Exploring a whole new landscape has its ups and downs. On the one hand it’s exciting and the novelty of the new makes every nature preserve a mystery waiting to be solved. Tingly. I love that part of it. The downside for me is resetting my expectations. Especially this time of year (the natives call it falltime which is really weird, but whatever). Foliage makes for great landscapes, but I didn’t really find what I was looking for which was New England. Doh! You’re not in New England anymore!
So I had to adjust my sense of wonder and what makes a quintessential fall photograph. Not knowing what was what or what was where made things a little harder. Oh sure properties have descriptions and whatnot, but rarely are they accurate or line up with what I pictured in my mind. The trails just didn’t go where I thought they would – say to a free-flowing river, but instead would wind into a huge marshy area that was still the river, but not exactly easy to get to or photographically pleasing. I really needed to take off my blinders. And mostly I was successful, but really what I had to do was let myself off the hook. That is to allow myself to not take the most astounding photographs of my life and just get to know and appreciate my new location.
I have ideas now I’ve been here a few months. Locations I want to explore at other times of year. Natural features that are special to Wisconsin and how and under what circumstances I want to shoot them. After all, I’ve probably got decades ahead of me with this as a home base.
One of the things I noticed right away about the Wisconsin forest is how dramatically different the undergrowth is from New England. Check out the grass –
There’s tons of it all over. Sure, there are tufts here and there in New England forests, but not like this and once I spotted it I knew I’d have to find a scene that really showcased the lush growth. When I saw this one with its early smattering of leaves I knew it was the one.
Ferns are still prevalent in the undergrowth though and you know how I love them. Strangely, I haven’t seen any Christmas fern although the presence of Maidenhair is kinda making up for it. This is Evergreen fern I believe and it was instrumental in making many of the early fall photographs I really like.
One of my favorite trees is the Tamarack pine or Larch. In New England it really only grows in kettle bogs and similarly wet, nutrient-poor habitats. It’s a delicate beauty whose needles are soft and grow in little bunches all along the branches. It’s also the only conifer (to my knowledge) that drops all its needles in fall. Right now basically all the deciduous trees have dropped their leaves and so the still orange Tamaracks really stand out and they seem to be everywhere. I see them alongside most roads and I have ideas for next year, but they’ve already made great subjects this season.
You may not be able to tell, but those last two images are of the same trees, just shot from different sides of Game Pond. The other side of Game Pond is actually a kettle bog, well actually the whole thing is, but only one end is marshy and what we think of as boggy. That section isn’t large, but is typical of what grows in a kettle bog –
You can see bog cotton, black spruce, bog rosemary, leatherleaf and there could be some rhodora or bog laurel in there, but really Wisconsin is pretty laurel-free on the whole which is kind of a bummer. Should be great flowers here in spring though.
A lot of the terrain is quite flat in the northern part of the state, but sometimes I get lucky with rivers and ponds that give me a little elevation. Here’s a hillside leading down to the water and it’s wondrous to imagine how large the pond was when it was formed by the Pleistocene glacier –
Of course I’ve been aiming at the ground as well and wow, are there ever mushrooms! I’ll have to do a whole series just on mushrooms, but here’s what I found on this particular outing to Veterans Memorial park –
I used the diffuser on all of those mushroom shots and wow, what a difference, especially on the red russala. And of course the legacy Olympus 90mm macro.
So that’s my trip to the Veterans Memorial Park in Langlade county and how I’m adapting my photographic vision to my new state. I got out a few more times before stick season set in, and even hit the Driftless Zone! More soon.
Any hiker with a camera knows trail shots are impossible to pass up sometimes. You’re out there, feeling great, in beautiful surroundings and you can’t help yourself. You want to try to convey some of the magic of where you are. The trees, the leaves under your feet, the particularity of why you love that trail; even the air itself. So how come so many trail shots just end up looking like every other trail shot? Here is my top 6 ways to make them more interesting.
1. Point of interest/anchor
While a trail is a natural leading line, most photos can benefit from a focal point to help start the process of leading the viewer through the image.
