Documenting trail work

This past summer I volunteered for Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado (VOC), a statewide nonprofit that engages volunteers in stewardship projects across the state.  This includes restoration work, invasive weed control, trail maintenance, new trail construction, and more.

Previously, I had photographed other trail work trips I had been on (see previous post, American Hiking Society (AHS) Annual Report Cover), but this was the first time where I got to primarily photograph, rather than primarily work while occasionally grabbing the camera for a quick shot. It was a fun change of pace (not that hard labor isn’t fun too!) and a good excuse to photograph something besides landscapes.

I learned a lot getting out of my comfort zone shooting. Here are a few tips that I learned along the way:

  • Bring a telephoto lens. I almost didn’t bring one on my first outing, thinking I’d be too close to use a longer lens.  However, I discovered that having a good telephoto lens allowed me to stand back and out of the way of other volunteers, allowing me to get a close shot while not interrupting their work.
  • Continuous shooting mode. Shooting trail work is almost like shooting wildlife or action sports. You never know when the decisive moment will be so when you think something is about to happen, or just starts happening, start shooting and keep shooting until the moment has passed. Continuous shooting creates a LOT of images to sort through later, but it also captures that brief smile of a volunteer, the perfect position of a tool mid swing, and the sharpest shot from keeping the shutter button depressed. It also helped capture the least obstructed view as people moved around a lot and a particular composition of a shot quickly changed.
  • Keep shutter speed fast enough.  This will vary of course depending on conditions and activity, but I typically set my aperture (aperture priority mode) and adjust the ISO to get a quick enough shutter speed.  Alternatively, I often shot in shutter priority mode.

There are plenty of opportunities to capture great shots throughout a trail work day, from smiling volunteers, to action shots, to even some broader landscapes to help give context. And be sure to shoot some pre and post shots to show the impact the day had on the trail (on this one, be sure to remember where your pre photographs were taken – due to how much a trail can change within just a day, I sometimes had trouble finding my original spot!).

Here are a few of my personal favorite photographs from my three trips.

If you are in Colorado, be sure to checkout VOC. Even if actual trail work isn’t your thing, there are many other ways to help (photography is just one). If you’re outside of Colorado, I bet there are similar organizations near you that would benefit from not only labor, but someone to document their work. For any of us who benefit from use of these trails, from hikers to climbers to photographers and others, we should take the time to give back and appreciate what goes into giving us access to so many beautiful places.

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