Goals & Techniques

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.

Adirondack High Peaks, from air

Adirondack High Peaks, from air

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.

Headland Forests, Eastern Maine

Headland Forests, Eastern Maine

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.

Burr-oak Thickets on Sand Hills, Western Minnesota

Burr-oak Thickets on Sand Hills, Western Minnesota

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.

Woody Plants: Black Ash, Allagash River, Me

Woody Plants: Black Ash, Allagash River, Me

Mosses: Aulacomnium palustre in a Conifer Swamp

Mosses: Aulacomnium palustre in a Conifer Swamp

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.

AirCam at Utowana Lake, Adirondacks

AirCam at Utowana Lake, Adirondacks

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.

Hitchen Pond Bog, Adirondacks, from the AirCam

Hitchins Pond Bog, Adirondacks, from the AirCam

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.

Musclewood, Carpinus caroliniana

Musclewood, Carpinus caroliniana

Witch Hazel, Hamamelis virginiana

Witch Hazel, Hamamelis virginiana

Cordgrass, Spartina alterniflora

Cordgrass, Spartina alterniflora

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.

Old-growth Hemlock, Kejimkujik National Park, Nova Scotia

Old-growth Hemlock, Kejimkujik National Park, Nova Scotia

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.

broad leaves with twisted tips, alar cells enlarged, in decurrencies

broad leaves with twisted tips, alarcells enlarged, in decurrencies

Hummocks in minerotrophic wetlands

Hummocks in minerotrophic wetlands

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.

Spring Pond Bog, Adirondacks, a Large Grounded Peatland

Spring Pond Bog, Adirondacks, a Large Grounded Peatland

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.

Ice-meadow Vegetation, Hudson River, Warrensburg, New York

Ice-meadow Vegetation, Hudson River, Warrensburg, New York

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.

2 Comments
Ross McLeod
December 1, 2018 at 12:35 pm

I just came across your project and the book to be published next year. It is, in a word; brilliant.

Given that much, if not most, of the forest is in Canada, are you cooperating within any group or individuals here to help further your aims and development of videos, books, etc.?

Regards,
Ross

Eduardo
December 1, 2018 at 9:53 pm

Hi Ross,

Much of the Northern Forest is in the US, stretching from coastal Maine and Nova Scotia to the prairie edge in Minnesota and encapsulating the Great lakes with it’s southern boundary defined by the northern limit of oak-hickory forests. We have worked with WCS Canada’s Toronto office and have a major donor in Canada. We also are using several Nature Conservancy Canada folks for species location knowledge. The Woody Plants Photographic Guide and the upcoming Woody Plants Field Guide should probably be in the hands of everyone at the Canadian Forest Service. If you have ideas for distribution we should pass on to Cornell or others, please let us know. All of the publications from Cornell University Press will be available on Amazon as well.

Cornell University Press is distributing the Woody Plants Photographic Guide to some retail locations in Canada I’m told. FYI, the Sedge Photographic Guide will be out in April of 2019. We are about 6 years into an 11 year project and more publications will be coming out annually. Much of the hard work is done, and writing, photography, graphics and field work for sedges, grasses, mosses and herbs will occupy us for the remaining four to five years. We plan a book on forest ecology near the end.

Ed McNeil

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