Puzzlewood Photography Guide

“An ancient and ethereal moss covered forest.”

Photo by Nathan Riley

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Gnarled moss-covered trees conspire to suffocate rocks, bridges and pathways in a deep and dark Puzzlewood in the Forest of Dean. A fantastical photo location, Puzzleood was the natural setting for the film Merlin, Dr. Who, and is rumoured to have been an inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Puzzlewood’s ancient paths cover more than 14 acres, crisscrossing the forest floor and adding to the labyrinth-like experience of the forest.

Puzzlewood Wooden Bridge - Photo by Carl Newton
Puzzlewood Wooden Bridge - Photo by Carl Newton

History of the Puzzlewood

Archaeological research indicates that Puzzlewood was once the site of iron ore mining during the Roman period. Over millions of years, natural underground cave systems developed and eventually erosion and uplift exposed these caves to the surface. The result was irregular landscape features known as scowles. Scowles can consist of several meter deep labyrinthine hollows and shallow pits and may be unique to Puzzlewood. Humans were quick to discover that the exposed rock contained veins of iron ore that were mined and smelted locally.

Puzzlewood - Photo by Phill Lister
Puzzlewood - Photo by Phill Lister

Puzzlewood remained mostly uninhabited after the exposed iron-ore resources were exhausted, until the early 19th century. At that time enterprising locals laid down over a mile of pathways through the forest, providing access to the dense woods and very picturesque walking trails. Since that time, it has become a popular place to visit and photograph.

Puzzlewood Detail - Photo by Neil Barnwell CC by-sa
Puzzlewood Detail - Photo by Neil Barnwell CC by-sa

Puzzlewood has an air of mystery about it. It is a maze of hidden caves and ancient trees in a tapestry of mossy growth. Puzzlewood’s treasures are not only limited to natural beauty, however. In 1848 earthenware jars were discovered hidden here. They contained over 3,000 Roman-era coins stashed away and forgotten.

Puzzlewood - Photo by Phil John
Puzzlewood - Photo by Phil John

Know Before You Go

Puzzlewood is in the Forest of Dean, less than a mile south of Coleford. Several Brown Road Signs will guide your way from Coleford, so it is not difficult to find. If you’re in the mood for a getaway, there are also cottages. A night or two in these lovely accommodations will make for a lovely holiday. Spend your days exploring and your evening relaxing. Find more information on the Puzzlewood website. Unfortunately, the are limited hours, which means that you can only access the woods between 10:00 am and 4:30 pm. Admission is £7.00 for adults. 

Photographing the Puzzlewood

Photographing any forest can be a challenge. The challenge primarily is because of a thing called dynamic range. When you take a photo in the woods, the sky, your light source, is often bleeding through the leaves and trees, your shadows. The brightest and darkest parts of your scene are right up against each other in the scene. Usually, this combination results in blown-out highlights and dark shadows. The bright light of day is often way brighter than the shadow of the forest floor. It is a rare occasion when you can capture both the brilliant blue sky and the vibrant green of the forest floor. One might think then that HDR is the way to go, but the artifacts of HDR are especially noticeable in forest settings because of the rich detail. So what is a photographer to do? Well here are a few essential tips:

  • Use a Tripod and Shoot Long Exposures – The best way to suck up as much detail from the shadows is to expose longer. To be able to shoot long exposures during the day, you might need a filter which brings us to point #2.
  • Use a Polarizer of Neutral Density Filter – To achieve long exposures on sunny days, you will need these filters.
  • Shoot at the Camera’s Native ISO – Take the camera off of automatic ISO and set it at the native setting. Usually, this is the lowest and will result in an image that has as little noise as possible.
  • Shoot Slightly Underexposed – Highlights are the hardest to recover if you overexpose them. Even slightly underexposed shadows will have a few bits of information in them that can be sucked out in post-processing. But once a highlight is blown out, it’s gone for good. To make matters worse if a highlight is overexposed, it can bleed over into surrounding pixels because of a thing called photon well overflow. All that to say, slightly underexpose your shot (by about a half stop is ideal). 

Compositionally, the trick is finding the light. Good light usually comes in two flavours. Light interplays with the trees and mist to create an ethereal fairy playground. Or in the stark light of day, it can add rhythm to your image images when it rakes through the trees and paints patterns on the forest floor.

The trick as well in a sea of green is to find contrast and colour. In the Puzzlewood, the rich brown earth of the pathways and fencing can create decent separation in your shots. Also use these paths to create leading lines in your frame, drawing the viewer into the woods with you.

Finally, whenever shooting in the forest, we recommend a polarizer. This filter will eliminate reflections from the shiny surfaces of trees, and also has the added benefit of adding some pop to your colour saturation.

Puzzlewood - Photo by Phill Lister
Puzzlewood - Photo by Phill Lister

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