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Fall Color Essentials

To take advantage of nature’s annual color eruption, be sure to have these key tools at the ready
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Fall colors are one of outdoor photography’s iconic staples. The leaves turn because their green pigment fades, so the yellow and orange carotenoids dominate in some trees, and deep red anthocyanins show in others. When these changes occur, they provide excellent opportunities for colorful landscapes, close-ups and abstract images.

Don’t Forget The Basics
A good photo requires good lighting and composition, as well as good subject matter. Don’t be so awed by the fall colors that you forget to find nice lighting and compose well. Try different camera positions and focal lengths when you find a subject, focus accurately and choose an appropriate aperture (small to get everything sharp throughout the image, wide to minimize depth of field and thus concentrate the viewer’s attention on a specific portion of the subject).

Singh-Ray Vari-ND

Various filters can enhance your fall color photos. But be sure to try a few shots with no filter, as well. Sometimes the more subtle unfiltered effect is better than the “punchier” filtered image.

Polarizer. The polarizing filter is handy for lots of things, and one of them is adding “punch” to your fall color photos. Polarizers polarize light (i.e., eliminate its vibrations in all planes but one) and thus can eliminate or minimize unwanted reflections from nonmetallic surfaces like water. The polarizer can also eliminate glare that desaturates colors on nonmetallic subjects like autumn leaves. Additionally, it also can deepen a blue sky (most effective when shooting with the sun to one side, less effective when shooting directly toward or away from the sun).

Heliopan Polarizer; HOYA Split ND

A polarizer blocks some of the light entering the lens, so you have to increase exposure to compensate, usually by 1.3 stops or so (see the filter factor for your polarizer, but it’s not a bad idea to bracket exposures when using a polarizer, at least until you get a feel for how yours works). Since you’ll likely be photographing fall colors in daylight, this light loss isn’t a great problem, but a tripod is always a good idea for landscape images.

Polarizing filters come in two types: linear and circular. These terms refer to the way the filter polarizes light, not the shape of the filter. If your camera has TTL metering or autofocus, you’ll want a circular type. Circular polarizers cost more than linear ones, but they work with TTL metering and AF, while linear polarizers will cause wrong exposures and poor or no AF performance.

Enhancing Filter. An enhancing filter brightens warm colors without affecting cool colors much. This can make for more spectacular fall color images. You can combine an enhancing filter with a polarizer to “enhance” its effect. (Be aware that “stacking” filters on a wide-angle lens might cause vignetting. There are special thin-ringed filters that minimize this problem.)

ND Filter. A neutral-density (ND) filter reduces the amount of light passing through the lens without otherwise affecting it. ND filters are great when you want to use a long exposure time in bright light—say, to blur a waterfall into cotton-candy form. You can also use an ND filter to get a slow shutter speed for intentional motion-blur effects, like colorful leaves or flowers blowing in the wind, or panning the camera across a fall scene or up a colorful tree.

Singh-Ray Vari-ND

LCD Monitor Loupe
It’s hard to see the image on the LCD monitor in bright light. You can throw a jacket over your head and the camera like a view-camera shooter’s dark cloth, but it’s more comfortable and less hassle to use a simple device that fits over the LCD monitor. The HoodLoupe from Hoodman does this, and provides a magnified image for easy viewing and focusing.

Camera Support
For the richest, most vibrant color, the lower you can set your ISO, the better. A sturdy tripod will give you the ability to shoot at slow shutter speeds and small apertures while maintaining ISO 200. Photographing fall color in open shade can yield beautiful photos, but if you try to handhold under those conditions, even with a stabilized lens, you can end up with soft images instead of frame-worthy keepers. The tripod also keeps your composition locked. Be sure to keep the mirror locked up for best results.

Clockwise From Above: Really Right Stuff Tripod; Manfrotto Combination Photo & Video Head; Flashpoint Tripod; Really Right Stuff BH-55 Ballhead

Between the tripod and your camera, you’ll want to be sure to have a good, solid head. The value of a tripod is completely negated if the head you attach to it is rickety. The favored tripod head of landscape shooters is the ballhead because you can position the camera as desired, then lock it there with one twist of a knob, rather than dealing with the multiple knobs of a pan-tilt head. The exception to this is for motion capture where you want to pan or tilt the camera. In that case, a good fluid head will keep the camera movement nice and smooth (see the “Fall Color In Motion” section).

Another reason to use a good tripod for fall color is in the realm of reflections. When photographing reflections themselves, remember that reflections don’t occur on the reflecting surface; they’re actually as far behind the reflecting surface as the subject being reflected is in front of it. This isn’t really a focusing problem; when the image looks sharp in the finder, it should be sharp in the image. But it’s a good idea to stop down the lens for reflection shots that include both the reflection and the object being reflected so depth of field covers both. A tripod lets you stop down for the reflections without having to worry about your shutter speed.

Clockwise From Top Left: Nissin Flash; Litepanels Croma LED; Flashpoint LED

Flash And LEDs
You can use a small flash unit or an LED light to highlight a nearby subject or portion of an outdoor scene, especially effective in wide-angle shots. The trick is to get the balance right: If you use too much flash, the result will look phony; if you don’t use enough, the lit area won’t “pop” sufficiently. LEDs have the advantage of being continuous light sources, so you can see the effect. With flash, you have to shoot test shots to determine the proper power level and light position. Live View can give you a good idea of the effect before you shoot, but with flash, you’ll actually have to make test shots to see the effect. Shoe-mount flash units, ring lights and LEDs can add punch to close-ups of autumn leaves, too. Most camera manufacturers offer a range of shoe-mount flash units and ring lights for their cameras. Flashpoint, Litepanels, Manfrotto, Sunpak and others offer lightweight, compact LED lights.

HDR Software
In-camera HDR (high dynamic range) is becoming more common in all manner of DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. It works by shooting two or more frames at different exposures, then the camera combines them into a single image with more detail in bright areas and shadows. There’s also HDR software that provides much more control over the process. The key to HDR, like most things in life, is moderation. The backlash over HDR in the nature photography community is linked to the overdone, garish, grungy look that’s the result of pushing the effect too far. At its core, HDR is the same thing as using a split ND filter to control the bright sky and the dark foreground. But the split ND is a blunt tool compared to the surgical way you can work with HDR software. HDR is particularly useful with fall color because you can use it so effectively with backlit compositions.

Camera Settings
Many digital cameras have special settings that can enhance your fall color shots. Canon’s Picture Styles, Nikon’s Picture Controls, Pentax’s Custom Image settings and Sony’s Creative Styles are examples. Nikon and Sony even include Autumn Colors settings. Note that the Landscape setting may not be best for fall colors, as it emphasizes greens and blues—try various settings with your camera and see which work best for you.

Fall Color In Motion
Fall colors can lend themselves well to video, as well as still images. Fall leaves moving in the wind, and even falling, trees swaying in the wind and panned shots across fall color can all produce effective video. Like most videos, those of fall colors are best done from a tripod with a fluid head. You can correct some camera shake with software, but it’s best to shoot it right at the outset.

If your camera has the capability, you might try a time-lapse video, showing how the colors and the light change throughout the day. You can add movement to a time-lapse with a slider or a motorized jib. Kessler Crane, in particular, makes compact sliders and jibs that are relatively easy to set up and use in the field. To a limited degree, you can also simulate camera motion with software.