'Photographing South Louisiana' with landscape photographer William Guion

Photographing in South Louisiana with landscape photographer William Guion.

Photo opportunities in the late summer and fall.

Photographing at Oak Alley

Tips to take home better photographs

Photographing the most photographed oak trees in the world can be both exciting and challenging. Everyone enjoys sharing his or her photos and experience from visiting the ancient oak trees and plantation home at Oak Alley. After photographing here for more than 30 years, I’d like to share a few tips that may help any photographer, from the most casual phone-camera snap shooter to the serious professional, make better more memorable photographs of your visit. 

Panoramic image of Andrew Oak, backlit by morning light and viewed from across alley. 

As I write this, the summer in South Louisiana is ever so slowly fading into fall. The morning air is changing subtly, becoming cooler and less humid.  With the passing of the clammy dog days of summer, you can find new photo opportunities at Oak Alley and across South Louisiana.  For a relaxing break from the heat, treat yourself to a leisurely stroll under the arching branches of Oak Alley’s ancient oaks. The cooling shade under the trees is exactly why many early Louisiana homes have oak trees planted nearby. And while you’re there look around for photo opportunities.

View from inside the #6 oak in west row looking toward main house in morning light.

Dramatic side lighting along the alley.  The parallel rows of 28 oaks at Oak Alley (14 in each row) are planted in an almost exact north/south direction.  This means that in morning and afternoon, the sunlight shines from either side of the alley, creating dramatic effects of shadows and light across the width of the tunnel of oaks.   

I’ve found that this side-lighting effect is most dramatic for a couple of hours after sunrise (through mid-morning) and for a couple of hours before sunset (in late afternoon). The long slanting rays of the sun at these times create lines of alternating warm light and cool blue shadows across the grass in the alley.  Side lighting causes a golden glow around the oak leaves, on the side of the alley facing the sun, and deepens the pink color of the columns around the house. It emphasizes textures in the grass and the oak trunks, adding three-dimensionality and depth to your photos. 

View down east row corridor toward main house from #8 oak, morning light.

The oaks are at their “leafy-est.”  At this time of year, the foliage of the oaks is at its fullest and mature leaf color has reached a deep luxuriant green. When you photograph in the alley now, your pictures can show-off the dense green tunnel of limbs and leaves. This can help you make your best photographs of the tunnel of the alley. And if you’re fortunate enough to be photographing a day or two after a heavy rain, you’ll find the resurrection fern that covers most of the lower oak limbs to be a bright green instead of the usual rust brown.

The oaks at Oak Alley are Southern Live Oaks (Quercus virginiana). They are called “live” oaks because they appear to be green year-round.  In actuality, they keep most of their leaves throughout the year, though they are thickest at late summer and early fall.  The oaks begin to drop leaves in the late winter into spring and grow new leaves in February and March, as the old ones are dropping off.  

View of Josephine oak from west row corridor looking toward the levee.

Warmer light in the morning and evenings. You may have heard about the “golden hour”— that hour or so of warm golden light that occurs right after sunrise and just before sunset.  Many photographers consider this the most desirable time of the day for capturing dramatic colors across the land and sky.

As the summer heat begins to diminish in late September, the angle of the sun creates even warmer light early and late in the day. This can help you add a warming glow to your photographs if you’re visiting for an early morning or afternoon tour. Also at this time of year at Oak Alley, the sugarcane harvest is beginning in the fields surrounding the plantation.

Oak limbs in morning light down the west row corridor.

As part of the harvesting process, the farmers burn the sugarcane stalk stubble left in the field after the harvesters have done their work. This burning helps prepare the soil for the next season and also puts lots of smoke and ash into the atmosphere, causing even redder sunsets than usual.

If possible, plan your Oak Alley visit for early or late in the day to take advantage of these interesting natural lighting effects. But remember, early morning and late afternoon are only two times you can make great photographs under the trees. There are more. And I’ll cover those in other postings.

View from #2 oak in west row looking up and across the alley toward Andrew Oak. 

One of the best ways to enjoy the golden hours of sunrise and sunset at Oak Alley is to stay overnight in one of the bed & breakfast cabins.  On an overnight visit you’ll discover lots of interesting photo opportunities and experience an even quieter and peaceful side of Oak Alley and its trees.


Black and white, 4x5 negative image of west corridor from the #11 oak in the 
west row with morning light and haze. 


About William Guion

Fine-art photographer, visual artist and writer – I'm known for my images of and writing about Southern and Western landscapes and architecture (williamguion.com). My images have been used on several book jacket designs for publishers such as Simon & Schuster, Random House, Crown Books, Harper Collins, W.W. Norton, and Bulfinch/Little, Brown & Co. 
I've published three books - monographs - Heartwood, Meditations on Southern Oaks (Bulfinch Press, Little Brown Co.), Heartwood, Further Meditations on Oaks (100 Oaks Press), and Across Golden Hills, Meditations on California Oaks (100 Oaks Press); as well, I've published multiple articles on live oak conservation. I'm currently working on a fourth book project on historic Oak Alleys of Louisiana. 
I’ve photographed live oaks and the Southern landscape for more than 30 years. In South Louisiana, live oaks are heritage, heirlooms, and history all rolled into one. More than any other tree or physical aspect of the land, the live oak symbolically reflects the most memorable characteristics of the people that settled this area – strength of character, endurance and longevity.
Many of Mr. Guion's prints, canvases and postcards are available for purchase at Oak Alley Plantation.  Others are available on his website.
All photographs are copyright by William Guion and used with his express consent.  Please do not reproduce without express written consent of the photographer.