Photographing Fall Colors
This weekend is the autumnal equinox, the time of year when the days have grown shorter and are now of equal length with the nights. It's also the time of year when one has to accept that summer is over and fall has arrived. But while the alpine wildflowers may be gone for another year, fall photography opportunities can be just as rewarding. With fewer hours of daylight, the decrease in chlorophyll production in the leaves of many plants triggers the annual show of fall colors. If you are looking to improve your fall foliage pictures, here are a few things to keep in mind.
First, don't let the dazzle of colors make you forget about good composition. It's all too easy to end up with a bunch of pictures of yellow or red trees centered in the frame. Instead, work on using those trees as elements of your composition. It can be hard to capture on film or digital the feeling of being out in nature and fall is no exception. Make use of compositional techniques to help draw the viewer into the images you make. Position blazes of color using the rule of thirds, look for geometrically pleasing arrangements of color or ways to make use of the contrast between the leaves that have changed and those that have not. Look for leading lines such as fence lines or roads or the S-curve of a shoreline. Strive to be creative. Especially if you are shooting digital now, you have nothing to lose by experimenting.
Don't feel like the color has to be the main subject of every photo either. A beautiful mountain stream can make for a great subject any time of year and even small patches of autumnal glory can make it extra special without the need to shout "Fall!" by filling the frame with red leaves. Indeed, even when you find a stand of trees that will fill the frame it can be worth trying to include a flash of green on a thirds point to break the pattern.
And when the leaves start to fall, don't forget to get down on the ground with them looking for interesting vantage points to shoot from. Fall also generally brings more rain so keep an eye out for mushrooms peeking out from the forest floor while you are down there. Fall photography can include everything from the vast hillside covered in aspens or maple to the macro shot of leaf vein details or other small subjects.
Keep an eye out for hot spots in the frame caused by sunlight shining through the tree canopy. When looking at an image, the eye is naturally drawn to the brightest point in the frame. When possible, shoot on a tripod so you can take the time to scan the frame for such problems.
In terms of equipment, most any camera and lens can be used for fall photography. To make the most of what nature presents you with, you'll want to have a range of focal lengths available. A camera that lets you control both aperture and shutter speed will help you optimize your exposure and depth of field while minimizing motion blur. Unless of course you want to take a picture of falling leaves blurred over a long exposure. Remember, it's up to you how you portray what you see.
A depth of field preview button can be a big help too.
When leaves get wet, they tend to reflect stray light that can reduce apparent saturation. Attaching a polarizer to your lens and rotating it to cut that reflection can keep the colors vibrant in your images. This won't work for every shot since a polarizer will cost you up to two stops of light which can sometimes mean the difference between sharp images and blurred leaves from a light breeze. When lighting and wind conditions allow though, a polarizer will do far more than darken the sky. You might also want to try a Singh-Ray Gold-N-Blue polarizer. In the right situation it can turn a mediocre shot into a good image or a good image into an outstanding one. Use it in moderation though to keep things looking believable.
Those shooting film can benefit greatly from a warming filter too. Nothing can spoil a fall shot as quickly as an uncompensated blue cast from open shade. If you are shooting digital though, simply adjust your white balance accordingly.
I've never been a big fan of "color intensifier" filters since it is impossible to control their effect adequately. Any selective optimization of color saturation is far easier to do after the fact in Photoshop.
Fall can sometimes mean iffy weather too. Just as is the case during spring, be prepared to keep both your gear and yourself dry. I've written before about various options for camera rain gear. Even if the forecast if for clear skies, it's better to be safe than sorry. And if it is overcast, you'll actually have more even lighting, giving you one less thing to worry about.
For tips on where to go and when, check your local newspaper or the internet. Many states and regions also have fall color hotline phone numbers set up for up to date reports.
Fall can be a great time to be out photographing, as of course can any time of year if you are prepared. Hopefully I've given you a few tips here you will find of use.