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
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 –
I’m not going to get all wordy with these posts. I’m shooting like mad, but can’t process efficiently because this old laptop of mine is just not enough for the new technology. Luckily a new one should arrive today. In the mean time, here’s a couple more from recent outings –
Lately I’ve been twisting in the wind over my photography. All aspects of it. Why do I do it? What good does it do? Is it good? Is it mediocre? Is it bad? Do I have a style? Am I a cliche? Should I try to market my images? Who would buy them anyway? Everyone and their brother is a ‘professional photographer’. Why do I maintain this blog when almost no one reads it? Should I change it? What should I change it to? All whirling around my head…
In spite of it all I went out. I LOVE being out. I can hardly describe it. The things around me astound me.
I’m so conflicted about what I want to do and whether I have the will to do it, never mind the talent. When I get outside though, that falls away. I feel peace. Connection. My mind lets go of worry.
I’m at a crossroads and in a rock and a hard place. Things are complicated. My life does not please me. I feel trapped by it. The longer it lasts, the worse it gets. The futility sneaks up on me and traps me in indecision. Oh how I wish all could be outside.
Let me count the ways –
It’s been truly wonderful this season. More to come.