National Geographic

Biggest, Tallest Tree Photo Ever

giant redwood tree

At least 1,500 years old, this 300-foot giant in California's Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park has the most complex crown ever mapped. Michael Nichols/National Geographic) hide caption

itoggle caption Michael Nichols/National Geographic)

National Geographic photographer Michael Nichols is one of the world's foremost wildlife photographers. But he recently said that he'd happily spend the rest of his life photographing trees. Of course, the folks over at National Geographic would almost certainly never hear of it. Nichols' newfound love developed after a serious, yearlong relationship with redwoods.

National Geographic sent Nichols to spend an entire year in California's redwood forest. His mission was to capture the majesty of some of the tallest trees on Earth, some of which date back before Christ. And if you've ever photographed in a forest, you'll understand the challenge this presented. There's no capturing the awe one feels before these monoliths that measure, in some cases, upward of 300 feet.

In a recent lecture at National Geographic in Washington, D.C., Nichols described his frustrations. Eventually, though, he devised a way to do redwoods justice. It involved three cameras, a team of scientists, a robotic dolly, a gyroscope, an 83-photo composite and a lot of patience. (And, OK, maybe it's not the Biggest, Tallest Tree Photo Ever — but it's the biggest one I've ever seen.) Here's how they did it:

The photograph appears as a huge foldout in the the October issue of National Geographic magazine, which hits newsstands today and is definitely worth reading. The magazine, with the help of the Wildlife Conservation Society and Save The Redwoods League, also sent explorer-in-residence Mike Fay on a transect from the southernmost redwood in Big Sur to the northernmost tree near Oregon's Chetco River. It took him and his hiking partner, Lindsey Holm, more than a year of non-stop hiking to complete the trek of more than 2,000 miles. It also took three pairs of shoes.

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    Rockefeller Forest is the world's largest contiguous old-growth redwood forest. An old-growth redwood dwarfs younger redwoods in California's Bear Creek Watershed.
    Michael Nichols/National Geographic
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    Botanist Marie Antoine (right) passes a core sample of this tree's wood — 750 years of redwood biography — to canopy ecologist Giacomo Renzullo. Research has shown that the older such trees get, the more wood they produce, a strong argument for preventing deforestation of young trees.
    Michael Nichols
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    Mike Fay is an explorer-in-residence for National Geographic. He recently spent more than a year hiking the entire length of the redwood forest, from the southernmost redwood in Big Sur to the northernmost tree near Oregon's Chetco River. Focusing his research on forest management, he notes the size of a truckload of logs.
    Michael Christopher Brown/National Geographic
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    National Geographic photographer Michael "Nick" Nichols also spent a year in the redwood forest. A tagged northern spotted owl swoops toward a researcher's lure in a young redwood forest.
    Michael Nichols
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    Fay emerges from a hike down Little Lost Man Creek in Redwood National Park. He and his hiking partner, Lindsey Holm, finished the first comprehensive transect of the redwood range, covering 1,800 miles of Pacific coastal forest, in 2008.
    Michael Christopher Brown
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    Humboldt State University scientist Steve Sillett (center) is a pioneer of redwood research. He and his team measure a fire cave in a massive redwood.
    Michael Nichols
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    Clear-cuts eat into stands of 55-year-old spruce, fir and redwood trees in Humboldt County, Calif.
    Michael Nichols
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    Activist Amy Arcuri lays her hands on a giant she says is nearly 2,000 years old. After a long struggle, many trees such as this one have finally been declared off-limits to loggers.
    Michael Nichols

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Redwoods have been heavily forested over the past few decades and are only just now beginning to replenish in numbers. With the enormous collection of data compiled by Fay and other conservationists, we now know more than ever about this thin stretch of ancient forest along the California coast. To learn more, check out the extensive coverage on ngm.com.

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