Fall Foliage Photo Tips: Part 1


Autumn is my favorite time of year for both photography and life in general. The hazy days of summer give way to crisp fall mornings, the landscape is painted with a mosaic of warm toned leaves, the morning air has a fresh clean fragrance, and a rejuvenation of the environment takes place. From the grand landscape to a lonely fallen red leaf, there’s a plethora of subject matter. Whether your passion lies in photographing nature, people, sports, etc., add a background of fall color to make your images pop. Use the following tips to get the most from your autumn outings. Due to the number of autumn tips I want to share, this is a two part series so check back next week for more info.

The Powerful Polarizer: If I had room for but one filter in my camera bag, it would be the polarizer. It’s my workhorse. I use it to saturate autumn blue skies, render cumulous clouds more prominently, and remove glare from leaves that robs them of their saturation. Be careful to not over-polarize the sky and render it unnaturally dark. Additionally, be careful when you use wide angle lenses so you don’t create unnatural sky gradations of dark to light. This is caused when the polarization trails off as you deviate from 90 degrees to the sun. The field of view surpasses what can be recorded evenly. It’s better to back off the polarizer in these situations.

The Reflection: Fall foliage and reflections work well together. You can essentially double the amount of color in each photo depending on how much of the reflection you include. Still water in the AM, glass buildings, and a shiny car are just a few ideas of surfaces that can be implemented. Still morning water is great to use as a nature theme, office buildings that reflect a classic red maple is great to include in a cityscape, and a car, it’s hubcap or even chrome bumper can work miracles to create a fall color abstract. If water is the chosen surface, use a graduated neutral density filter to even out the exposure between the reflection and the actual subject.

Include Wildlife: One of my favorite instructional lines is, “The background is equally as important as the subject.” A fantastic subject shot against a busy background nets a busy image. A fantastic subject shot against a fantastic background produces a winner. I consider a good fall background to be fantastic. Including wildlife in a good autumn hued environment is special. Look for situations where the background can be thrown out of focus into a wash of color. Try to find the angle where the animal is surrounded with fall color. Be aware how the light on the animal plays against the light on the background. The best scenario is to have the primary light fall on the subject.

Control Depth Of Field: In some situations, as in the above example, it’s better to have an out of focus background that’s a wash of color that complements the subject. On the other hand, foreground to background sharpness is necessary when shooting the grand autumn landscape. The recipe for the out of focus scenario includes a long lens, a wide open aperture, and a subject that has separation from the background. All play into the mix but if one of the ingredients doesn’t fit, it impacts the “flavor” of the others. The recipe for the everything in focus image includes a wide angle lens, a small lens opening and the use of the hyperfocal setting on your lens. Given the allotted space of this tip, an internet search for Hyper Focal Distance is highly recommended.

Isolate Details: Most photographers tend to photograph the grand autumn landscape. A sweeping vista of maple covered New England mountains, a huge stand of aspens blanketing the Rockies, and the sprawling red tundra of the high country are fantastic subjects. If the conditions and light are right, you’d be right there filling many memory cards worth of pixels. But as you walk from composition to composition, rather than just look out onto the landscape, with each step look down at the intimate details that await you on the ground. Look up at just a few majestically colored branches juxtaposed against a clear autumn blue sky. Quite often the quintessential fall photograph is above or below your line of vision. Break out the macro or the long telephoto and fire away.

Bring on the Backlight: Many photographers prefer a certain quality of light for their autumn photographs. For me, whatever condition I’m bestowed on a particular day, I’ll exploit to its fullest. One of the conditions I take advantage of is backlight. Autumn colored leaves take on a glow as if each has a built in spotlight that gets turned on to a varying intensity. Find a solitary tree in full fall color and do a 360 degree walk around. Watch what happens to the leaves as the light changes from front, to side, to backlight. Front light is flat and dull while back light makes the tree come alive. Shield your lens to prevent flare and check your histogram to get the best exposure. Utilize HDR to record detail throughout the tonal range.

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