Home How-To Tip Of The Week Make the most of fall foliage colors—9/21/09
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Monday, September 21, 2009

Make The Most Of Fall Foliage Colors—9/21/09

Six tips to turn autumn leaves into beautiful photographs

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Every year I think about making a trip to photograph the changing leaves of autumn. Problem is, every year I think of it when the leaves have already changed colors. Unless you’re shooting in your back yard, this is definitely the sort of endeavor that calls for preparation.

But even if you are shooting fall foliage in your own backyard, you can make great images if you’ve got a plan. The adventure doesn’t need to include travel to some exotic mountain destination or picturesque New England town. All you need is a little guidance for making the most of this beautiful annual event.

—Get up early and stay out late. I generally don’t like tips that are too vague to apply to the specific topic at hand, and in this case shooting at sunrise and sunset is always good practice. But because the color and saturation boost that will come with warm afternoon light, when shadows are long and skies turn deep blue, makes for amazingly rich scenes when combined with autumn leaves, it must get a mention. Warm orange or red leaves will always look great contrasted with cool blues in skies and lakes, and the pairing gets even more dramatic in the glow of magic hour.

—Use manual white balance. Whether it’s made with a gray card or a white shirt or a built-in camera preset, make sure you use a manual white balance to keep colors consistent. If you shoot Raw, you can always tweak the colors easily in the computer. But with a manual white balance as you’re shooting, you can rest assured that the camera won’t misinterpret the colorful scenes you’re seeing.

—Understand what the weather does. Not only do temperatures and rainfall amounts in the waning days of summer impact the timing, intensity and duration of the color change (so make your travel plans accordingly), the weather on shoot days should affect your plans too. If you’re faced with a bluebird day, know that shadows will be a bit crisper and darker, with higher contrast. Patterns and textures will be easier to highlight with hard-edged sunny shadows, and colors will have the tendency to appear brighter and more saturated. That doesn’t mean that cloudy or rainy days aren’t ideal too; they’re just different. Without crisp shadows, scenes take on a more subdued and softer appearance. Moisture or leaves can help make for interesting close-ups, too. And a general lack of contrast on cloudy days means subtle differences in colors may become more apparent.

—Photograph close-up details. Armed with a macro lens, extension tubes and even close-up filters, making big images of small objects can be an ideal way to make great use of fall colors. The detailed veins and patterns in a newly downed leaf, perhaps, or droplets of water clinging to leaves silhouetted by the sun. Macro details abound when photographing nature’s autumn bounty, so be prepared to take advantage of them.

—Look for color, then amplify it. I don’t mean amplify color by boosting saturation in post production; I mean fill your photographs with wave after wave of brightly colored foliage. The mountain west presents opportunities and vantage points to create graphic images in which a sea of yellow Aspen leaves meet with a wall of white birch trees. Or consider the interplay of a forest of evergreens that acts as the background to smaller field of red maples in the foreground. Bursts of color are everywhere in autumn, and playing up the vastness of color helps do justice to the grand scenes.

—Filter wisely. Graduated neutral density filters often come in handy when photographing landscapes, especially to reign in the contrast difference between a bright sky background and a detailed and colorful foreground. Even more appropriate for deepening blue skies, though, is the polarizer. The amplified tension between cool blue skies and warm autumn leaves is always interesting. But the best thing about a polarizer filter is to use it for it’s original purpose: to eliminate distracting reflections. By minimizing reflections on bodies of water or wet weather days, reflected colors will take center stage. More importantly, on bright sunny days the use of a polarizer will not only deepen blue skies but it will dramatically cut the glare from leaves on trees, allowing the vibrant colors to shine through unencumbered.

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