A word of caution before you start shooting covered bridges. What may start out as a temporary dabbling over the course of a weekend or two could easily become an all-consuming obsession...
Althought I produced most of the colored photographs in this book using a 4 x 5 view camera and transparency film, I don't believe there is any one special way to photograph covered bridges or any best camera or film to use. Each person should use the equipment and develop the techniques that best suit his or her purpose. I find my own procedure is constantly evolving as my vision expands. I would, however, like to share with you some of the techniques I find useful when shooting bridges.
Whatever camera you choose, using a tripod and cable release will subdue slight camera movement that will ruin an otherwise beautiful shot. They will allow for the time exposures often needed for interiors. My shot of the Cornish-Windsor bridge interior, for instance, required a three-minute exposure - much too long for hand holding.
A wide angle lens is another useful accessory. Buildings and other obstacles often intervene when composing shots. A wide angle lens provides the shorter shooting distance that often permits these obstacles to be bypassed.
Proper film exposure is necessary for technically good photographs. I prefer using a hand-held exposure meter, and applying a modified zone system to ensure that important scene highlights and shadows are placed within the tonal range that the film is capable of recording. I obtain consistently good exposures with this method. Although I must admit that when I start flaunting my superior expertise a little too much, my wife and shooting partner, Mary, will remind me that she does just about as well with her camera set on automatic.
When using a small camera, extending the tripod and using a small step ladder often allows the shot to be made from a high enough viewpoint so that the camera does not have to be tilted up to properly frame the scene. The film plane must be kept perfectly vertical if the architectural lines of the bridge are not to converge. I prefer using a view camera when shooting bridges because it is an ideal architectural camera having special movements that can be employed to control these perspective problems.
I visually approach each bridge from three different directions. I first try to see the bridge in some aspect of its environment, how it relates to its surroundings. I generally aim for an overall shot that includes the stream, the bridge spans, and some of the other natural or man made elements that surround it. Often I will get right into the water for that extra special viewpoint using rocks and ripples in the foreground. Composition elements are used whenever possible for framing and to lead the viewer's eye to the bridge.
I next concentrate on a portal. The portals give a bridge much of its character. Rather than shooting straight on, I try to include one side of the bridge in a portal shot to give the photograph depth. A 7/8 or 3/4 view often works well. Again, a little framing, when possible, from an overhead tree branch often strengthens the composition.
The third shot in the series is an interior to show the type of truss work. Covered bridges are identified by the type of trusses that support the roadbed. Shots of bridge interiors usually require time exposures. Meter readings are taken from the interior walls, taking care that light entering from the portals and open trusses does not shine directly into the water.
Lighting plays an extremely important part in the production of a beautiful and informative photograph. Two aspects of lighting to consider are the direction of the light and the quality of light. Strong back lighting, when shooting bridges, is often contrasty and causes deep shadows. On the other hand, light coming from directly behind the camera often gives a somewhat flat result and that too, is usually less than ideal. I find the most attractive lighting usually comes from a moderate angle to the bridge, producing substantial texture without the problem of excessively large shadows or no shadows at all.
Direct sunlight can be beautiful in the way it illuminates the texture of a bridge. However, sometimes the angle of the sun will produce distracting shadows. If so, waiting for a different time of day may be helpful. Or, because of the more subtle shadows, a softer, indirect light as is produced by a hazy or cloudy day may be more appropriate for a particular bridge or setting. A rainy day can also produce quite dramatic results because colors are often intensified when wet. Less common times of day often produce exciting results. Great shots can be taken just before sunrise and just after sunset.
I find a fantastic benefit of searching for New Hampshire covered bridges is seeing the absolutely beautiful and varied countryside of our state. I was born in New Hampshire and have lived a good share of my life here but never realized how much of New Hampshire there really is to see. There is always more and more to experience. Next time you cross a covered bridge and you see a couple standing thigh deep in midstream with their eyes glued to their cameras trying to get the perfect shot, it could be Mary and me. Be sure to stop and say hello. We hope to see you on one of our trips.
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New Hampshire Bridges