Fall is in the air once again and with it comes all we love about the season. Sure, it’s the end of Summer and it’s warmth and abundant sunshine but it’s also the harbinger of the beautiful colors of Autumn – and the death of mosquitoes! For me, Fall will always be my favorite season. The leaves, of course, but also the smell of woodsmoke in the air, the crisp, chilly mornings, the color of pumpkins and the warmth of a cup of hot apple cider, are just part of the experience.
For a photographer, Fall is an explosion of colors and lighting like no other. The light at dusk is beautiful because the sun is at a lower angle to the Earth and its rays must penetrate more of our atmosphere. That means more influence from things like dust and volcanic ash, which provide such rich, deep reds and oranges and enhanced blues and purples. And as unfortunate as the wildfires out west are for the ecosystem, the smoke also influences light as far as the East Coast.
But Why The Color Change?
We’re all aware of photosynthesis and chlorophyll and other such magical workings of nature, but what makes the beautiful colors we see each season? As autumn comes, the days get shorter and less light is available. This signals trees to prepare for winter. During winter, there’s not enough light or water for photosynthesis so the trees live off the food they stored during the summer. Photosynthesis stops and the green chlorophyll disappears from the leaves. As the bright green fades away, we begin to see yellow and orange colors. Small amounts of these colors have been in the leaves all along but we can’t see them in the summer because they are overpowered by the green chlorophyll. The bright reds and purples we see in leaves are made mostly in the Fall and in some trees, like maples, glucose is trapped in the leaves after photosynthesis stops. Sunlight and the cool nights of autumn cause the leaves turn this glucose into a red color. The brown color of trees like oaks is made from wastes left in the leaves. And all these colors are spectacular to see and shoot!
According to United States National Arboretum, a wet growing season followed by a dry autumn filled with sunny days and cool, frostless nights results in the brightest colors. Changes in weather can speed, slow or change the arrival time of Autumn’s colorful foliage. Drought conditions during late summer and early fall can trigger an early “shutdown” of trees as they prepare for winter that causes leaves to fall early from trees before full color. Freezing temperatures and hard frosts will stop the processes within a leaf leading to poor Fall colors and an early drop from trees.
Best Way To Shoot
I won’t say there is a “best” way to capture the Fall colors but I can offer a few tips I’ve learned from 25+ years of shooting the seasons. Timing is key to capturing the best colors and conditions. I’ve found that in Minnesota, there always seems to be a wind storm along the North Shore and Gunflint Trail area almost every year around the first or second week of October. I worked at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival that runs to the end of September or the first week of October, and often missed the best conditions because the wind would strip many of the leaves before I could get there. Then again there’s the infamous, “gales of November” (and December) that Gordon Lightfoot made famous in his 1976 song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald“. (More on the Edmund Fitzgerald) Also keep in mind that shooting during a gale on lake Superior, though wet and cold, makes for some awesome photos but I’ll cover than in a later article!
Just like in real estate, location is everything. There are numerous websites out there but for locals to the beautiful North Star state, try the Minnesota DNR Fall Foliage site. In the Badger State of Wisconsin, check out the interactive map at the Wisconsin Fall Color Report and those of you from other states, try the Weather Channel’s Fall Foliage site or the U.S. Forest Service Fall Colors site. There are also numerous local and national mobile applications available to track the season’s colors. Just Google for them and you’ll find what you need.
The best times to shoot Fall colors are during the Golden Hours of sunrise and sunset when the light is “sidelighting”. The light temperature is warmer and more saturated because it’s coming in at an angle through more atmospheric particle influence. That’s not to say you can’t obtain beautiful images during other times of the day or under overcast skies, but the morning and evening provide the richest colors. One of the biggest problems in shooting the colors of Autumn are the colors themselves. Often, photographers focus totally on the colors and exclude most everything else. Don’t depend on the blazing colors to carry your photos. It’s not enough just to concentrate on the color and ignore making a good photograph using proper composition, light, shadows, contrast, leading lines, mood, emotion and all of the other factors that go into creating beautiful images!
