Capturing the Romance of Fall Photography


When it comes to romantic seasons, there is only one—fall! The sun dips low and clings to the horizon, and autumn gives way to the coming winter in a final celebration of color. Fall brings all sorts of magic to the photographer. It’s a time of year when, rain or shine, there is great photography at every turn. However, the days of just a red leaf being considered a great photograph are long gone. Embracing and relaying the romance of the season is the challenge.

Editor's Note: this is a guest blog post by Moose Peterson

Where do we start in this challenge? Do you need special gear? Is there one place better than another to chase fall? Here are some of the answers I’ve found so far, in this grand pursuit.

What Makes Great Color

The turning of the leaves is undoubtedly the number-one subject we all go after each fall. I’ve been chasing it for over three decades, and look forward to it every year. I know, if nothing else, that I’m going to be stuck at some amazing place, watching the rain and drinking hot apple cider. It gets no better. Unless you’re one of the lucky ones who can reach fall color in a day's notice, you must plan your trip long in advance. I’m in that boat, so I use these basic tips for advance planning.

Great fall color depends on two major factors: water and cold. I’m not including a deciduous forest, since that’s a given. Water comes in spring from either melting snow, rainfall, or a combination of both. The more you have, the more color the trees will produce. For example, when there is a lot of precipitation at a lake in the Sierra region, a specific grove of Aspen trees will turn red—rather than their normal golden yellow. If you get a period of intensely cold and dry weather (which is referred to as a "cold snap") in the fall, it will shut down the chlorophyll production that makes leaves green. The result is hillsides of oranges, reds and yellows.

There is no way to predict these two factors a year in advance. However, in the middle of the summer stats become available about spring moisture, and many websites provide this information by region. The cold snap is the thing that's hard to determine months out. The only good source I’ve found with a solid track record is the old Farmer’s Almanac. With these tools, you can make a better plan to chase color. As long as you understand that you’re trying to predict what Mother Nature is going to do (and we’re not really good at that), you’ll be just fine. There will be times that sipping cider on a rainy day is all you can do.

What to Take to Your Fall Shoot

If there is one time to take everything you’ve got, this is it! I usually shoot with the philosophy that less is more, but in the fall, more gear is often better. You want all the megapixels you’ve got, to capture all the detail. When it comes to lenses, wide to long, macro to fisheye—you got them—take them all! Since we work out of our vehicles, it can take the weight. Is one focal length better than the rest? There was a time that I thought so, but time has taught me better. Fall color is often the subject, but it’s the back story we build into our photos that brings out the romance. The back story is best brought out by one focal length over another, but until we see the story, we don’t know which lens is best. The more you have, the better your storytelling.

If I had to choose just one lens, it would be the Nikon AF-S 18-35mm. If I had just two lenses, I would add the AF-S 80-400mm. Besides being amazingly sharp, both of these lenses have the same 77mm filter size, and that’s important because filters are critical in the pursuit of fall romance.

I never head out to shoot fall color without a polarizer! One feature of leaves that can defeat us if we don’t pay attention is their reflective nature. Leaves will reflect whatever is above them. Be it blue skies, gray skies or green from other trees. You want to capture that vibrant color you’re seeing and feeling, so you need a polarizer, and you need to rotate it to remove those reflections from the leaves.

This is not the perfect solution to the reflection problem, because all of the leaves don’t face in the same direction at the same angle. When you attach a polarizer and rotate it, you can see the tree “shimmer,” as portions come into polarization and others go out. Often while you do this, you will see a photograph appear in your viewfinder you hadn’t seen before. This is because of the play of the reflection against the color. When polarized, the reds, yellows and oranges will jump out of the viewfinder, while the complimentary colors (blue, gray or green) may make them pop even more. This is why the polarizer is such an important tool for this season.

This is also a great time to have a tripod. I can’t emphasize enough the need to sit, watch and listen when chasing fall color! There will be scenes that strike you, but the lighting may not. Immediately setting down a tripod and framing up the shot is really important. Humans tend to get impatient; our eyes and minds wander, and that scene becomes a memory. But with that tripod, that anchor, our minds can wander, but they have a place to come back to. You can also use the tripod for long exposures when you’re taking in that great big depth of field. It works for that too.

Then There's the Lighting

If you’re anything like me, you tend to shoot the majority of your subjects front-lit. When you take a photo, the sun is on your back when you’re photographing your subject. When it comes to fall color, I find that sunshine isn't the best lighting. In fact, the best lighting for most fall color is the one pattern of light I hate the most, backlight.

We use light to bring out information in our subject. We use light to tell a story. What story do we want to tell in fall color? The story is the color itself. Sunshine tends to beam out when it’s backlit. This isn't the case 100% of the time; however, when you’re cruising down a road, what makes you screech to stop when you see fall color? It’s backlit fall color!

Backlighting makes shadows, and shadows contain that magical color we need to make reds, yellows and oranges pop. And that’s black. Backlighting makes the blacks really dark, and that makes all of the other colors pop.

Black is Not the Only Color

Black can make even the dullest fall colors jump out, but it’s not the only one. Black, blue and green are all essential colors in fall photography. They make the reds, yellows and oranges spring off of the image and excite our romantic hearts. Why is that? You should read my article on color for more insight on this.

Blacks come from shadows and underexposure. This combo is lethal when it comes to photos of fall color. Blue often comes from the sky, which you can incorporate in many ways. My preferred method is simply shooting up through the trees, using a hole in the canopy to let in the blue. Remember that water reflects the sky really well, which can be another source of blue. And if you have white clouds amongst the blue, it’s even more powerful. Green can come from evergreens and other trees that haven't turned yet. The key is to incorporate them in your photo.

Seeing the Trees From the Forest

Arranging the elements is perhaps the trickiest part of this proportion. You can take photographs of the entire forest, but if you want your images to grab heartstrings, you need to see the trees from the forest. How do you go about doing that?

The first thing I’m going to suggest is to find a "tree amphitheater" to shoot in. What do I mean by that? If you look closely at a forest, you will find natural amphitheaters, curved sections of trees where when you stand at its mouth you can see all of the trees encircling you. Simply walk down a road and you’ll start to see what I mean. You’ll know when you find one, because you can see the trees from the forest. This natural arrangement of trees will give your images visual depth, which may otherwise be lacking if you just shot a single tree trunk. Multiple tree trunks—especially when backlit—are black, their limbs are black too, and these elements bring patterns and detail to your photos.

Bring Home the Romance

There are other articles on B&H Insights that can help you, such as my post on exposure. Bringing home the romance of fall color really depends on your capture more than your Photoshop skills. When you incorporate all of these tips (along with your heart), Mother Nature’s saturation and vibrancy will assure that your photographs will pull heartstrings. Because, this is the most romantic season!

If you own an iPad, you can pick up a free copy of Moose Peterson's book Photography FUNdamentals at this link.

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