A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson by Todd Henson

The subtitle to A Walk in the Woods is Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail. Bill Bryson had lived overseas for nearly 20 years before returning to the United States. He soon learned the Appalachian Trail passed through his new hometown and that realization spurred what would become a multi-month series of hiking expeditions along the Appalachian Trail, rediscovering his home country in the process.

I thoroughly enjoyed A Walk in the Woods. Bryson relates his experiences on the trail, most often accompanied by his friend, Stephen Katz. Bryson had hiked a bit when overseas, but never anything of the scale or difficulty of the AT. This led to some very interesting experiences, many that seemed relatable even though I’ve never had those experiences myself. That’s one of the great pulls of this book, how very relatable it all is. Bryson has a way of writing that leaves you feeling as if you’ve been talking with a friend who just returned from this fantastic yet horrifying experience.

Bryson takes us on many excursions while relating his hiking experiences. He talks about the history of the AT, how it came to be and how it’s changed over the years. We learn about many of the locations along the trail, picking up bits of history that mesh beautifully with the overall story, enriching the tale. And we learn about some interesting people, those involved in the history of the trail, and others he meets while out hiking.

But some of the most enjoyable aspects of this book were the human interactions. When two friends who haven’t seen each in years are thrown back together, not in some city, but relying on one another for days at a time in the woods and mountains, their relationship is bound to change. It’s a fascinating and slow process of change. And it’s not just their relationship with one another that changes. Something like this can have life changing elements to it, changing how we look at the world and how we think about ourselves and our lives.

As an example, here is a quote from the beginning of the book, just after they started the hike:

The hardest part was coming to terms with the constant dispiriting discovery that there is always more hill.
— A Walk in the Woods, page 35

The beginning of any endeavor of this magnitude is always difficult. You realize just how much more effort it will take than you’d realized, even though you thought you were fully prepared.

And another quote towards the end of the book, after their hiking had finished:

It is a truly astounding sight when every tree in a forest becomes individual; where formerly had sprawled a seamless cloak of green there now stood a million bright colors.
— A Walk in the Woods, page 272

Experiences like this change you. You see the world in a different light, you notice things you might have previously overlooked, you gain a new appreciation for the world around you.

The beauty of a book such as A Walk in the Woods is how it can appeal both to those who’ve already had similar experiences and to those who haven’t. You can look on Bryson’s experiences with a fond memory of your own. Or you can vicariously experience them with him, imagining what it might be like if you were to try this yourself. And perhaps after reading this book, you just might give it a try, even if only through some local trails in your own town.

Thank you to my friend, who loaned me their copy of this book. I truly enjoyed it.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. Highly recommended!

Don't Overlook Common Species: Mallard Duck by Todd Henson

A lone mallard swimming in the wetlands.

Where I live, and in most of the country, mallards are the most common species of duck. You can see them year round at just about any large enough body of water. When a species is this common it can be easy to overlook. After all, you see it every day. Isn’t it more exciting to go looking for those less common species?

A pair of male mallards. Click on the image to see a larger view, then look closely at the left mallard. It has closed its nictitating membrane over its eye. The mallard to the right has its eyes wide open.

I understand that kind of pull, the desire to find something new, or at least something you don’t see every day. I enjoy that, too. But don’t let that pull blind you to the very common and beautiful species all around you. Mallards may be common, but they are still a beautiful bird, one that’s fascinating to watch and to photograph.

A trio of mallards. The two on the left are males, the one on the right is female. Notice how the head of the far left bird looks darker because of the different angle of light. If it turned into the light its head would look a brighter green.

When the light hits them just right the male’s green head feathers light up. It’s a beautiful metallic green separated from their reddish brown chest by a white stripe. When the light fades a bit the head looks much darker, a deep dark green, almost black.

The backside of a displaying male mallard. This view lets you see their colorful wing stripes.