This one was taken on my way up to some falls off the Kangamangus Highway in the White Mountain National Forest. It was raining so all the colors were saturated and boy did that little group of evergreen fern grab my attention. I stopped and shot this scene immediately, knowing that the roots and ferns would make a great hook to catch the eye in a photo. With that in mind I targeted the camera’s focus on the ferns and selected f8 because it’s right in the lens’s sweet spot and with the rain and bit of fog, I wouldn’t get a totally sharp image no matter how I choked the lens down. The tripod is low, but not extremely so and I did that to get a nice view of the trail ahead, but also to allow for a close view of the ferns. Try scrolling a bit to crop out the roots and ferns. Pretty blah, huh?
You can use any eye-catching element in a trail to serve as your anchor. Rocks, leaves, small trees or bushes, mushrooms, flowers, odd branches – just about anything that you notice on your hike. Just be sure they don’t fix the eye to that one spot, but serve to start the viewers path through your shot. I’ve even put the camera directly on a boulder with leaves on top and it worked quite well.
2. Perspective (extreme high/low)
While I don’t suggest hiking on your hands and knees, getting down there can give you some interesting compositions. This shot in the Manchester Cedar swamp is from years ago, but I remember noticing how chewed up and rough the walkway looked so it was a natural to get the camera down into the leaves with a wide aperture.
A high perspective can be nice, too, but unless you’re 8-feet tall, it’s tough to get much above normal eye-height. That’s why I’ve been known to get up onto big rocks, tree branches or embankments to get just a few more inches. Sometimes it works really well to get that little bit more trail leading out of the photo.
3. Above and below
This takes finesse sometimes. Especially when it’s an open area or one that is fairly uniform and there aren’t many landmarks to choose from. This is a section of trail in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. It’s at close to 9000 feet above sea level and the dirt is such a gorgeous brown that you want to scoop it up and feel it between your fingers. Plus that sagebrush just staggers me every time I walk through a sea of it. The sun wasn’t doing me any favors and my shadow really got in the way. After a few disappointing images, I finally got to this one where the trail points to break in trees. The muted colors against that knock-out blue sky really show I’m not in New England anymore, plus there’s that space…wide open and so American West it ought to have a label.
Back in New England, above is often forest canopy. A good way to get both the trail and the lofty leaves overhead is when you come to a hill. Managing dappled sunlight is an art all of its own, but with practice you can get good results.
4. Scale and proportion
Sometimes the trail itself can lend a sense of scale to a scene that is otherwise lost. Even better if there’s a bridge or bit of walkway to use for comparison. Mature redwoods are so far outside the normal human scale that it’s hard to convey just how enormous they become. While walking in parts of the Jedediah Smith Redwood Preserve in California, I looked for ways to show how massive these trees really are and this little bridge was perfect for that.
Go ahead and give your browser a scroll so that you can’t see the bridge. Flat right? A tree and some ferns, so what. Now scroll that bridge back in. Wham! Giant tree.
People can also add a sense of proportion especially when you get the path you have to climb in the shot –
Not only can your fellow hikers give your photos a sense of scale, they can also convey emotions that you can’t by staying behind the lens. For me this isn’t something I get to do a lot since I’m a pretty solitary person in my outdoor pursuits. That’s why when my husband hikes with me, he comes in handy.
This image was shot on Big Sur in California on a gorgeous day in May when every wildflower in the state blooms. Big Sur is awesome in almost any season, but spring is kind of mind-blowing. It’s warm, breezy and full of so much color it’s like you landed in Oz. I defy anyone to ignore the joy that bubbles up inside and makes you laugh at nothing. Laugh just to be alive and in the presence of so much beauty and perfection.
Without my husband, standing back at the giddy prospect of hiking in all this wonder, it would just be a trail and some rapeseed plants, which is nice, but unremarkable. He didn’t even need to be facing me to convey the emotions we both felt and looking at it brings it all back.
So continuing with the idea of conveying emotion in trail images, how about trying to capture the way the location makes you feel using just the surroundings themselves? By stylistically concentrating the grit and reality whether it’s harsh or mellow you can emphasize the vibe of your trail experience. Now a lot of people are going to think of foggy days or really cold ones with lots of snow and ice. That’s the easy way out and I’ve done it too, but what if you’ve got just an average day in a pretty amazing place? Take some time to really identify what you’re seeing and how it changed your attitude from the time you got out of the car.
