Sam Campbell Memorial Trail

As it happens, I found myself on another very popular trail in the Wisconsin Northwoods. The Sam Campbell Memorial Trail is just north of Rhinelander in Three Lakes and is within the borders of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. The day I was there the tiny parking area overflowed to the roadside and I met many other folks out walking on this gem of a fall day.

Face it squarely


All along the trail are informational signs about the things you can see from that spot and snippets of Sam Campbell’s writing (you can see his author page here). While I didn’t take photos of any of them, I did stop and read them and got to know how Sam expressed his love for nature and this area in particular. He was a naturalist who spent summers in his youth on the lakes nearby and in the National Forest and later year round. The main trail is a loop of about 2 miles, but there are a couple of spurs that are worth exploring.

Early on you come by this little bog and I liked the light a lot so went off trail to the edge for this photo. The opening through the trees was part of what drew me, as was the little maple. I wish I could have put the camera farther to the left, but there were a few saplings in the way and I didn’t want to get into the bog too much. While it was dry, the peat mat is delicate and my big old feet would have damaged more of it and I didn’t want to do that. As it was I balanced on a log with the tripod next to me and used the screen flipped out to compose and tried to be really careful.

The unconventional conventionalist


In the Fallison Lake post, I mentioned that I was trying to shake that sinking feeling that I’m a failure of a photographer if I don’t capture what are considered “iconic” fall photographs. Along with famous locations, fall photography often makes me feel as though I’m missing out or doing it wrong. I don’t know why. Autumn comes every year and unless I get hit by the beer truck, it isn’t going to be my last one. And so what if I don’t get the perfect lake with the perfect reflection of the perfect trees at their richest, brightest colors. Haven’t countless other photographers done that? Hell, haven’t I?

Sure, those scenes have an enduring beauty that is a joy to witness and fun to photograph, but it isn’t the end-all-be-all of what the season does, what the season looks like and has to offer. So how about I start to expand the story of fall with some shots that aren’t typical? How about looking for scenes that show what else is happening when everyone is busy looking at trees?



When I saw on the map that I’d be walking through a small cedar swamp with a boardwalk, I went there first, catching the sun when it was lower in the sky. I’d hoped that some sidelight would help illuminate the scene in a way that would help give it depth and dimension. And I knew there would be ferns. When I saw them from the top of the trail up there, I knew I’d be down trying for a good composition. That they are different shades of yellow was just a nice bonus.

When I walked out farther on the boards I came across these trees leaning over and across each other and thought it would make an interesting framing element. Working quickly before the fern was again in shade, I caught a couple of slightly different views. I was going for a sort of tunnel effect and cropped a lot of the leaning trees away since they were so overwhelming. I want you to look down the path not at the trees so that helped. I also used some radial and linear local adjustments to really emphasize the direction of the light. In the end I hope this looks and feels different from a lot of the other autumn images by me or other photographers.

Have a ramble


The journey within

A fallen leaf, preferably a red one, is a feature of many a fall photo and a lot are found and placed elsewhere for maximum effect. I’ve even done it myself a time or two, but not with this one. Sure it’s a bit messy with the mushrooms and pine needles, but the light was pretty sweet and I thought it different enough to help expand the story of fall. That’s algae on the mushrooms and the contrast of green and red is a classic so I think it works for that aspect even if it is just a leaf on a log. And why am I characterizing it as “just”, anyway? I like it. It makes me happy. It was interesting enough to pull me off the trail and what the heck am I doing trying to justify what I shoot? No one else has to like it for it to have meaning for me.

Dissatisfaction with our own work is part of what drives us to be better, to learn more and to keep stretching our creativity and technical skills, but it also eats away at our confidence and satisfaction with the hobby itself. Human nature, I suppose, but I really need to let go of all that baggage and enjoy what I do both while I’m outside taking pictures and when I’m home processing them. It’s a cool leaf. Look at the purples and oranges and yellows mixed in there. And the mushrooms – so much texture and gnarly-ness. When white pines shed their needles you can hear them falling all around you. Landing on ferns, and logs and branches. Those whispers of sound are part of the magic of the season.

Pop in the party

Tiny seedlings are my nemesis. But I keep trying. And maybe, just maybe, I’ve got one that works. Part of the problem is that they’re usually difficult to isolate. So when I saw this one that sprouted on a birch log and had that flip of bark behind it, I gave it another go. It’s a stack of about 10 images and not 100% perfect, but it’s darn close.

A future presence


Seedlings like these are also fairly deep front to back, despite being so small, and that also makes it tough to photograph them well. Focus bracketing and stacking attempts in the past have mostly been failures because some little bit of needle or tiny trunk was missed. With this one I think I got it all. A couple of the needles are a tiny bit soft, but not so much that it made me scrap the whole thing. Lately I’m becoming more rigid in my macro work and I think I need to stop that in its tracks before it sets. When I had a manual macro lens I chose a specific focus point and had single shot final images instead of multiple shot final images which are possible with my system lens. With the exception of fore and background elements being soft, I’ve started to demand that the whole of a subject be sharply in focus. Why? Were my previous macro pictures terrible because I couldn’t get everything crisp? No, they weren’t. So maybe I need to see what I can produce with fewer images in a stack or not stacking at all if my pre-determined outcome can’t be met. I can think of a mushroom image right now that I really like, but cannot get the stack to work. Hm. Funny how new technologies and techniques change our attitudes toward photography. What was once acceptable because there was nothing else or no other way becomes passé and even wrong once those obstacles have been overcome.

Speaking of obstacles, one in my own thinking is to ignore the undergrowth in fall except for mushrooms. All other times of the year I spend my walks in the woods with my eyes trained on the ground, but in fall I practically trip over my own feet from looking up. So when I was in different cedar swamp on another section of trail, the color down there jumped out at me. This is a shot of starflower and bunchberry long after the flowers (and berries) they make are gone. This year for some reason, starflower plants got a lot of my attention and they never have before. Maybe because I am deliberately looking for new ways to show the season and this isn’t the only photo of them I liked so you’ll see one again soon. But it was a challenge to shoot. First the tripod was in a silly position and it’s a focus stack. The light changed a little, but the wind was calm enough that Zerene could align the shots and I retouched things as well. Granted, it’s messy down there on the forest floor, but there is color like crazy.

Interlude below


Looking straight down at a bunchberry plant in the moss.

Bunchberry red


So how did I do? Did I advance fall in other ways? Tell a more complete story? Maybe. It’s a start anyway and I have another post or maybe two that will expand on it and hopefully expand my way of seeing the season and interpreting it with my camera.

But in fall you can’t spend all your time looking down, can you?

Big-toothed aspen



3 thoughts on “Sam Campbell Memorial Trail

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  1. I think you have done a wonderful job of redefining fall photography. I really like the ferns with tree truck framing the boardwalk! Wonderful composition and captures the mystery of fall on a hiking trail.

    1. Thanks very much. It was a cool scene, but I wasn’t sure it would translate. When our brains process 3-dimensional spaces those sometimes just don’t come across in a 2-dimensional one. And if you’re a boardwalk lover like me, you’ll be in heaven with a future post! It’s written, just has to come its turn.

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