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Sunday, October 1, 2006

Fall Foliage In The American West

James Kay has a passion for the grand vistas of autumn in the wide-open spaces of North America

No matter what light he encounters in the mountains, Kay says the aspen are accommodating. When he's faced with a hazy sky, he looks for details to make successful photographs out of less than ideal conditions, training his eyes downward to find the details of fallen leaves still holding their color. When the sun is cooperating, Kay often uses the bright yellow leaves to his advantage by backlighting them for added pop.

"The yellow is lighter than red leaves," he says, "so when they're backlit they just flame. The color goes off the scale. You're shooting into the sun, and if you've got a big peak in the background that provides a nice dark background to the backlit aspen in front of it, then it works pretty well. If it's a flat-light day and we just had a storm, I'd probably look for pools of water and leaves and rocks in streams. I'm always looking for the detail shots because they're some of the most fun. They're usually at your feet and most people don't even see them."

Not only is Kay able to make beautiful fall photos no matter what the light, he's able to do it without any special equipment. With a tripod, a polarizer and a full night's sleep, Kay says it's relatively easy to find success.

"The polarizer really comes in handy," he explains. "That's the one filter I'd have to take with me—all the others I could leave home. It reduces the reflections and makes the colors more saturated. The perfect situation would be to have a few Salvador Dali clouds floating by, and then the polarizer would make them pop against the bluer sky. There's really not any other special equipment that I use."

Kay is able to get away with such a minimal gear bag because he finds the best time to shoot bright autumn colors is in full sun. Because of the leaves' built-in glow, the added warmth of first light is unnecessary. In his portfolio of autumn aspens, Kay finds that most of them were shot closer to noon than to sunrise.

"Probably anywhere from 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m.," he says. "Typically when I'm out shooting landscapes in the summer, early and late light is the best. But when shooting fall, the trees are so brilliant to begin with, they don't really need that accentuation of the warmer evening light. The aspen are built-in warm light when they're yellow. So you don't need an alarm clock."

Even better than the chance to sleep in, Kay's favorite part about autumn in the west is that the peak time for color and the peak time for tourists typically don't coincide. "A lot of these places," Kay says, "they're all very popular in the summer. You're fighting the crowds, the campsites and hotels are full, but in late September and early October there's nobody there. It's another bonus. It's the most dramatic, beautiful time in that place, and nobody's there. You've got the place to yourself, and it's just overwhelmingly beautiful."


are a ubiquitous part of the West and can carpet mountainsides with yellow in the fall. Those huge areas of trees, though, are frequently not thousands of individual trees, but often large groups based on a much smaller number of single plants. Aspen are aggressive vegetative "sprouters"—once one tree starts, it sends out roots in all directions, and more trees start up from those same roots. Often a large clump of aspen trees is actually one plant, all sharing the same genetic material.


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