When I got to the Bradford Atlantic Cedar preserve, I anticipated seeing a typical cedar swamp with walkways, moss and various kinds of laurel and ferns. I love cedar swamps and have been in a few so I didn’t expect the closed-in feeling I got within minutes of being on the boardwalk. It felt hushed and secretive and soon I found myself walking with a softer tread; trying not to make noise. I noticed the trees were young and thickly laid out on a bed of sphagnum moss. It was overcast, damp and a little cold, but I was enchanted just the same.
On my way back to the car, this composition materialized and I was very careful both in the field and with processing to impart the right mood. The trees press close with their shredded skins, but the boardwalk is smooth and clear; holding the promise of a way out. It isn’t your typical New England fall shot, but it has presence.
So there you have it; a few ways to improve your trail photos. Here’s a quick recap –
- Find an anchor to lead the viewer through the shot; don’t make the trail do all the work
- Change your perspective; mix it up by getting up high and down low
- Showcase what’s above as well as below
- Got a daunting sight in view; show a sense of scale to really wow the viewer
- Include a hiking buddy or two; people can bring a sense of emotion
- Soak up the atmosphere and find stylistic ways to emphasize it in your final image
Did I miss any? What techniques do you use to make your trail photos more compelling and dynamic?
Ah that famous scene in Pulp Fiction where Vincent enumerates the little differences between the US and Amsterdam. I had a similar experience recently and no, it didn’t involve Burger King either.
As you’ve probably gathered by now, I practically live in the woods. It started when I was a kid. No amount of fairy tales would keep me out. (what was it with making the woods scary or having scary things happen in the woods all the time? Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, even the Three Pigs had a rough time of it there.) Anyway…I love the woods and so when I tagged along on one of my husband’s most recent business trips I knew that’s where I’d go on my day alone while he went to his meeting.
I decided to go to the Long Hunter State park just outside of Nashville. The trail I picked was called the Day Loop Trail and I thought it would be long enough to take up a few hours. Also I thought it would be interesting enough with parts overlooking the reservoir itself and the rest in the forest. After getting turned around a bit and taking a while to find the trailhead which isn’t in the main part of the park, I set off on my hike.
Timing couldn’t have been more perfect. First – the foliage was at its peak, second – the temperature and humidity were ideal, and third – I was basically alone. While hiking this 5-mile loop I only saw 3 other people. Perfect!
The first thing that struck me as different was the rocks. Well, duh. I’m used to granite. They don’t call NH the Granite State for nothing. The stuff is everywhere. Most mountain trails wind through long strings of boulders. Huge granite ledges and outcrops give the land its uneven character. In TN that granite is replaced by limestone. It is just as ubiquitous, but looks much different. A lot of it is carved by ancient winds and water and there are strange holes in some of it. The way it is worn away at the surface and can sometimes run in shelves and seams was different, too. After a while though, it was eerie not having miles and miles of stonewall accompanying me through the forest. In New England you can’t go ten feet without tripping over one. While our soils are fertile, the land is so strewn with boulders it has to be cleared before it can be tilled. Rock walls not only got the stupid things out of the way, but they also helped establish boundaries for land owners. A lot of land now set aside for conservation was once farmland so the walls are everywhere. Not so in this part of Tennessee.
The second thing that struck me was the undergrowth, or rather the lack of it (at least in this section of the park). I don’t say that there was NO undergrowth, but sometimes it seemed that way. I’m used to ferns by the thousands. Hobble bush. Blueberries and raspberries. Laurels of several varieties. Maple leaf viburnum. Witch hazel. All kinds of undergrowth make up the NH forest. So when I’d come across patches like these, it startled me –
Like I said, not all of it was bare, I found this glorious swath of vinca minor which must be amazing in the spring when it blooms –
So no ferns to photograph and weirdly, no mushrooms either. Plenty of trees though and while most of them were yellow, some weren’t –
Speaking of trees. Here’s the last thing that kind of freaked me out a bit. All through this part of the woods there wasn’t a single pine tree. Not one. No firs. No hemlocks. No pines. No spruces. No cedars. Well, ok, red cedar, but it’s really a mis-identified juniper so doesn’t really count. I didn’t see a single pinecone. Very, very strange for this northerner. Lots of deciduous like maple, oak, shagbark hickory and sycamore, but strangely no birches, aspens, poplars or beeches. Again, odd for this little gray duck.
