With its gnarled trees, moss-covered boulders, and misty ambience, Wistman's Wood—a remnant of an ancient forest near Devon, England—has captured the imaginations of visitors for thousands of years, inspiring legends about druids and supernatural hellhounds. When Neil Burnell visited on a family holiday as a child, he was reminded of Dagobah , the swamp planet where Yoda lives in Star Wars: Episode V—The Empire Strikes Back .
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Now a graphic designer with a sideline in photography, Burnell recently returned to Wistman's Wood to attempt to capture the forest's cinematic quality. Over the course of 2018 he made some 20 pilgrimages to the forest to photograph it under different light and weather conditions. "The forecast always calls for fog, but unless the wind is blowing a certain way the fog never actually gets into the woodlands," Burnell says. "So there were a lot of wasted trips going back and forth."
Burnell discovered that the most atmospheric light conditions occurred just before sunrise, during the so-called "blue hour." Arriving early in the morning in total darkness, he would use a flashlight to scramble across the wet boulders to the position he had staked out for his shot. "It's quite treacherous—when you get a foggy day, the boulders can be very slippery. It's a challenge getting through even without the camera gear. I had to almost crawl through parts of the wood." Apart from the occasional dog-walker, he mostly had the woods to himself.
Because of the dense vegetation, he sometimes had trouble finding the exact locations he had shot on a previous visit. "It's one of those places where you can go in and see something completely different every time, even though the forest is rather small. A few feet one way or another and everything looks different." Burnell took the photographs with a Nikon D810 and D850, using an f/2.8 lens to keep the trees in the foreground in focus while allowing the background to recede mysteriously into the fog.
When Burnell posted the final photographs on social media, the reaction exceeded his wildest expectations. Many viewers thought Burnell had created the images digitally; others remarked that it looked like they were taken underwater. Tolkien aficionados likened Wistman's Wood to Fangorn Forest in The Lord of the Rings , while Star Wars fans echoed Burnell's comparison to Dagobah. In fact, the images were so successful at capturing the forest's cinematic quality that many viewers seem unable to distinguish it from an actual movie, Burnell says. "People are genuinely amazed that it’s a real place."
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