists and conservationists who will study and protect them. The Atlas was conceived by Ed McNeil and Jerry Jenkins in 2011, and began full-time operations in 2013. It has three main goals: to create a library of photos and air videos showing the landscapes, plants, and animals of the northern forest; to create photographic and diagrammatic atlases, both paper and digital, for plants and landscapes; and to design and produce a series of modern field guides to plants and ecology.
This website, containing approximately 5,000 photos and videos and making available a dozen atlases and charts, is a step toward those goals. The imagery currently includes woody plants, mosses, sedges, and landscapes. Grasses, herbs, forest ecology and mammals will be added in the next few years.
The choice of material reflects our overall plan. Our first charts and digital atlases are for mosses and landscapes. Our first book will be a field guide to woody plants, and the second a graphic guide to the history and ecology of the forest.
The imagery on the website also documents our progress towards our central technical goal: to provide sharp images at scales ranging from landscapes to near microscopic. To do this we use a range of techniques—focus stacking in both the studio and the field, high-dynamic-range composites, 4k air video—that are relatively new and have radically changed the capabilities of nature photography.
For aerial photography, we use a custom-built, high-wing floatplane, the AirCam, fitted with video cameras on the nose and above the wing. The pilot sits in the front seat and controls the cameras; a second photographer sits in the second seat and shoots hand-held stills.
For close-up and macro photography we use a portable studio with led lighting and a computerized focussing rack. In the field we use shades, diffusers, reflectors and portable lights. We typically shoot stacks of twenty to eighty images in the studio and ten to fifteen in the field. When processed, these give us great clarity and depth. This enables us to show details that have not been imaged before.
At medium scales where we can’t control lighting, we usually shoot sets of three to five images at different exposures and merge them digitally to produce high-dynamic-range composites. This allows us to shoot high-contrast scenes, like the hemlock forest below, and preserve critical detail in the shadows.
Once we have imagery at different scales, we have to interpret it and interconnect it. We do this with structural and ecological diagrams, particularly in our digital atlases and books.
Here, from the Digital Atlas of Northern Forest Bryophytes, is a studio photo of the moss Bryhnia novae-angliae, plus diagrams showing its diagnostic features and habitat.
At large scales we use ecological diagrams to show how typography, soil, and vegetation types create the patterns we see from the air. This diagram of a large open peatland is from the Digital Atlas of Northern Forest Landscapes.
At intermediate scales, we diagram the species within individual communities, to show their structural roles and how they are arranged. This diagram of a river-shore meadow is also from the Digital Atlas of Northern Forest Landscapes.
For more on photographic technique, see our articles on Air photography, Stacking in the Studio, and Stacking in the Field in the articles section of this site. For an explanation of northern forest landscapes, download our Quick Guide to Northern Forest Landscapes.