Unfortunately, the light wasn’t great for views of the lake, but I did like the way some folks had tipped up these slabs of limestone –
In New England we stack up rocks along the trail (and especially on mountaintops) to make little cairns. People just love rocks and piling them up on each other. Funny.
Oh and here’s someone I ran into…well almost ran into on the trail.
She was so different from the orb weavers we have up here that I wished I could have photographed her closely and better, but the wind was relentless and so I had to go for a wide open, high-speed silhouette instead. I do wicked love that her jaws are silhouetted as well. Pure luck.
And so ends my wonderful, magical and eye-opening hike through some of Tennessee’s beautiful forests. Oh wait, let’s take one look back –
In the course of a day I look at hundreds of photographs. By participating in Google+, forums, flickr, 500px and other photo communities it’s easy to do. One thing that has been getting my attention is that people don’t seem to understand white balance and its importance. Mainly I notice it when there is water involved. Blue waterfalls everywhere. Is the world running with mouthwash? Crazy. I also notice it in woodland shots that are clearly taken in daytime, but look really odd and blue. Too cold by far. Mostly it’s white balance which is nothing more than color temperature and can be easily adjusted. Correct white balance and overall color temperature is the most important thing in making sure your colors are accurate. Well, that and monitor calibration, but since you can’t correctly calibrate every monitor in the world, just do your own and let it go.
Folks who shoot in raw often don’t care about white balance in camera because they can always fix it later. To some degree I’m guilty of this, but try to match my wb in the field to what the light actually looks like. It’s tons easier to do it there than after the fact when you might be too removed from the moment to remember what your eyes saw. Most cameras have auto-white balance which is a place to start, but be aware that most cameras aren’t accurate. Here’s an example:
This is my friend Melissa coming down through the Magical Birch Glade in the NH White Mountains.
It was early afternoon and while there weren’t a lot of leaves left on the trees, there were quite a few. The light in autumn afternoons around here is golden and soft. At this time of day it’s not as warm as it gets later, but the yellow leaves made it more so. Take a look at the birch trunks…they appear sort of blueish. They didn’t really look that way. To anyone not with us that day, this picture would be fine, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. For an October day it was warm; in the 80s. Does this picture convey warmth to you at all? And that golden afternoon light I talked about, don’t you want to see it?
The first thing to do is to check your scene in the field and try to match it in your live view screen to as best you can. Probably you won’t get it exactly, but close is good. Try daylight, cloudy, shade, flash – all of them are different temperatures and you can see their effects in the LCD screen. When you get your shots into your computer the first thing to do is adjust the white balance. Many photo editing packages have set their tools in order of precedence, in other words they are in a rough order of how you should use them with white balance at the top of the stack. So with all other changes being the same between shots and only the white balance changed, here’s the Magical Birch Glade –
OK, maybe that one was too subtle. Check this one out.
This is the Little River in Twin Mountain where the Twin Mountain north trailhead is. It was taken just a few hours after the shot in the MBG; farther into that mellow warmth. You wouldn’t know it from this though, would you? This is really the bane of my existence when I look at other people’s images. Blue water. Blue rocks. Blue tree trunks. Come on people. Pay attention! Unless these things really were blue, adjust your white balance.
It’s easy to do. Most editing packages have presets like daylight and cloudy as well as a slider that will let you put the temperature somewhere in the middle. It’s not hard. And look what a difference it makes.
Check out the trees, too – the color pops a lot more and the whole scene is more inviting. Only the white balance is different between the two shots. Here’s another one that’s even more dramatic.
My husband and I went walking in a state park the other day. Unfortunately it’s been closed due budget constraints, but we jumped the fence (as everyone is free to do, you just can’t drive in anymore). What have I been banging on about in this whole post besides white balance?