Mallards also have very colorful wing stripes. When they fly, or display in the water, you can see this blue/purple stripe of color surrounded by black and white stripes. The less colorful females also have these wing stripes, though it’s more difficult to see in these photos.

A male mallard taking flight.

And, of course, we shouldn’t overlook their bright orange feet, something we don’t see as often if we view them while they’re swimming through the water. But once they step out of the water or take flight, those orange feet really stand out.

A male and female mallard taking flight.

Next time you find yourself out photographing birds, be sure to keep your eyes open for those common species. They can also make for great photographic subjects.

First Attempts at Photographing Action Sequence Panoramas by Todd Henson

A 4 scene action sequence panorama. This is the equivalent of an 11 megapixel image.

After watching and photographing world class kayakers paddling Great Falls on the Potomac River I wondered if I could assemble any of the images I’d created into a single action sequence image, showing the athlete at various positions all in the same photograph. I hadn’t exactly shot with this end goal in mind, so I wasn’t sure if it would work.

If I had planned for it I might have used a wider angle lens and locked the camera down on the tripod. I would have used a small enough aperture to capture the entire course in focus. Then I would have simply clicked the shutter every so often as the athlete maneuvered downriver. I could have merged these into a single image in Photoshop with minimal difficulty because each image would be of the same part of the scene and the only change from image to image would be the moving subject.

But I didn’t plan ahead this time. I didn’t use a wide angle lens. And I didn’t lock my camera down on the tripod. I used a long telephoto with a large aperture and panned with the kayak. This meant I wasn’t going to create the standard sort of action sequence, but instead an action sequence panorama, where the camera moves between images.

The images below were used to create the stitched action sequence panorama above:

George Lepp wrote a great article about this in 2011 at Outdoor Photographer magazine. It might have been nice if I’d read this article first, but that’s why I’m sharing it with you, in case you want to give this a try. Keep in mind this is an older article so the current version of Photoshop may include features that make this process easier that the method mentioned in the article.

As you can see in Lepp’s article the panoramas he creates show his subjects moving parallel to him. That means the depth of field stays consistent so he can use a large aperture and still easily merge the photos in Photoshop.

A 5 scene action sequence panorama. This is the equivalent of a 19 megapixel image.

Unfortunately, in my case the subject was moving towards me. This caused problems with depth of field when stitching the photos together. The shallow depth of field shifted towards me as I followed the kayaker. I think there are likely ways to make this work in Photoshop.

An 8 scene action sequence panorama. This is the equivalent of a 37 megapixel image.

Another issue I ran into due to my lack of planning was not knowing if I had enough of the course captured in the images to create a larger multi-frame panorama of the scene. And as it turned out, in at least one of these sequences I hadn’t captured enough. So I tried using Photoshop’s Content Aware features to manufacture the missing pieces. It did a reasonable job in some cases and a not-so-reasonable job in others. But I present them all here for you to see. It gives an idea of some of the capabilities and limitations of that tool. I do believe a more skilled user could make better use of these features, so I keep practicing and learning. I encourage you to do the same.

One feature, or side effect, of creating stitched panorama images, wether they be standard stitched panos or these action sequence panos, is a potential increase in the size of the image. Stitching many photos together can increase the total number of pixels in the image, even when overlapping images to assist the software during the stitching process. These were all shot with an 11 megapixel camera, and you can see in the descriptions the end results varied from 11 to 37 megapixels. More megapixels can be good if you want to create a large print, or it can be bad if you’re limited in hard drive space and computer processing power. But it’s important to realize doing this can result in some very large image files.

A 10 scene action sequence panorama. I didn’t capture enough of the scene to correctly create the final image.

Because I was missing parts of the scene I attempted to use Photoshop to “create” the missing parts. This shows both good and bad examples of Photoshop’s Content Aware Fill feature. This is equivalent to a 26 megapixel image.

Have you ever attempted action sequence panoramas? If not, give them a try, and let me know about your experiences.