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Like moths to a flame, photographers flock to autumn foliage. Many want to know what the one special trick is to capture spectacular saturated fall colors. Here it is: There is no one special trick. There are many factors that come into play. Arm yourself with the following tips to take advantage of the conditions Mother Nature provides.
Before you plunk down a chunk of change on a fall-foliage outing, make sure you do some research as to when peak color usually arrives. The web is a great place to start, as are tour books. All of the fall-color hot spots have foliage hotlines that chart the progression of color and give daily reports.
Don't leave home without the polarizer. The polarizer removes glare from the leaves that robs them of their saturation. It also helps saturate a blue sky and render cumulous clouds more prominently. Be careful of the wide-angle pitfall, where only a part of the sky is polarized. If you see this through the viewfinder, back off the amount polarization you dial in.
Have someone in your group wear red. Place the person in your autumn scene to show scale and human interest. Apply the Rule Of Thirds when you create the composition. Another way the red garment comes in handy is it provides a beautiful "autumn" reflection in a pool of water. In the accompanying photo of the oak leaves, I bounced sunlight off the red sweatshirt and reflected it into the river.
Control Depth Of Field
The grand scenic should have everything in focus from foreground to background. Stop the lens down to achieve this. Be sure the camera is mounted to a tripod, and use a cable release to ensure you acquire a sharp image. Conversely, in some situations, it's better to have an out-of-focus background that complements the subject. This is true for closeups of leaves and other more intimate autumn landscapes. The recipe for the out-of-focus scenarios includes a long lens, a wide-open aperture, and a subject that has separation from the background.
Bring on the Backlight
Many photographers prefer a certain quality of light in which to photograph fall color. To me, whatever condition I'm bestowed on a particular day, I'll exploit. One of the conditions I take advantage of is backlight. Autumn-colored leaves take on a glow as if each has a built in spotlight that gets turned on to a varying intensity. Find a solitary tree in full fall color and do a 360-degree walk around. Watch what happens to the leaves as the quality of light changes from front, to side, to back light.