Getting The Most Out Of Fall Color

Autumn Color • Bracket, Bracket, Bracket • Edit, Edit, Edit • Finding The Problem

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Colorado aspens were backlit to bring out the color. Canon EOS-1D Mark III, Canon 500mm f/4L, ISO 200, 1⁄180 sec. at f/11 exposure.

Autumn Color
Fall is here, and my past experience is that I never come back with the brilliant leaf colors that were before my camera. Do I need special filters on my lenses, or is it all done in Photoshop?
J. Crider
Amherst, Massachusetts

It’s really about the light. If it’s coming directly down on the foliage at high noon, your colors won’t be saturated, and the image will be contrasty. In the early morning or late afternoon, the light will enhance the colors because of the color warmth of the low angle of the sun. The very best lighting comes from behind the foliage, shining through the leaves and dramatically illuminating them.

A polarizing filter can improve the color because it eliminates reflections coming off the leaves. Use a polarizing filter even in overcast conditions. The softness of an overcast day will offer saturated colors, especially if the foliage is moist, but you’ll need to bring up the contrast and sharpness in image-processing software. Don’t include the sky in your pictures on cloudy days. If a blue sky is part of your scene, a polarizing filter will darken it; be aware that the polarizer must be at a 90-degree angle to the sun to impact the sky color. To check this, look at your subject through the filter, and rotate the filter to achieve the best effect.

An enhancing filter, which emphasizes the yellows and reds, can be useful when photographing fall colors. The same effect can be achieved in the post-capture optimizing process in Photoshop, so I generally don’t use a standard enhancing filter. I do use a special filter from Singh-Ray that’s a combination of three filters: It polarizes, warms and slightly enhances the reds (see the ColorCombo at

One of my basic photographic principles is to capture the best possible image at the outset and then to optimize the image in Photoshop. Others might tell you not to work so hard because so much can be “fixed” in Photoshop. My policy is that if it’s not there, it’s not there, so I do the work up front to get as much color, detail and sharpness as I possibly can. As we process in Photoshop, the image can be improved. Resist the temptation to oversaturate the colors; just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.

Bracket, Bracket, Bracket
A photo instructor told our class that bracketing was wasteful, sloppy work and showed that we didn’t know what we were doing. He said a good photographer could get the shot in one exposure. I’ve heard you say that photographers need to bracket. Who’s right, and why?
C. Billings
Los Angeles, California

Your instructor is still living in an age when large-format captures were difficult and expensive to set up, and only one click of the shutter could be spent on an image. (Large-format film photographers still work this way.) But, in some ways, your instructor is right, even if he’s talking about digital photography. The tools offered by today’s digital SLRs should help you to make good decisions about every capture by simply reviewing the LCD and histogram on the back of your camera. Your instructor is encouraging you to be thoughtful and deliberate in your composition and camera settings, and that always results in better photography.

But, in some ways, your instructor is wrong if he’s talking about digital photography. Bracketing your composition, even very slightly, offers more creative choices at the end of the shoot. Even more important, today’s digital image-processing software solves many problems that never could be resolved in the past. For example, high-dynamic range (HDR) controls contrast by combining several bracketed exposures of the same image. We don’t really know what’s coming next, so having a lot of options is part of the power of digital.

Edit, Edit, Edit
With digital capture, I’m taking many more pictures than I used to with film. My hard drives are filling up, and I’m having trouble finding the pictures I’m looking for. Do you have any solutions for my dilemma?
B. Johnson
Nashville, Tennessee

Yours is a problem we all share in the digital age (except the instructor described in the previous question). Even though storage space is getting less expensive (a 1 TB drive now can be purchased for less than $200), we all need to become better editors. This was also true with film captures, by the way, but the scale is so much greater now.

First, you have to separate yourself emotionally from your images. Yes, you loved watching those bear cubs and you were so excited to take their pictures as they ripped up the neighbor’s trash can. But if most of the images are out-of-focus bear butt shots, they’re not worth much. It has momentary value because it documented an event that you wanted to share, but by next week it needs to be removed from your hard drive.

Another problem is just the time factor. We come back from a shoot, download our images, pull out the two or three we need at that moment, and save the rest for some future point when there’s time to review them carefully. That time may never come, unless you’re as determined about culling your images as you were about capturing them.

Some photographers simply are unable to make the hard choices needed to separate the good stuff from the bad. There might be a use for that image sometime, even if we don’t yet know what it is! Some magical software might appear that will fix the image’s major flaws and render it usable, even valuable, in the future!! (And here I have to confess that I took many, many multiple-image panoramas on film and stored them away in anticipation of the flawless scanning and merging software that finally came into being years later. But the images themselves were technically sound from the outset.)

Here are editing criteria you could use to decide what stays and what goes.

Technical Quality. Consider sharpness, exposure, contrast, color and whether the file format and size are appropriate. If any of these qualities is beyond your redemptive skills in image-processing software, throw it out now.

Content. Evaluate the composition, placement and size of the subject in the frame, and the impact and uniqueness of the image. Here’s where you get rid of duplicates and similars. Choose the best one of the four shots of the chipmunk and toss the others. Consider also whether you already have 100 chipmunk shots that are better than the ones you’re looking at. If you have no other chipmunks, this shot might qualify in your collection as “unique.”

Potential Use. Determine your need for the image and its marketability. If you’re shooting for your own enjoyment, then any image you value has potential use. If you’re entering contests or marketing your images, you need to decide if the image is useful and/or saleable now or in the future. If you accomplish your editing in a program designed for that purpose, such as Lightroom, you easily can set up a filing and keyword system, even applying identifiers globally to groups of similar images.

Does anyone know where all the deleted pixels go?

Finding The Problem
A friend called me with an imaging problem: He could see his images on the LCD screen on the back of the camera immediately after capture, but when he brought them up on his home computer, the bottom third of every image was a solid-green block. We considered all the possible sources of this problem.

He put the card in another camera and took a few images. Same problem. That ruled out the camera as the source. He downloaded the media card to a different computer. Same problem! That ruled out the computer or image-processing software. He used a different card reader, so that was eliminated as a potential source, too. That narrowed down the problem to the media card. He put a new card in the camera and used the same computer. Problem solved, other than having to throw away a media card (and its contents) and buy a new one. In hindsight, this problem could have been solved more efficiently by exploring the simplest and least expensive variable first: the media card.

When you’re trying to figure out what’s causing a glitch in your photography, you can apply this strategy to narrow down the possible causes until there’s only one solution. Before you assume that you have a potentially expensive breakdown of your camera, lens or computer, carefully test each element in isolation from the others until you’re able to definitively diagnose the problem. Plan the troubleshooting
procedure and sequence before you start, and you’ll save a lot of trial and error.

For information about upcoming seminars and digital-imaging workshops, visit If you have any tips or questions, address them to: OUTDOOR PHOTOGRAPHER, Dept. TT, George Lepp, 12121 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1200, Los Angeles, CA 90025-1176 or online at

One of North America’s best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers and a leader in the field of digital imaging and photographic education, Lepp is the author of many books and the field editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine. One of Canon’s original Explorers of Light, Lepp finds inspiration in advancing technology that fuels creative innovation and expression of his life-long fascination with the natural world.