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Photographer's Tips: How to Capture Autumn

Robert Winkler
for National Geographic News
October 16, 2002
 
No season brings out photographers like autumn. It's not only because this is arguably the most colorful time of year—spring, summer and winter are, in their ways, every bit as beautiful.

It's also because no other season reminds us so strongly yet so sweetly that another year has passed, and it is the photographer's annual lot to record it; both to capture its fleeting beauty and to try to stop time in its tracks.


The challenge is to do so in a meaningful way. The fall is such a popular subject that camera-laden tourists are as common as squirrels gathering nuts. We are all familiar with this visual cliché: a country road winding into woods ablaze with golds, reds and yellows, and standing somewhere in the picture, a weathered barn.

Yet you need only take time to consider the pictorial variables at your disposal to return from an autumn excursion with photographs that are personal and unexpected, whether you use a professional-quality 35mm single-lens reflex camera or a basic point-and-shoot.

Choosing Subjects

Every year in New England and in other parts of the country with extensive deciduous forests, the media abound with predictions of the peak times for viewing the fall foliage. These are always tempered by speculation that it will be an early fall or a late one, or that the year's colors may not be at their best, either because of insect damage or weather unfavorable to the fullest development of pigments.

You would be mistaken, however, to equate fall with leaves and leaves alone.

Fall is also a time for harvesting, for migrating birds, for changes in the weather, for Halloween and Thanksgiving decorations—all valid subjects, all potentially vivid.

Foliage, nevertheless, is deservedly high on any photographer's autumn shooting schedule, so if your touring takes you through the woods at other than peak times—by choice or necessity, most leaf-watching is done on weekends—consider what you have to gain.

If you're early, the fall palette will include much greenery, and you'll be able to show trees and single leaves undergoing the transition to their autumn finery. If you're late, a carpet of leaves will cover the ground, and trees in various stages of undress will hint more strongly of winter, perhaps creating unexpected patterns and interesting contrasts between the vibrant and the dormant.

Camera Position

Often, the best angle presents itself immediately. You'll know you have a shot, and finding the best vantage point will verge on being an unconscious process. At other times, the subject seems eminently worthy, but deciding on the approach confounds the imagination. Then there are all the shooting situations between the two extremes.

If you're driving and a subject catches your eye, stop the car and investigate the location on foot. Although shooting through an open car window doesn't preclude good pictures, the restrictions on your movements severely limit camera angles.

Your first instinct usually will be to take head-on, eye-level shots. This point of view is the most prevalent and often the most natural. But remember that the possibilities range from a worm's to a bird's-eye view.

Altered Perspectives

You can lie on your back and shoot straight up into a scarlet oak, or lie prone for a ground-level view of yellow sugar-maple leaves strewn across the front lawn of a picturesque house.

If you need more height, try shooting scenic towns from the upper stories of buildings; in the country, make your way to a mountaintop for sweeping landscapes. In a pinch, you can climb onto your car, but if footprints on the hood make you shudder, and you want more vertical mobility, carry a stepladder in the trunk.

A consolation to any fall tourist, whether late or early: not all species of trees show their best colors at the same time. No matter when you go, you're bound to find enough variety to satisfy all but the most color-hungry lens.

Composition

A photograph is a section cut from the world and rendered in two dimensions. The borders of your viewfinder separate the desired image; making the exposure takes the subject out of its natural context and places it in the frame on your film.

Although the photograph is not the reality, it can be a fairly accurate reflection of it, or it can be an attempt to alter reality for your purposes. A "natural" landscape would follow the contours of the scene. Edges of the frame would lie between distinct pictorial elements—between trees or between leaves, for instance—and the horizon would guide you in leveling the camera. Generally, your aim would be for a sense of balance.

Allowing the frame line to sever part of the subject shifts the picture's purpose—it may become an abstraction or a symbol. Tilting the camera, framing the scene off-balance, and isolating or combining pictorial elements are other compositional options.

Details can be suggestive of the whole. A leaf can represent the season just as well as a mountainside of trees. Blades of fading grass, ripened fruit, an abandoned plow, a pile of apple crates—you can show them close-up or from a distance.

Magic Light

Choose 200-speed color film if you plan to shoot under bright conditions; otherwise, go with the greater lighting range of a 400-speed film.

For deeper colors, you can darken a blue sky and reduce light reflections, which tend to bleach colors, by using a polarizing filter. If your camera allows you to vary the aperture (aka f-stop setting), overexpose slightly to bring out subtler hues, or underexpose to give bright colors fiery prominence.

There is no ideal time of day to take a photograph, but early risers and night owls should experiment with "magic light," which many still and motion-picture photographers define as the first hour after sunrise and the last hour before sunset.

At these times, the low sun produces warm (orangish) and soft (diffuse) illumination, with long, low-contrast shadows. The same purple grasses and amber leaves that barely catch the eye at midday may positively glow when bathed in magic light.

Blurring the Lines

Shutter speed may seem of little concern when your subjects are rooted in the earth, but even a slight wind can set them in fast motion. In that case, if your camera has variable shutter speeds, use a setting of 1/250th of a second or higher to freeze the action.

If you want to take advantage of the wind rather than battle it, place the camera on a tripod or other support and make an exposure of a quarter of a second or longer. As tree limbs sway in the breeze, they will paint a picture for you.

The crown of a large tree can extend 50 feet or more from front to back, so focus on the most important element of the scene to put the center of interest in sharp relief against its surroundings. To create an unconventional but pleasing effect, throw the lens out of focus and colors will bleed indistinctly beyond their natural borders.

Practicalities

If you're planning long hikes through the woods, give some thought to comfort and camera protection.

Although you can slip a compact point-and-shoot camera into a pocket, you might replace the skinny plastic neckstrap that comes as standard equipment on most full-size 35mm cameras. With a somewhat wider fabric or neoprene strap, you'll have less slippage and strain—factors that grow in significance once you've hiked for hours with a camera around your neck. A camera harness, consisting of a strap that goes around your back and fastens to the camera, will keep the camera from bouncing around on your chest and from getting tangled in branches.

Among the non-photographic accessories you'll need are a baseball cap with a broad sun visor, insect repellent and, if your woodland foray will begin late in the day, a flashlight. Wear decent hiking boots—worn soles increase your risk of falling, which can wreck your equipment even if you escape uninjured. Stay off wet or slimy rocks, logs and roots, and don't cross streams unless you're sure you can do so safely.

For rainy days, there are a number of reasonably priced weatherproof point-and-shoot cameras on the market. Fall colors often seem more intense against gray, rain-slicked backgrounds; just be sure to carry an ample supply of photographic tissue or cloth to keep your lens free of water droplets.

Where to Shoot

Now that you're ready to try capturing autumn on film, you may be wondering where and when to go. New England is the traditional favorite, where hot spots include Vermont's Skyline Drive to Mount Equinox, New Hampshire's Mount Washington Auto Road, Maine's Acadia National Park, Rockwell Road to Mount Greylock in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts, and Connecticut's charming Litchfield County.

The New England fall foliage season lasts about three weeks, peaking during the second week of October in the middle of the region—southwestern Vermont to southern (and coastal) Maine (note: this is a rough estimate).

As the season wanes in late November, many photographers go into hibernation, and it's a long time until spring brings them back out. So, while the weather is still pleasant and the landscape full of life and color, walk slowly and carry a loaded camera.

Robert Winkler, birding correspondent for National Geographic News, has written frequently on the techniques of nature photography.
 

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