Tips for better trail photos
Trails, paths, and walkways are all irresistible subjects for the outdoor photographer. Who hasn’t stopped and shot, trying to convey in an image what it was like to be walking in that spot? I know I succumb maybe more than I should, but I have gotten better at judging if a section of trail is a good candidate, putting the shot together and working the scene. I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules, but here are some good ideas to get started with.
If you’ve got a raised boardwalk type situation, it’s a given that the strong leading line it presents will work well. The thing is to try to fill the frame with it and help your audience imagine how it continues out of frame. The long arc of this section of trail was perfect. It had a start and a stop and gave me a strong diagonal. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a tripod, but not to worry, I just leaned myself and the camera against a tree and used that to steady me. The green foliage contrasting with the fallen leaves and the dappled sunlight all add atmosphere and interest.
Other times it’s the straight down the line view that I want to showcase and this railtrail is perfect. It was the light at the far end that caught my attention and I knew if I lined up the foreground well, it wouldn’t disrupt your eye’s natural travel down to that bright endpoint. Too many times the trees on the side of the trails are distracting and don’t help to guide the viewer’s eye, but in this case I got lucky. The anchor tree on the left is big, but not huge and the rest of the trees are similar in size and step down into the shot in a progression that works to aim your gaze, not bump it all over the shot.
Another thing is to vary your perspective and either get up high or down low. It’s a great way to show off the other features of the area you’re walking in; for this shot it was the boulders that often litter New England forests. Instead of a tripod, I set the camera on one of these boulders and worked the composition from there. I think you get a strong sense of place from the angle, the first boulder and the others down the trail as your eyes move through the shot. Also, the trail is not directly in the middle of the picture. Often that just makes the whole thing too static.
So, back to working with wooden walkways, one thing I have learned is that just because one is there and makes for a strong line, if that’s the only thing of interest, you’re going to have a dull photo. Don’t forget the primary mission for any photographer is to hunt and capture good light. Even direct sunlight can be good if it’s filtered by leaves, especially autumn leaves. Being a dappled sunlight fool, I couldn’t resist the combination with the strong line of the boardwalk. Bonus scattered leaves!
As nice as that one is to me, this next one is stronger by far and was taken not long after. The earth had rotated just a bit and the sun was lower and damn if it didn’t light up those scattered leaves like they were stained glass. A low angle was perfect to bring the viewer right to the place and time and give back some of the magic of being on that trail. I deliberately put some shade in the foreground to keep your eyes on the path and moving into the shot, not sliding off at the front. I also think it needs the contrast for that warm sun’s glow. Can’t you just hear the crunch underfoot?
When I first started assembling this collection of images, I didn’t know how I’d tie them together specifically. Yeah, sure they’re all trails, but so what? After a few days the idea of a tutorial of sorts came to mind. After miles and miles of trails and dozens and dozens of bad photos, I finally started to work my scenes better and who knows, maybe all that trial and error will be helpful. To wrap up -
1. Use boardwalks/walkways effectively – maximize the leading line throughout the image
2. Use the trees along side to guide your viewers eye as well as a bright spot at the very end
3. Vary your point of view; use natural elements to showcase not just the trail, but the territory
4. Don’t forget the light is the most important element no matter how strong the path/walkway line
5. Limit perspective and use just slices of the landscape to convey why it was an amazing trail