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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Lepp On Fall Color

As the days shorten and the leaves turn, Tech Tips offers up some advice for getting your best shots of the season

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Above and right: Sometimes you have to leave the beaten path to capture a subject that everyone else has already done. How do you make it your own? The iconic Crystal Mill, built in 1892 at Colorado's remote Sheep Mountain, is located on a difficult four-wheel-drive road, but lots of folks have photographed it, for obvious reasons. Lepp's HDR capture emphasizes the tonal details in the fall scene. Contrasts abound: water flows, old wood rots, fall color amazes, and the sky is Colorado blue. Three composited images at three different exposures: Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 17-40mm at 17mm, ƒ/11; 1⁄180 sec., 1⁄750 sec., 1⁄45 sec.; ISO 200.

Relax. It doesn't happen on just one day. The autumn season is fairly short, but like 5:00, it's always fall somewhere! In Alaska, beautiful color (with large mammals in their prime) can be photographed in August and early September; in Colorado, it's great in late September and October; in Northern Patagonia, fall color peaks in April. It's mostly about altitude and latitude. We'll talk about attitude later.

Still, you can't set your clock by fall's appearance in any location; many variables affect the onset and duration of fall foliage. Rainfall and temperature conditions experienced during the preceding seasons determine the quality of fall foliage, and even within a particular geographical area, different species show their color at different times. The eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California has some of the most diverse fall color I've seen. On the mountaintops, the color of aspen and willow usually peaks in the second week of October. At lower elevations, the beautiful cottonwoods make their statement several weeks later.

But hurry! It might not be there tomorrow. With all their robust appearance, autumn leaves are really hanging by a thread. If you see it today, don't put off capturing it, because a big wind or rainstorm can wipe it out overnight. I remember arriving for a seminar in New Jersey a few days early; I photographed a small park about 25 miles from New York City that had fantastic color. The next day, a nor'easter blew through and the color was erased. I had to tell my seminar participants that they should have been there yesterday (neener, neener). Still, when you find a good location with foliage in prime condition, check it again in a few days' time, because it could get even better.

Look close to home. You don't need to change hemispheres to find great color. Some of my best recent autumn images have been taken near my home in Bend, Ore. Over many decades, the city's park landscapers have chosen trees that greet spring with flowers, give shade generously in summer and say farewell with a huge variety of great colors. Maples, aspen, birch and willow seemingly appear out of nowhere for two weeks in fall, lining streets in all shades of purple, red and yellow. When photographing in your community, you may have to shoot tight to eliminate distractions. Telephotos extract the best areas of color while eliminating streets, power lines and buildings.

The advantage of photographing close to home is that you can keep tabs as the peak color arrives. Not having to travel far (price of gas) is also a good thing. And while we tend to think that photographing in botanical gardens is mostly about flowers, many have areas, such as Japanese gardens, for planned maximum impact in the fall. The Japanese gardens in Portland and Seattle, and even in Victoria, British Columbia, are within a day's drive for me.

Use that fickle fall weather. Photography is about the light (duh!), and fall colors change dramatically with its angle and strength. Full sun can bring out colors, especially when trees are backlit. I schedule my fall color classes to put the students in particular locations at a time of day when the sun will be behind the tree-lined ridges. It's like having the light coming through millions of colored pieces of yellow, orange or red glass. Fall color looks great against brilliant blue skies, preferably with dramatic white clouds, but if you're given a sullen gray sky, don't despair. Overcast conditions heighten saturation, and you can always enhance the skies in post-capture software. Yes, you can. I give you permission, if that helps.

The combination of overcast and wet leaves can be an added bonus for saturated color; just be sure to protect your camera and lenses from the moisture. Expanded ISOs make attaining good exposure easy, even on a dreary day. After the rain, you might be rewarded with fog settling in amongst the colored valleys. Or, if you can photograph immediately after a snowfall, you have a combination of color and drama that can make for contest-winning images, even when the scene might have been ho-hum on a sunny day. You've seen these images in calendars; now make them your own.


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