With experience I came to see the yearly color extravaganza as an opportunity to sharpen basic photographic skills and explore new techniques that are applicable anywhere. Here are your tips, friends.
1. Polarizing the Light
Is it trite to say that photography is all about light? Fall offers a time to get out and experiment with the subtle effects created by the changing light and angles of the sun. I’ve always kept extra gadgets to a minimum, as I prefer to exploit “available light.” However, the reflectiveness of shiny leaves and vertical rock surfaces makes a polarizer absolutely indispensable. A slight twist of this filter can reduce reflections on shiny surfaces, and can also produce dramatically saturated colors in an otherwise drab scene.
2. Working with Early & Late Sunlight
The most consistently reliable photographic “trick” is to shoot in early morning or evening light. Low sun angles produce natural side lighting with rich shadows that enhance the texture and depth of landscapes, and the warm light lends a nostalgic glow to your images.
A polarizer is at its maximum effectiveness when the view is at a right angle to the sun’s rays. The color saturation can sometimes be too extreme in the morning or evening because of the sun’s low position, resulting in underexposed images. So when I use a polarizer during these times, I’ll often overexpose by 1/3 to 2/3 of a stop, depending on the situation and film type. For a softer look that accentuates diffused light and pastels, I simply use the skylight filter.
3. Extreme Backlighting
The lighting effect I utilize most in fall color photography is what I call “extreme backlighting.” Any degree of backlighting causes translucent fall leaves to glow like stained glass. The luminescence increases as you face directly into the sun, but lens flare and underexposure can then become a problem. Offering shade for your lens is a necessity. Whenever possible, use a lens hood. When this isn’t convenient, using a single aspen trunk casts enough shade to stop lens flare if you position yourself carefully. In the absence of natural shade I use either my hat or my hand. Without a tripod, this means using a higher shutter speed, since I’m holding the camera and shooting with only one hand.
Another approach when aiming into the sun is to use a telephoto lens. The smaller field of view makes the lens easier to shade with a lens hood. Often I’ll use my Nikkor 105mm, f/1.8 lens to isolate backlit aspen groves off a mountainside or even a single glowing tree against the backdrop of a dark conifer forest. A polarizer saturates backlit colors also, but there’s a tradeoff because the polarizer is least effective when shooting directly into the sun. A photographic rule of thumb calls for one or more stops overexposure for backlit subjects, but it applies to objects that block the light. Since leaves are very transparent, I rarely overexpose unless I’ve got a “hot spot” – or the sun itself – in the frame.
4. Clouds & Mist
Intense high altitude or desert sunlight really brings out fall’s flamboyant side, but the diffused light of cloudy days offers special qualities and photographic advantages. New color combinations become available as opaque yellows, oranges, and reds smolder in the silvery light against gray-violet skies. This is often a good time for close-ups of individual leaves because the soft, non-glaring illumination accentuates subtle pastels and textures. Landscapes can appear overly flat and dull if the conditions are too cloudy, but partial sun adds a sense of depth to scenics, creating a mosaic of shadow and light.
Moving clouds and shifting patches of light emphasize various portions of the landscape. Wait for the right moment to enhance the composition and use a polarizer if enough direct light is present. I’ve captured unique images in the Olympic peninsula rainforests when the sun breaks through streams of early morning mist, causing the maples and oaks to glow in the eerie, moody light.
Correct exposures can be tricky when shooting in cloudy or misty conditions. I usually overexpose by 1/3 to 2/3 stop to brighten the image when clouds are thick and uniform. Sunbeams reflecting from the mist – or penetrating it – can trick your light meter into underexposing your subject. To ensure correct exposure when a lot of light is bouncing around, I usually bracket in increments up to a full stop over the meter reading.
5. Patterns & Textures
When we think of fall images we usually think of dramatic colors, but leaves, tree trunks, and branches also display rich textures that can become the center of interest. For close-up abstract shots, use shadows cast by the thick foliage to create layering effects and contrasts that add depth to the kaleidoscope patterns formed by the masses of leaves.
I like to position myself under a backlit forest canopy with a 17mm or 24mm lens and shoot toward the sky. The wide-angle distortion accentuates patterns formed by the dome of glowing colors and textures. Dark tree trunks and criss-crossed branches add dynamic lines to the composition. The expanse of sky increases the usual backlighting problems of underexposure and lens flare when the sun is in the frame, so bracket your exposures by overexposing one stop or more. Avoid lens flare by using a lens hood, or by positioning the sun behind a branch or mass of leaves. Depending on the angle of the sun, a polarizer can enhance the colors of your photos.
If changing leaves are pleasing photographic subjects, reflected ones can be doubly so. Alaskan tundra ponds, Rocky Mountain lakes, and Arizona oasis pools make perfect mirrors to reflect fall’s exquisite color palette.
Morning is the best time to photograph reflections, when the water is smooth and the sun’s angle is low. Positioning the repeated images within the frame offers many options for great composition. I like to get close, set my tripod up in the shallow shoreline water if possible, and use a wide-angle lens to capture both images. Using a polarizer eliminates glare and enhances the reflected colors (just be careful not to eliminate the reflection). I like to shoot at f/22 to increase depth of field.
In the forest, the morning light often gives you a mixture of shadows and hot spots. I try to get the best exposure by bracketing in increments of 1/3 to at least one stop over the meter reading.
These are just a few tips to try on your next fall photographic outing. You’ll enjoy experimenting with some of these ideas, whether it’s out west or even in your own backyard.