Blowing in the Wind

Posted by George Hamlin
on Friday, November 4, 2022

Most people have a favorite season; mine is Autumn.  In the Shenandoah Valley, where I live now, this is often a beautiful time of year: pleasant temperatures, numerous sunny days, and, of course, fall foliage.  The colorful intensity of the latter can vary significantly from year to year, with some annual iterations achieving only a degree of blandness, but a) any fall foliage is worth considering, in my opinion, and b) it may be several years into the future before optimal conditions arrive, so use what’s presented this year.

Still, after the seemingly endless greens of summer, the change is most welcome.  We don’t typically see many of the bright red trees viewed further north, particularly in New England, but there are lots of deciduous trees in this area that turn various shades of yellow and orange, along with a few more that have a less exciting brown hue.

If you’re a photographer, the trick becomes finding suitable venues to incorporate this chromatic change  with the proper combination of railroad, colorful leaves, appropriate light, and (wait for it, because waiting will literally become one of your primary-- at the risk of an oxymoron -- activities) a moving train to complement the other factors.

Once you’ve accomplished what I’ll term a “base” shot at a particular location, it’s worth considering a higher-level-of difficulty shot, as well.  Typically, peak foliage (in terms of color) doesn’t last long; often, different types of trees at a location are at different stages of color change, sometimes with bright fall colors adjacent to still-summery green, sometimes even on an individual tree.

Late in the game, there’s another opportunity that presents itself.  For a while at peak color, trains pass by the trees with only a modest number of leaves dropping to the ground in the slipstream; eventually, however, this becomes more frequent.  As the process continues, however, more and more leaves depart the tree they’ve lived on since the spring, and make their one-way free-fall exit to the ground.  This also has the effect of creating a colorful “carpet” beneath the tree, which is also worth capturing, especially if it’s not in your yard which will have to be raked…

Depicting this process in a photo is worth trying.  There is a fine line between a nice carpet under the tree and sufficient leaves still on the branches so that it doesn’t look like the onset of “stick season” has arrived.  Thus, visits on multiple days may be necessary, along with the horrifying thought that a rain and/or windstorm may prove to be more efficient at leaf removal before you are able to capture the process with a typical passing train.

Fortunately, everything came together for me at Boyce, Virginia on the afternoon of November 4, 2022.  The sun was out; leaf conditions were sufficient both above and below; and Norfolk Southern intermodal train 27A (Rutherford, Pennsylvania to Atlanta, Georgia) showed up with sufficient forward momentum to induce some leaves to make their swan song performance of the year.

And yes, it wasn’t the first day this week that I’d been to this location, but in my mind, it definitely was the best, in terms of being able to declare to self, “mission accomplished”.  To channel a popular song of the early 1960s, “How many days must a photographer show up, before they call them a success”?  The answer, my friends, is in the title.

Photo by George W. Hamlin

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