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.

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