What are we trying to photograph, folks? Light of course. And nothing is more wonderful than soft, warm late afternoon light in October. It’s truly special. Believe it or not that’s what I saw in the shot here. But the camera doesn’t see like the brain sees and so it’s off. Way off. If you weren’t there of course you wouldn’t know, but the whole point of sharing photos is to bring other people into your world. To show them a little of what you experience and find delight in. Personally I don’t find much to delight in with the before picture. Straight out of the camera be damned. Now for the correction –
Now that’s the scene that made me stop. The trees and their shadows, the couple and the light all made me stop and shoot. Look at that light, would you? It’s lickable. And isn’t that what it’s all about?
Let the microscapes begin!
Not the most beautiful or delicate of wildflowers, but one of the first to appear. I went wandering in one of the many nature preserves in Andover, Massachusetts the other day and one section of the swamp was covered with skunk cabbage. I read that they can come up so early because they actually generate heat with their cellular respiration and can melt snow. Amazing. Oh and I just saw the photo on the wikipedia page – creepily similar to mine.
I found this one just off the wooden walkway and was struck by the excellent mossy foreground. I’d been scanning for a plant to photograph and none looked so well-situated. The big tree as background and the afternoon sun lighting up the flower itself were perfect to help this shot work. I debated whether to leave last year’s flower in or not, but since I’d already tidied up the scene by removing some distracting twigs, I left it.
I didn’t see the spider thread when I shot it, but I like it now I do. Ditto for those tiny sprouts near the main plant itself. Amazing what is revealed in these kinds of photos and one of the reasons I keep doing them. This one I basically handheld, but kept the lens hood on the moss itself to anchor the camera. My husband looked on bemusedly. He’s used to it.
I’ve been doing a little winter hiking and snowshoeing lately so thought I’d share some shots.
The forest is an amazing place to me in any season, but in winter it seems to be draped in finery.
This first one I shot today while out in the afternoon. Those shadows are hard to beat. The sun doesn’t rise very high this time of year, so you don’t need to be out late to enjoy them. And since what little color there was in the scene wasn’t adding to the image, I did a black and white conversion and played with some sliders. I was using my legacy OM 35mm f2 by this time and my fingers were freezing. Autofocus does indeed have its benefits.
This next one I love although I seem to be the only one. While out with a couple of photographer buddies, I let them continue on up the trail while I set up for this shot. The way the light hits the trees is amazing to me. The sun hadn’t yet crested the trees and so everything is soft and glowing. I just love it. Plus I named it after an amazing book by Robert Clark. Bonus.
While both shots are similar in aspect and subject, they have totally different feels to me and I hope to you, too. The forest is always beautiful, sometimes surprising and yes, even elegant.
Today had it!
I love this light. Clouds obscuring the sun, but not completely. Just enough coming through to bring up texture and slight shadows. I love this brook. I go to shoot the falls, but so far no success. The brook however, I manage to get. Shot with the E-30, ZD 12-60mm and the tripod sunk in snow. It was so quiet that almost all you could hear was ice pellets and tiny hemlock cones falling on the crusty snow and rolling downhill. That and the brook, still alive and flowing under its icy shell.
Let me count the ways –
It’s been truly wonderful this season. More to come.
While the season is by no means over, the peak color is draining rapidly. A storm came through yesterday that probably knocked a lot of leaves off the trees and so I was even more glad to have gotten out in the days before. Because of my health issue, my fall season was in jeopardy and that makes what I’ve been able to photograph even more valuable.
I’ll start with a trip to a nearby Nature Conservancy park in the city called Cedar Swamp (poetic huh?). It was designated to preserve the rare Atlantic white cedar among other species and has truly spectacular groves of giant rhododendron which I can’t wait to see in spring. Judging by the buds already set it’s going to be a wondrous display of blossoms.
Here’s an obligatory leaf shot to start out with. I think it’s a scarlet oak, but the contrast of textures and colors on the granite boulder were too much to pass up. The hell with originality.
Further into the cedar swamp itself I was caught by the color contrasts in this next shot. And yeah, it’s a fern, what of it??
On our way to the rhododendron loop trail we went through a part of the woods that got creepy all of a sudden and I half expected the hunter from Snow White to appear from behind a tree with his knife. Real Grimm’s Fairy Tale stuff. I think if it weren’t for the color-changing ferns in the foreground, the picture wouldn’t work half as well. The textures are really great and I like the depth it has, too.
