Autumn Light

Late-afternoon sun in an aspen grove, Toiyabe NF, CA, USA
Late-afternoon sun in an aspen grove, Eastern Sierra. Backlight makes autumn leaves glow, but to avoid lens flare you have to either shade the lens (if the sun is out of the frame), or partially hide the sun behind a tree, as I did here.

Light is a vital aspect of any photograph, and always the first thing I think about when deciding where to go with my camera. The more you understand light, the better your photographs will be.

Any kind of light can work for fall color – under the right circumstances. But some kinds seem to work better than others. While photographing and leading workshops in the eastern Sierra, I was usually looking for backlight or soft light on the aspens – or best of all, soft backlight.

Front light is probably the least effective light for fall color. Aspens, in particular, usually look quite dull with front light. An aspen that looks vibrant with backlight can look rather drab if you walk around to the other side of it. There's something about the way the light bounces off the leaves with front light that seems to deaden the color.

Sidelight can sometimes work, but often creates a harsh look that's unflattering for colorful trees.

Backlight, on the other hand, is one of my favorite kinds of light for autumn trees. Light shining from behind through those translucent, colorful leaves makes them glow. But backlight can be difficult to work with. First, when photographing into the sun you'll often get lens flare. You have to either shade the lens with your hand or a hat (don't count on your lens hood to do this – it won't help if the sun is shining right into the lens), or hide the sun behind a tree branch or trunk. Getting the right exposure can also be challenging. But when it works, backlight is beautiful. It's worth learning how to deal the with the challenges because it's so interesting and powerful. If you don't use backlight you're missing a lot of great photographs.

Aspen-covered hillside, late afternoon, Toiyable NF, CA, USA
Aspen-covered hillside, late afternoon, eastern Sierra. More backlight, but this time the sun was out of the frame, so I shaded the lens with my hand to avoid flare. With backlight, or any mix of sun and shade, the sun has to be highlighting the right objects for the composition to work. In this case, the light raked across the tops of trees at the top and bottom, and caught just enough of the bare trees in the middle to avoid putting a big dark area in the center of the frame.

But all things considered, my favorite light for fall color is probably soft light – shade or overcast. While backlight seems more vibrant to the eye, soft light is much easier to work with, and actually brings out the colors in a photograph better, in many cases, than backlight.

Soft light isn't uniform. Even though, by definition, there's no direct sunlight in a scene with soft light, there's usually more light coming from the left, right, front, or back. My very favorite kind of light for fall color is soft backlight – shade or overcast with more light coming from behind. It's the best of both worlds: the leaves take on a translucent glow because they're softly backlit, but you avoid the problems with lens flare, exposure, and harshness that you can get when photographing into the sun. You'll find a couple of examples below, and also in these two recent posts here and here.

Backlight and soft backlight can complement any translucent subject, including leaves, flowers, grasses, clouds, mist, sometimes even water. To help deepen your understanding of light, especially the subtleties that are often overlooked, check out this article I wrote for the OP magazine a few years ago called "Extraordinary Light."

— Michael Frye

Aspens and willows, Toiyabe NF, CA, USA
Aspens and willows, eastern Sierra. The sun had set behind a ridge beyond these trees, giving these aspens a beautiful, soft, backlit glow, without the harsh look you sometimes get with direct backlight. Soft backlight is my favorite light for fall color.
Aspen-covered hillside, autumn, Toiyable NF, CA, USA
Aspen-covered hillside, autumn, Eastern Sierra. Soft backlight again helped to bring out the colors of these aspens.
Aspens, willows, and sagebrush, Toiyabe NF, CA, USA
Aspens, willows, and sagebrush, eastern Sierra. This was soft sidelight, with most of the light coming from the right, but there's enough light coming from behind the leaves to make them glow.

Related Posts: Back in the Sierra; East Side and West Side Color

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to YosemiteYosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom 5: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.

In the Moment: Michael Frye's Landscape Photography Blog

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