10 Tips For Fall

Rod Planck shares some of his favorite techniques for the leaves of autumn
This Article Features Photo Zoom

Fall is the nature photographer's dream season. We've asked veteran fall color expert Rod Planck for some of his top tips to help you get the best from this season of fiery hues.

Use Reflections
1 Not everybody thinks about using reflections when they have the goal to shoot autumn colors. But using reflections can save a photographer on a bad day. If it's particularly windy or there's harsh sunlight, go into a forest with a shaded stream. Suddenly, the chaos of the wind goes away, the reflection in the water increases the color saturation and beautiful colors can be made. I prefer using a long lens, like the telephoto AF-S Nikkor 300mm ƒ/4D IF-ED lens in this image, to isolate the reflection instead of a wide-angle where you end up chasing the length of the reflection.
Nikon D3S, AF-S Nikkor 300mm ƒ/4D IF-ED, Gitzo GT3530LS tripod, Kirk BH-1 ballhead

Be A Weather-Watcher
2 Planning and scouting your location can have a huge impact on your trip. Don't underestimate the power of a computer and weather apps as general sources, as well as tourism bureaus. Radar maps can mean knowing with confidence that a lunchtime rainstorm will be gone in two hours. But weather reports don't tell you exactly when and where to be, and for that you need to scout. Scouting is something I'd be lost without. For this image of Clear Lake in Ottawa National Forest, I scouted the area 10 days prior to shooting and visited again twice before bringing my camera. I got up at 4 a.m. to get there at just the right time for it to be cool, partially clear and dead-calm for my desired composition.
Nikon D4, AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm ƒ/2.8G ED VR II, Gitzo GT3530LS tripod, Kirk BH-1 ballhead, tripod collar

3 Usually, autumn photography is concentrated on trees and leaves, but sunrise and sunset is a time to focus on the open expanse of sky. There are some trips, or even entire years, when you hit bad weather, but that moment at sunrise could be the best part of your day. A unique sky is always interesting. This image of the moonrise at Grand Sable Dunes focuses on the lack of color, with a pleasant gold band and the graphic autumn tree.
Nikon D3S, AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm ƒ/2.8G ED VR II, Gitzo GT3530LS tripod, Kirk BH-1 ballhead

Use Atmosphere
4 Along with having multiple perspectives and vantage points, atmosphere is a key component for composition. Working near rivers, streams, small lakes and large bodies of water usually assures you that there will be a shot with fog or mist. I have dozens of photos from overlooks when the colors are right on ordinary days. But to make it special, take advantage of the weather conditions. I had been monitoring the weather conditions at Nelson Lake from my computer. When I knew it would be calm and there would be fog, I decided to venture out to the lake for this shot.
Nikon D4, AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm ƒ/2.8G ED VR II, Gitzo GT3530LS tripod, Kirk BH-1 ballhead

5 With most landscapes, the inspiration for the shot comes from your perspective as you move through the scene. When I think of fall color locations, I don't think of flat areas or just photographing from the highest hill. I want a location with versatile perspectives. I want the ability to be on top of something, but also to stand eye level and have varying compositions. This is an iconic location at the Presque Isle River Kettles in Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park in Michigan; the perspective inspired me as I crossed a suspension bridge over the water.
Nikon D3S, AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm ƒ/2.8G ED, polarizer, Gitzo GT3530LS tripod, Kirk BH-1 ballhead

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Avoid White Sky On Overcast Days
6 If I could design the perfect day, the morning would start with not a cloud in the sky and a bit of fog; then, just as the sun gets harsh, clouds would roll in. I love cloudy days because they allow us to stay in the field all day long. But even with in-camera dynamic contrast range, a large area of white sky isn't very interesting without sunlight and can kill the viewer's attention. So on overcast days, I use the phrase, "This is a no-sky zone." This may mean working in an interior, forested area or specifically with more intimate shots. While some small highlights will work, I try to carefully compose my shot in-camera without any sky to avoid intricate postprocessing.
Nikon D2X, AF-S Zoom Nikkor 17-35mm ƒ/2.8D IF-ED, Gitzo GT3530LS tripod, Kirk BH-1 ballhead

Early Fall Color
7 While some areas of the country have fairly consistent quality and dates for peak autumn colors, sometimes, dates slide around or an entire season may be thrown off by drought. Don't get too keyed into the predicted dates and be at the mercy of peak color. Early greens are magical as they start to pale and become fluorescent with a patchwork of orange. In this image from Hiawatha National Forest, the red maples are already turning bright red, while the smaller sugar maples are still green. The birch trunks and evergreens add diversity and range. Similar to flower photography, don't fret about arriving a little early—the worst-case scenario is getting there late.

Nikon D3S, AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm ƒ/2.8G ED VR II, Gitzo GT3530LS tripod, Kirk BH-1 ballhead

Get Out Of Your Comfort Zone
8 There are days when the color is beautiful, but the weather isn't cooperating. With this set of images, I got a shot in just before a breeze started. I didn't feel done with the location, so I decided to take multiple in-camera exposures. My rule when working with multiple exposures is that I still need a subject and a nice composition. I'm not doing something different just for the sake of doing something different. I let the multiple come to me. I used an AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm ƒ/2.8G ED VR II lens with a tripod collar. For each exposure, I rotated the tripod collar and moved the focal length backward. This way, the windy weather didn't get in the way of me capturing the beautiful colors.
Nikon D3S, AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm ƒ/2.8G ED VR II, Gitzo GT3530LS tripod, Kirk BH-1 ballhead, tripod collar

Focal-Length Selection
9 A person could easily photograph fall color with a good-quality, wide-range zoom lens. A workhorse, such as the 70-200mm, can never be underestimated. But I generally want to cover a range from 24-300mm in either fixed or zoom lenses, and then throw in a couple of specialty lenses, including a macro and a tilt/shift lens, in order to provide variety and leave room for creativity. In this image, I used my AF-S Micro-Nikkor 60mm ƒ/2.8G ED lens. While I could have used another lens, this was a perfect fit for the subject and composition, and allowed me the most creativity in the moment. When it comes to focal length, don't limit yourself.
Nikon D300, AF-S Micro-Nikkor 60mm ƒ/2.8G ED, Gitzo GT3530LS tripod, Kirk BH-1 ballhead

It's Not All About The Leaves
10 It's easy to fixate on the rich color of fall leaves, but autumn is a season of transition for more than just the trees. As the leaves are turning colors, other plants are sprouting seeds and creating a forest full of details. Cattail stalks turn yellow with brown seedheads. Mushrooms of various colors cover the trees. The air changes, letting calm mornings cover the grasses with frost. In the upper Midwest, milkweed pods are an iconic symbol of the season. These pods are dry seeds that split open and disperse through the wind. I caught some of these milkweed seeds with a background of maple color.
Nikon D300, AF-S Nikkor 300mm ƒ/4D IF-ED, Gitzo GT3530LS tripod, Kirk BH-1 ballhead


    Excellent shooting! While the equipment is always interesting, for me, I’d rather have the shooting data: speed, aperture, focal length used when shot is taken… I live in the Denver area where it’s mostly dry, and always watch the weather conditions for the possibility of fog.

    These tips just scratch the surface of the wealth of useful information Rod Planck knows. If you take one of his workshops, as I did in August, you will be amazed at his depth of knowledge of all aspects of photography.

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