This article was written by the New York Institute of Photography, America’s oldest and largest photography school. NYI provides professional-level training via home study for photographers who want to give their images a professional look, and perhaps earn extra income with their camera.
HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH AUTUMN COLOR -OR-
There is perhaps, no more pleasant outdoor photography adventure than the pursuit of the colors of autumn. Let's modify that – certainly no more solitary outdoor photography adventure exists. Frolicking in the woods with a model or two might strike some as even more pleasant.Granted, there certainly are greater outdoor photography adventures, including many grueling and more dangerous ones. But a trek in a hardwood forest on an autumn day – morning, afternoon, or evening – with camera in hand, is hard to beat. Another plus: the subject matter is very accessible. For photographers who lack great mobility, fall colors are within reach.
Simply put, autumn photography is both pleasant and easy.
There are three main reasons for this.
First and foremost, you're outdoors during one of the absolutely finest seasons of the year. As the long, languid days of summer start to wane, the humid, sometimes foggy mornings of August and early September gently give way to the crisp, clear, low humidity days of fall. Even if you don't record a single image, you will be the beneficiary of a marvelous day out of doors.
Second, the riot of fall colors created by the last gasp of the leaves of deciduous trees creates a scene that is easy to capture with your camera. There are many outdoor settings that are awe-inspiring to the beholder in the moment, but elusive when it comes to recording them on film. Not so with fall color. You have an infinite variety of options. Vistas, close-ups, mid-range photos with a portrait subject in the foreground – all present exciting possibilities.
In a heartbreaking season, a nasty wind-and-rain storm knocks down the maple, birch, aspen and hickory leaves before the oaks even make up their minds.
Basically, all you need are hardwood trees and enough cold weather to go with the short days to make for bright fall colors. Remember, the shorter days signal trees that it's time to go into rest mode. All summer long, the leaves have been making food via photosynthesis. It's worth a few sentences to review this elementary science lesson. The leaves use photosynthesis to turn water and carbon dioxide into glucose, a sugar that the trees use as food for growth. Like film or a CCD chip, leaves are light sensitive.
There's no bad time of day to photograph fall color. As with most landscape work, the morning and late afternoon often provide the most interesting shadows. As veteran travel photographer Susan McCartney often points out, "It's best to photograph outdoors when your shadow is longer than you are."
This photo uses fall color and a blue sky to create a very striking background for an historic 19th century bridge on the Delaware River. Notice how the sun casts strong shadows on the stone base of the bridge. The direct sun falling on the hillside on the far side of the river illuminates the fall color in flat light.
This photo, below left, was taken with the sun high overhead and slightly behind the trees. A warm mid-day haze adds to the feeling of the photograph and mutes the colors of the leaves and the hillside behind, while creating bright highlights on the river at the bottom of the scene. By finding the right angle, it's possible to use backlighting to highlight a colorful tree against a muted background. It makes sense to walk around and look for angles that add this type of drama to a photo, such as this image above right taken one November in the Emperor's Garden in Tokyo. Fall color isn't limited to America.
A heavy leaden sky can make subtle colors pop. On the left below, a field of goldenrod has taken over a small country cemetery. To the right of that, a country Bed and Breakfast is brightened by the overall orange hue of the maple tree in the front yard. The combination of the Inn and the tree assure that the dull gray sky behind is not that prominent in the scene. If you look closely at this photo, you'll see that the top of the maple is starting to thin a bit, a factor which raises the question of timing.
It is a good idea to start taking pictures as soon as the leaves start to turn. If a heavy frost comes along, or a big windy rainstorm, color can wane quickly. The frost will actually diminish the color, and the wind will rip the leaves from the branches.
The close-up of a branch of a sugar maple on the left shows that almost every leaf has a small hole or tear caused by insects, or sometimes scampering squirrels. Those minor imperfections won't show up in scenic views, but if you're interested in detail work, you have to look carefully to find a leaf that exhibits interesting color and is also in good shape. The photo on the right was made indoors with studio lighting to backlight the specimen and set it off against a stark black background.
I tend to work with subjects and the leaves on the ground, rather than posing people in a setting that features lots of bright trees. Nothing wrong with raking leaves into a pile and getting some playtime in when you're done taking pictures. Don't hesitate to get in tight for a close-up now and then.