Tips for Photographing the C&O Canal

The C&O Canal and the adjacent Potomac River are extraordinary nature venues right in our own back yard. Here you can photograph wildlife such as beavers, foxes, deer, turtles, many species of birds, as well as a broad spectrum of wild flowers and other plants. You can photograph significant historic structures and world-class white water paddling. And of course, there are marvelous landscape and water scenes of all scales, from grand to intimate to close-up.

You don’t have to go far to see a ton of interesting material. Try a hike from Great Falls Tavern to Great Falls, and then continue down the towpath along Widewater to the Angler’s bridge. If you’re in good shape and feeling bold, try the Billy Goat Trail, Section A, which is by far the area’s coolest nature hike.

When you’ve completely exhausted all photo opportunities in the Great Falls area (which is not likely), try going way up the canal to see some amazing structures such as aqueducts and the Paw Paw Tunnel. And the locks and lock houses are fascinating and evoke a clear sense of the old days.

The canal runs 184.5 miles from Cumberland to Georgetown. You can walk or bike the entire length on the old towpath, where mules once towed the canal boats but I prefer to photograph in the Great Falls area since there is such a diversity of material.

I have been photographing the C&O Canal National Historical Park since 2001, and have published two coffee table books where the canal is a major part of the story: Our Potomac and Great Falls & Mather Gorge.

Let me share a few tips about photographing the canal:

• If you get there around dawn you will be rewarded for sure, and there’s no predicting what you’ll see. Perhaps you’ll see an owl swoop down from a tree, or a beam of sunlight hitting mist on the canal water, or the quiet and still reflection of an old lockhouse in the canal.
• If o’dark thirty isn’t you cup of tea, not to worry. There are things going on at all times of day, and all times of year. I like to go there with a shoot plan, but I remain open to the many surprises that you can encounter. Be ready to switch quickly from a tripod-based landscape scene to tracking a fast-moving Great Blue heron.
• All four seasons abound with photo opportunities. Don’t stay away in winter. It can be crisp, cold, with vibrant blue skies, and you can see much farther into the woods. I often do black and white photography in winter since the color palette is somewhat limited; thinking black and white helps me see and find shapes.
• Photos in or of the woods look best if the sky is medium to bright overcast rather than sunny. The overcast sky is like having a big gentle diffuser over your entire scene. I especially like shooting in these conditions after it has rained, when everything is fresh and lush. If the sun is out and shining bright, you’ll face severe and unpleasant contrast in your photos, from glaring white tree trunks to deep dark shadows.
• Mist tends to gather on the river and canal when the air temperature is a lot lower than the water temperature. I’ve found early November to be the most productive time.
• Concentrate on keeping white skies out of your photos. They practically never look good and they pull the viewers’ eyes to where you don’t want them to go.

Let me summarize the canal this way: it is an immense photographic opportunity, and if you work hard at your craft you can come up with really unique and gorgeous photographs. This place is a gift of nature, with a carefully thought out human touch left to us generations ago by our ancestors, and expertly managed today by the National Park Service.

See you on the canal!


Join Roy Sewall along the C&O Canal at any of the following classes:

C&O Canal and Pennyfield Lockhouse Field Shoot - We’ve been given an exclusive opportunity to enter and photograph historic Pennyfield Lockhouse. Pennyfield is rich in history dating back to the early 1850s when flour, grain and fertilizers were shipped to and from the lock.
The March 23 date is sold out but there is still room in the April 27 and May 17 dates. 

Widewater on the C&O Canal Field Shoot on April 13. Enjoy one of the most beautiful areas along the C&O Canal, Widewater. The Canal opens up into a lake-like body of water, surrounded be gorgeous trees, rock formations, ponds and wildlife.

Take Your Photography To The Next Level Don’t miss Roy’s talk on March 18. Learn 4 critical attributes of a great photograph and of more than 60 factors that can weaken it.

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