Isolating Fall Scenics

Discover the forest for the trees using these

Isolating Fall ScenicsThe Appalachian Mountains have always served as a source of inspiration for me. Born and raised in the remote recesses of southern West Virginia, these ancient mountains became my mentors as I explored their steep slopes, narrow ridges and constricted valleys. Once I became smitten with nature photography, the Appalachians became my favorite location to explore through a viewfinder.

Ancient and worn, the Appalachians are considered to be the world's oldest mountain range. I learned that capturing the essence of this magnificent landscape required a bit more attention to the details than photographing their impressive western cousins, the lofty snowcapped Rocky Mountains. Instead of sweeping vistas at every bend of the road, the Appalachians are a bit more subtle in displaying their personality and beauty. The photographer truly has to see the forest for the trees.


fall foliage U.S. Current Fall Foliage Map from Weather.com


Ancient and worn, the Appalachians are considered to be the world's oldest mountain range. I learned that capturing the essence of this magnificent landscape required a bit more attention to the details than photographing their impressive western cousins, the lofty snowcapped Rocky Mountains. Instead of sweeping vistas at every bend of the road, the Appalachians are a bit more subtle in displaying their personality and beauty. The photographer truly has to see the forest for the trees.

The Appalachian landscape nudges the photographer to get closer to the subject, offering an invitation to explore the intricacies of its forests. So to capture a true Appalachian sense of place, the wide-angle lens isn't always going to be the focal length of choice. This is where isolated scenics prove to be an invaluable technique. Isolated scenics, or as George Lepp calls it, optical extraction, is simply a landscape composition created by using a longer focal length. Isolated scenics accentuate the composition by selecting only a portion of the landscape. For me, this technique becomes indispensable when photographing in an Appalachian hardwood forest environment. Here are some suggestions for adding this technique to your tool kit.

From One Scene, Learn To See Many. Regardless of what focal length is used, the key to creating an effective composition is to explore the scene first. Before pulling out the wide-angle, determine if portions of the scene can be "isolated" for a more dynamic image. You may discover that several portions of the overall composition can be optically extracted from the typical wide-angle composition. Our eyes and brain are capable of segregating a scene into several segments. We do this subconsciously, visually breaking up the scene into several views, each emphasizing a few strong elements. Remember to explore first, isolate second.

Isolate. After discovering several subscenes, determine which ones to emphasize. While wide-angle focal lengths open up a scene, emphasizing its vastness, longer focal lengths compress the elements, resulting in a more intimate image. With their narrower fields of view, focal lengths of 80mm and longer transform the complex and busy into the simple and selective, often helping to fashion a more well-defined composition.

Sunrise, Sunset. In some situations, I'll use focal lengths in the 300-400mm range. These longer focal lengths compress much more of the scene. I particularly like these focal lengths when photographing sunrises and sunsets, because they ensure the sun (and sometimes even the moon) becomes the primary element in the composition. I'll even use extreme focal lengths in the 500mm or 600mm focal length to emphasize the power of the sun. Use an element that adds depth or drama to the composition, such as a bank of clouds, a series of mountain ridges or a silhouette.

Try Backlight. Autumn's magnificent reds, yellows and golds make great subjects for backlit-isolated scenics. Select a colorful tree, such as a sugar maple, and use backlighting to highlight the yellow leaves and the branches as silhouettes. Adjustment to the camera's exposure reading may be necessary since the direct light hitting the camera's meter may risk underexposure.

Decide Arrangement And Position Of Primary And Secondary Elements. After determining the point of interest and focal length, decide the arrangement of the primary and secondary elements. You want the viewer to take a trip through the image, so placement of these elements in the composition becomes important. With the exception of a strong vertical composition, centering the primary point of interest frequently fails to create a powerful image. Placing the point of interest off-center may entice the viewer to take a visual journey through the image, discovering the composition's secondary, supporting elements. Background colors become important secondary elements, so make sure they're complementary to the primary subject.



Telephoto Zoom—An Isolated Scenic's Best Friend. Zooms provide quick cropping and are great in situations where movement is restricted. When using my film cameras, I rely primarily on an 80-200mm zoom for composing isolated scenics. Other zooms in focal lengths of 70-210mm, 35-300mm and 100-300mm are excellent choices to consider, as well. Zooms or tripods can, however, lull us into staying put at one spot. Move around and try different angles. Avoid letting the tripod dictate where you'll photograph. Better yet, take the camera off the tripod and explore the possibilities.

Zooms In The Digital Era—Another Best Friend. Digital cameras provide an extra bonus for creating isolated scenics. Shorter telephoto zooms, such as the 24-120mm, now become perfect choices for composing isolated scenics. Because of the sensor size, these telephotos become 35-180mm.

Welcome Inclement Weather. For photographing isolated scenics, inclement weather becomes an asset, not a liability. Light overcast skies act as a giant diffuser, reducing or eliminating contrast. Fog adds mystery to the composition, while a light drizzle boosts the color saturation of the vegetation, especially autumn leaves. When photographing with film during cloudy days, use a warming filter to "warm up" the scene. To achieve the same effect with digital, set the white balance to cloudy or shade. For saturating colors and reducing reflections with either film or digital cameras, use a polarizer.

Meter Carefully. After praising the advantages of inclement weather, one word of caution: When photographing a forest scene under these conditions, exclude the sky from the final composition. Shoot straight into the forest; otherwise, the overcast sky might fool your meter, causing the image to become underexposed.

Define And Simplify The Composition. The next step is to include only those elements needed to craft a compelling image. Remember the KISS doctrine: "Keep it simple, sweetie." Make order out of chaos by simplifying the composition. Focus on the dominant features and limit the visual elements to strong details, especially in dramatic or moody lighting. Use nature's designs—shapes, forms, lines and patterns—to guide the viewer through the scene.


The Appalachians.

The Appalachian Mountains are among the world’s primeval landforms, created more than 200 million years ago. Although they have eroded down to more moderate elevations, these resilient mountains once towered more than 12,000 feet. In spite of their wear and tear, this wondrous landscape harbors some of the greatest diversity of plants and animals.

Throughout the Appalachian’s complex topography lies a rich tapestry of plant communities formed by a diverse arrangement of soil types, hydrology and local climate. Within the Great Smoky Mountains are more than 130 species of trees and seven distinct hardwood forest communities. From lush hardwood forests to unique wetland bogs and tumbling waterfalls, the Appalachian region is a naturalist’s and photographer’s dream.

The extraordinary assortment of life here can be primarily attributed to the last ice age. Many northern species of plants and animals migrated south to avoid the advancing glaciers, and once the glaciers retreated, these species remained and continued to thrive.

Fraser fir, saw-whet owls and northern flying squirrels are found in the higher elevations. Species such as the black bear, turkey and pileated woodpecker also make this area their home. In the southern regions, there are more than 27 species of woodland salamanders.

 

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