Mushrooms are popping up everywhere and I used a downed tree as a tripod for this little microscape (check out the rhodie leaves – they’re huge!). I think these guys are in the Amanita family.
Another day we went to lake Massabesic to hike around and see what we could see. Mostly it was an excuse to be out and drive our 1988 BMW 325 ix. We walked way out to a pointy cape-like section and the witch hazel was blooming like crazy. I found some on the shore and loved the contrast of colors –
And what would a walk around a lake be without some traditional foliage shots? I wished for a more interesting sky, but nature was not obliging that day. Still, it was perfect weather and I was with my honey and who am I to complain?
Well that’s it for this post. If I include everything I’ve shot so far it will be too long to manage. Thanks for checking it out.
It’s true that mountains in New England aren’t particularly tall (the tallest being barely over 6000 feet). It’s true that they aren’t particularly awe-inspiring as say the Rockies, Alps, Himalayas or Andes. No one would call them the roof of the world. They don’t have hidden enclaves of ancient civilization or host Olympic games. They do however make you work your ass off.
Hiking in New England is destination hiking, meaning you will have to toil long and hard for a view. In Utah and Arizona there’s always a view and it makes whatever work is involved that much easier. Ditto for parts of Washington, California, Colorado and Oregon. Lots of terrain in those locations provide for views and places to hang out and catch your breath. Not so in the White Mountains. Here you hike in dense forest on a trails that can be mostly boulders and sometimes are outright stream beds. It’s not uncommon that the trails can run with water all spring and summer. I’ve heard it said that a hiker doesn’t need Gortex boots unless she hikes in New England.
So in keeping with the challenge of White Mountains hiking, we decided to tackle Mts. Jackson and Webster. There’s a 6.x mile loop trail that goes up one mountain and across a ridge to the other. Little did we know that it was all up or down, extremely rocky and steep as hell. Some niggling voice in my head made me take my hiking poles just in case and I’m seriously glad I did; they helped immensely with balance, like having a tail. Because I had to manage the poles, I couldn’t hang the camera in it’s usual spot on my pack shoulder strap and instead stowed it inside. I did break it out for little gems like this though –
On the way up Mt. Jackson we came to our first of many stream crossings (I suspect we crossed the same stream over and over) and I couldn’t resist getting in a few photos. I also shot some film here, too and have to send it off to be processed. Ah the old days. This shot of the brook falling away out of sight will give you some idea of the constant uphill pitch of the trail. It hardly ever switchbacks and just basically plows straight up.
From here until I was almost at the summit the camera stayed in the pack. We really had to get a move on if we wanted to get back home at a reasonable hour. I stopped just before the final rock scramble to take this next image. I just loved the nearest trees contrasted with the farthest and the colors of the mountains and sky.
So let me turn around for a second and let you see the final ascent –
Anyway I finally made it up and damn, it was pretty spectacular. The clouds hung in there and the light cooperated.
After a quick lunch of turkey sandwiches and homemade graham crackers, I found some mountain sandwort among the rocks on the summit –
Such fragile beauty in a relatively harsh environment. I wondered what in the world pollinated them and then found some bees, so I guess there are lots of hardy creatures in New Hampshire.
After much sliding and semi-falling, we got off the peak and started over the ridge to Mt. Webster. There’s only about 100 feet of difference in altitude between the two and so after a bit of down (ow! visions of what’s to come) we found a few rare flat spots on the trail. None lasted more than a minute, but they had their own secret beauty –
Soon we made it to Mt. Webster, had another snack, shot some more and headed out.
The camera only came out one more time on the way down, to shoot a waterfall in such bad light that I am not sharing them with anyone. On a nice overcast day, it would be spectacular though.
The climb down Mt. Webster was a personal misery. The relentless pitch and lack of any flat spots that stretch the legs and release the pressure on tendons and ligaments did me in. I hadn’t been in as much knee pain in years and it took an extraordinarily long time for me to descend. But I did and was soon ensconced in the Audi for the 90 minute ride home. A shower and a beer were never so welcome!