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Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Getting The Most Out Of Fall Color

Autumn Color • Bracket, Bracket, Bracket • Edit, Edit, Edit • Finding The Problem

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Colorado aspens were backlit to bring out the color. Canon EOS-1D Mark III, Canon 500mm f/4L, ISO 200, 1⁄180 sec. at f/11 exposure.
Autumn Color
Fall is here, and my past experience is that I never come back with the brilliant leaf colors that were before my camera. Do I need special filters on my lenses, or is it all done in Photoshop?
J. Crider
Amherst, Massachusetts

It’s really about the light. If it’s coming directly down on the foliage at high noon, your colors won’t be saturated, and the image will be contrasty. In the early morning or late afternoon, the light will enhance the colors because of the color warmth of the low angle of the sun. The very best lighting comes from behind the foliage, shining through the leaves and dramatically illuminating them.

A polarizing filter can improve the color because it eliminates reflections coming off the leaves. Use a polarizing filter even in overcast conditions. The softness of an overcast day will offer saturated colors, especially if the foliage is moist, but you’ll need to bring up the contrast and sharpness in image-processing software. Don’t include the sky in your pictures on cloudy days. If a blue sky is part of your scene, a polarizing filter will darken it; be aware that the polarizer must be at a 90-degree angle to the sun to impact the sky color. To check this, look at your subject through the filter, and rotate the filter to achieve the best effect.

An enhancing filter, which emphasizes the yellows and reds, can be useful when photographing fall colors. The same effect can be achieved in the post-capture optimizing process in Photoshop, so I generally don’t use a standard enhancing filter. I do use a special filter from Singh-Ray that’s a combination of three filters: It polarizes, warms and slightly enhances the reds (see the ColorCombo at www.singh-ray.com).

One of my basic photographic principles is to capture the best possible image at the outset and then to optimize the image in Photoshop. Others might tell you not to work so hard because so much can be “fixed” in Photoshop. My policy is that if it’s not there, it’s not there, so I do the work up front to get as much color, detail and sharpness as I possibly can. As we process in Photoshop, the image can be improved. Resist the temptation to oversaturate the colors; just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.

Bracket, Bracket, Bracket
A photo instructor told our class that bracketing was wasteful, sloppy work and showed that we didn’t know what we were doing. He said a good photographer could get the shot in one exposure. I’ve heard you say that photographers need to bracket. Who’s right, and why?
C. Billings
Los Angeles, California

Your instructor is still living in an age when large-format captures were difficult and expensive to set up, and only one click of the shutter could be spent on an image. (Large-format film photographers still work this way.) But, in some ways, your instructor is right, even if he’s talking about digital photography. The tools offered by today’s digital SLRs should help you to make good decisions about every capture by simply reviewing the LCD and histogram on the back of your camera. Your instructor is encouraging you to be thoughtful and deliberate in your composition and camera settings, and that always results in better photography.

But, in some ways, your instructor is wrong if he’s talking about digital photography. Bracketing your composition, even very slightly, offers more creative choices at the end of the shoot. Even more important, today’s digital image-processing software solves many problems that never could be resolved in the past. For example, high-dynamic range (HDR) controls contrast by combining several bracketed exposures of the same image. We don’t really know what’s coming next, so having a lot of options is part of the power of digital.

Edit, Edit, Edit
With digital capture, I’m taking many more pictures than I used to with film. My hard drives are filling up, and I’m having trouble finding the pictures I’m looking for. Do you have any solutions for my dilemma?
B. Johnson
Nashville, Tennessee

Yours is a problem we all share in the digital age (except the instructor described in the previous question). Even though storage space is getting less expensive (a 1 TB drive now can be purchased for less than $200), we all need to become better editors. This was also true with film captures, by the way, but the scale is so much greater now.

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