Using The Weather
Fall is a transitional time for the weather as well as the leaves. That means means unstable and unpredictable conditions with rain, mist, fog and frost that can show up at times, unannounced with little notice. I once entered a restaurant for breakfast that overlooked Lake Superior. It was bright and sunny when I entered but in 45 minutes, a gale arose along with 4-6 foot waves. It was like I had time traveled to another season! That certainly doesn’t mean you can’t shoot successfully during these conditions, as long as you’re prepared. Many landscape photographers look forward to these conditions to add more interest to our work. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) can provide a wealth of weather information for your area.
Overcast days make for soft, diffused lighting and it’s a good time to shoot streams and waterfalls. Less light allows slower shutter speeds for soft, blurred water and instills a sense of motion in your photographs. Try not to include the sky in your photos as it will most often be overexposed with no detail, distracting attention from your photo’s subject. Always be prepared for rain with a rain cover or tripod mounted umbrella, or as I do, with one of the several plastic trash bags always kept tucked away in a pocket. You never know when they’ll come in handy and I’ve used the larger ones as impromptu rain ponchos by cutting a hole for my head and arms.
Fog, Mists & Frost
Cold nights make for misty mornings with fog on the warmer water and thick mist in the air that make for stunning compositions. Shooting in the light of morning and evening leads to some incredible photos. I’d suggest always keeping a towel handy when mist and fog are about, as inevitably it will form on your equipment. When mornings are laden with frost everything looks magical. From leaves and grass to spider webs, it’s pretty amazing what delicate images you’ll capture!
As I mentioned, Fall is a transitional season and the weather can change quickly. Every year, after working the Minnesota Renaissance Festival I’d race up north to beat the inevitable winds that would strip the colorful leaves. Often while I was there the wind would pick up but it didn’t stop me from shooting. With a sturdy tripod, shoot long shutter speeds and let colorful leaves blur and they’ll resemble an abstract painting. Use a central, unmoving point like an old barn, tree trunk or boulder in the shot to emphasis the contrast between the moving and unmoving, adding interest to your scene.
Simple and clean compositions work best for Fall colors. While wide-angle shots can provide beauty, breadth and scope, so much color is sometimes too much. Try using just a few central elements in your image, with tighter cropping to emphasize the colors and textures. Contrasting several colorful leaves against a blue sky is a common tactic. Don’t forget the Rule of Thirds to direct the viewer through your composition, leading them to the most interesting aspects of your shot.
Nothing makes a viewer “feel” your photographs like a closeup or macro shot. The colors, textures and detail really pull them into your work. Use a telephoto or macro lens for closeups of leaves, rain and dew drops, leaf textures and more, and don’t forget to look down at your feet. Some of the most fascinating and beautiful subjects are the small, unnoticed plants, mushrooms, dew-beaded spider webs and detritus that are so often overlooked in our rush to capture the “big picture”. Use repeating shapes and patterns in the landscape like the leaves of a fern or pebbles on the shore for dynamic natural images.
I admit I do a lot of my filtering in Photoshop now using excellent plugins available from NIK, Topaz and Tiffen and they allow creativity that simply cannot be accomplished in the field, but I do use a few actual “physical” filters as well. I use a B+W circular polarizer, B+W variable ND (Neutral Density) and a few graduated ND filters, and often have the polarizer on for many of my shots. It cuts unwanted glare from the surface of wet leaves, water and rocks and will darken skies at sunrise and sunset for those wonderful, saturated and dramatic looks. I use the ND filters to increase exposure times for creative effects with water, clouds and moving foliage and use the graduated ND filters to cut down on the sky exposure to add detail and texture without losing the foreground exposure. [By the way, I don’t get anything from referring you to Amazon.com for the filters. It’s just where I often buy equipment and read reviews.]
While it’s often “all about the color” during this time of year don’t forget black & white (monochrome) images also have a place in your shots each Fall. I like to say I shoot color to record the scene accurately but I shoot monochrome to evoke a mood and nothing evokes a mood like a moody, texture-laden, gritty monochrome image!
Fall is probably my favorite season, especially for camping and photography. But it’s more than just pretty colors and chilly nights. There’s a whole tradition in the season, from the Fall harvests to the apple orchards to Halloween, it’s a season that has so much to offer. Don’t forget to take a little time from behind the lens, enjoy a hot apple cider, a warm, crackling campfire, a few s’mores and some good friends!