When you are lucky enough to live in a beautiful place—as I am, in Colorado’s Rockies and Chile’s Patagonia—you are often asked, “What’s your favorite season?” My answer is always the same: autumn. Autumn is the photographer’s season, not just a season of great natural beauty, but a season of constant change. Day by day, colors deepen, winter crowds closer, the leftover summer light seems ever more precious, the cooling weather wakes you up. The spinning seasons spin faster in autumn than any other moment of the year, an invitation and a warning to photographers not to waste a single day, or a single frame.
At home in the Rockies, September is always set aside for photography. Autumn captures me completely—no new projects, no new travel plans—just photography, wrestling with the magic of aspen forests under snowy peaks. So naturally, over a decade ago, when I began to visit Patagonia, I couldn’t wait to see the far south of South America in autumn, a different autumn on the calendar, and a different palette of autumn colors in the native beech forests of the Andes.
In the Southern Hemisphere, April is high autumn, and I looked forward to enjoying two seasons a year of autumn photography, both in the north and the south. I wasn’t disappointed, but there was a learning curve, too. For a photographer, autumn in the Andes is both familiar and a bit strange. I used all my familiar strategies and approaches to autumn landscape photography, but I needed to figure out a few new angles. Here, then, in no special order, are some of the lessons I’ve learned and have tried to share with workshop students who joined me to explore Patagonia in autumn.
The Forest For The Trees
Almost by definition, autumn photography is all about forests, trees, and leaves. That’s where the action, and the color, is. But color depends on light. In Colorado, I often seek out backlit aspen trees. Light from behind, pouring through semitransparent aspen leaves, can produce a lovely glow, almost a stained-glass feel. But in Patagonia, I discovered that the native beech forests, ñirre and lenga trees—the ones that turn a full spectrum of colors from bright yellow orange to deep almost purple reds—don’t lend themselves to backlit photography. Their leaves are more densely opaque, and much smaller than our Northern Hemisphere aspens and maples.
That’s where the color is, so I learned to wait for fast-moving Patagonian clouds to cast their shadows over the forest, and give me soft, uniform lighting. This kind of soft, low-contrast lighting is ideal for almost any kind of forest photography. Whether you are shooting in autumn or in midsummer, patches of bright light mixed with deep shadows in a forest scene produce a confusing “speckled” effect, making it hard, and sometimes impossible, to isolate a subject, or pull a strong composition out of the natural chaos of branches, trunks and leaves that characterize most forest scenes. This is particularly important for intimate scenes, scenes within a forest. That said, bright direct lighting is often just what you need for larger scenics, with distant features, like peaks or rivers, in addition to autumn’s colorful trees.
Be Prepared—Bring An Umbrella
A lot of my favorite autumn photos were made in the rain. Not only do rainy skies cast a uniform soft light over the forest, but wet leaves have a particular glow. In earlier film days, and now even more so with modern digital cameras, rainy exposures tend to produce richly saturated colors. So my rule of thumb is simple: When the weather turns bad, keep shooting! And in such cases, a helpful companion to hold an umbrella over your camera and tripod makes all the difference. In bad-weather scenarios, today’s best digital cameras, with their low-noise characteristics at high ISO ratings, are a terrific advantage. And strange things happen when the weather turns bad. Black stormy skies or the first snow falling through colored leaves can add a lot of mystery to an otherwise “normal” autumn scene.
Late Light Vs. Late, Late Light
Landscape photographers grow up with the myth of the “golden hour,” very early or very late light that warms a scene like a blessing from the gods. And we often avoid shooting at midday, under harsh bright noon light that makes almost everything look banal. Often such golden hours are more reality than myth, but over the course of several Patagonian autumns I became addicted to very late, late light, the strange and mysterious light that suffuses Patagonian forests long after the sun has set. Mountaineers have always called this post-sunset light “alpenglow,” and it is certainly a photographer’s friend.
In many mountain ranges, alpenglow occurs when the last light in the western sky is reflected off high peaks. In the steep mountain valleys of the Patagonian Andes, even after the sun has disappeared in the west, the very last light is often reflected from a high ridge and back down into the forest. Such light is simply magical, though it is anything but bright. Obviously, in these post-sunset moments, a tripod is de rigueur. And that brings up an interesting experience that I suspect is not unique.
As I embraced digital photography and as my cameras, both Canons and Nikons, became more and more sophisticated, with the possibility of using high ISO settings to handhold shots in low-light conditions, I felt a great sense of liberation—liberation among other things from the discipline and tyranny of a tripod. For so many years, serious landscape photography had been synonymous with the use of a tripod. For a while I forgot how important, how essential a tripod could be. And, then, of course, I had to rediscover that often a tripod is a photographer’s most important tool. When you need one, nothing else will work. That’s certainly the case when you find yourself shooting in the dim, but softly glowing light long after the sun has set, and, also, of course, for those long exposures of streams, rivers, and waterfalls that can create a poetic sense of movement in a landscape photo.
Composition, Composition, Composition
What more can I add to this discussion of my personal approach to deep autumn photography, whether in the Rockies, New England, or Patagonia? Maybe only a few reflections on composing your best shot. Photographers spend a lot of time talking and thinking about composition, about the arrangement of different elements in the photographic frame. They have to. Strong composition makes all the difference between an eloquent image and the random capture of elements from life’s ever-present visual confusion.
What exactly makes a strong composition? And in this case, how can we pull a strong, definitive composition out of a tangle of thousands of brightly colored autumn leaves? Generally, the search for a strong composition leads one to eliminate all the nonessential elements from the photo, and then arrange what’s left into a satisfying harmony between balance and tension. Sounds good—but in a dense forest?
The answer, it seems to me, is either to zoom in, to come closer to one particular part of the autumn scene, to one tree or one burst of color. Or, conversely, to back off, to zoom out to place the autumn hues that we so admire into the context of a larger landscape composition. In other words, to get specific. Don’t be tempted to just “include it all,” but take a moment to ask yourself: What is this particular photo going to be about? Not autumn, in general, but this one specific, unique, never-to-be-repeated aspect of autumn. When you have an answer to this question, then you have your photo. And, ultimately, in capturing autumn’s specifics, you capture autumn.
Linde Waidhofer started exploring the West with her cameras over 30 years ago, producing nine photo books celebrating wild landscapes. Recently she has fallen in love with Patagonia, the southernmost tip of South America, where she currently spends half of each year, and photographs for a number of conservation and national parks projects. You can see more images on Linde’s website, www.WesternEye.com.