Fall Color Photography Tips

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Yin and Yang, Bridalveil Creek, Yosemite

Autumn Yin and Yang, Bridalveil Creek, Yosemite
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II
Canon 70-200 f/4 L
10 seconds
F/13
ISO 100


This is the second of my two-part fall color series

Read part one: The Why, How, and When of Fall Color


Vivid color and crisp reflections make autumn my favorite season for creative photography. While most landscape scenes require showing up at the right time and hoping for the sun and clouds to cooperate, photographing fall color can be as simple as circling your subject until the light’s right. For photographers armed with an understanding of light and visual  relationships, and the ability to control exposure, depth, and motion with their camera’s exposure variables, fall color possibilities are virtually unlimited.

Backlight, backlight, backlight

The difference between the front-lit and backlit sides of fall foliage is the difference between dull and vivid color. Glare and reflection make the side of a leaf facing its light source, whether that leaf is in direct sunlight or simply faces an overcast sky, appears flat. But the other side of the same leaf, the side that’s opposite the light from the sun or sky, glows with color.

In the image below (Autumn Reflection, Merced River, Yosemite), my camera has captured the sky-facing side of most of the leaves. But I’ve captured the underside of the leaves on the top-right of the branch—even though it’s an overcast day, can you see how these backlit leaves glow compared to the others?

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Reflection, Merced River, Yosemite

Autumn Reflection, Merced River, Yosemite

The moral of this story? If you ever find yourself disappointed that the fall color seems washed out, check the other side of the tree.

Isolate elements for a more intimate fall color image

Big fall color scenes are great, but isolating your subject with a telephoto, and/or by moving closer, enables you to highlight and emphasize specific elements and relationships.

  • Train your eye to find leaves, groups of leaves, or branches that stand alone from the rest of the tree or scene, or that stand out against a contrasting background.
  • Zoom close, using the edges of the frame to eliminate distractions and frame subjects.
  • Don’t concentrate so much on your primary subject that you miss complementary background or foreground elements that can balance the frame and provide an appealing canvas for your primary subject.

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Selective depth of field is a great way to emphasize/deemphasize elements in a scene

Limiting depth of field by composing close with a large aperture and/or telephoto lens can soften a potentially distracting background into a complementary canvas of color and shape. Parallel tree trunks, other colorful leaves, and reflective water make particularly effective soft background subjects. For an extremely soft background, reduce your depth of field further by adding an extension tube to focus even closer.

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Underexpose sunlit leaves to maximize color

Contrary to what many believe, fall foliage in bright sunlight is still photographable if you isolate backlit leaves against a darker background and slightly underexpose them. The key here is making sure the foliage is the brightest thing in the frame, and to avoid including bright sky in the frame. Photographing sunlit leaves, especially with a large aperture to limit DOF, has the added advantage of an extremely fast shutter speed that will freeze wind-blown foliage.

Slightly underexposing brightly lit leaves not only emphasizes their color, it turns everything that’s in shade to a dark background. And if your depth of field is narrow enough, points of light sneaking between the leaves and branches to reach your camera will blur to glowing jewels.

A sunstar is a great way to liven up an image in extreme light

If you’re going to be shooting backlit leaves, you’ll often find yourself fighting the sun. Rather than trying to overcome it, turn the sun into an ally by hiding it behind a tree. A small aperture (f16 or smaller is my general rule) with a small sliver of the sun’s disk visible creates a brilliant sunstar that becomes the focal-point of your scene. Unlike photographing a sunstar on the horizon, hiding the sun behind a terrestrial object like a tree or rock enables you to move with the sun.

When you get a composition you like, try several frames, varying the amount of sun visible in each. The smaller the sliver of sun, the more delicate the sunstar; the more sun you include, the more bold the sunstar. You’ll also find that different lenses render sunstars differently, so experiment to see which lenses and apertures work best for you.

Motion blur

When photographing in overcast or shade, it’s virtually impossible to freeze the motion of rapid water at any kind of reasonable ISO. Rather than fight it, use this opportunity to add silky water to your fall color scenes. There’s no magic shutter speed for blurring water—in addition to the shutter speed, the amount of blur will depend on the speed of the water, your distance from the water, your focal length, and your angle of view relative to the water’s motion.

All blurs aren’t created equal. When you find a composition you like, don’t stop with one click. Experiment with different shutter speeds by varying the ISO (or aperture as long as you don’t compromise the desired depth of field).

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Reflections make fantastic complements to any fall color scene

By autumn, rivers and streams that rushed over rocks in spring and summer, meander at a leisurely, reflective pace. Adding a reflection to your autumn scene can double the color, and also add a sense of tranquility. The recipe for a reflection is still water, sunlit reflection subjects, and shaded reflective surface.

When photographing leaves floating atop a reflection, it’s important to know that the focus point for the reflection is the focus point of the reflective subject, not the reflective surface. This is seems counterintuitive, but try it yourself—focus on the leaves with a wide aperture and watch the reflection go soft; then focus on the reflection and watch the leaves go soft.

A wide focal length often provides sharpness from the nearby leaves to the infinite reflection, but sometimes achieving sharpness in your floating leaves and the reflection requires careful hyperfocal focus. And sometimes the necessary depth of field exceeds the camera’s ability to capture it—in this case, I almost always bias my focus toward the leaves and let the reflection go a little soft.

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Don’t forget the polarizer

I can’t imagine photographing fall color without a polarizer. Fall foliage has a reflective sheen that dulls its natural color, so a properly oriented polarizer can erase that sheen and bring the underlying natural color into prominence. Not are reflections on the foliage a problem, reflections on nearby water and rocks can pull the eye and distract from your primary subject.

To minimize the scene’s reflection, slowly turn the polarizer until the scene is darkest (the more you try this, the easier it will be to see). If you have a hard time seeing the difference, concentrate your gaze on a single leaf, rock, or wet surface.

Fallen Color, Rock Creek Canyon, Eastern Sierra

A polarizer isn’t an all-on or all-off proposition. When photographing a scene with still water, it’s often possible to maximize a reflection in the water without dialing up the reflection on the leaves. To achieve this, dial the polarizer’s ring and watch the reflection change until you achieve the effect you desire. This technique is particularly effective when you want your reflection to share the frame with submerged feature such as rocks, leaves, and grass. In the image below, I turned my polarizer just enough to reveal the nearby submerged rocks without removing the mountain a trees reflection.

Morning Reflection, North Lake, Eastern Sierra

Nothing communicates the change of seasons like fall color with snow

Don’t think the first snow means your fall photography is finished for the year. Hardy autumn leaves often cling to branches, and even retain their color on the ground through the first few storms of winter. An early snowfall is an opportunity to catch fall leaves etched in white, an opportunity not to be missed. And even after the snow has been falling for a while, it’s possible to find a colorful rogue leaf to accent an otherwise stark winter scene.

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About this image

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Yin and Yang, Bridalveil Creek, Yosemite

Autumn Yin and Yang, Bridalveil Creek, Yosemite

People sometimes accuse me of adding or positioning leaves in my frame. Those who know me know I don’t do that, but that doesn’t protect me from their (good natured) abuse. For those who don’t know me and who don’t believe I found this leaf like that, I don’t really know what to say, except to explain that the joy I get from photography comes from discovering natural beauty, and a manufactured scene that isn’t natural has zero appeal to me. (I think this is also why I don’t do composites.) I don’t think it’s wrong to place elements in a frame (or to blend multiple images), as long as it’s done honestly—it’s just not something that interests me. But anyway…

I don’t really understand why people think it’s so unusual to find a leaf (or two, or three…) isolated from its surroundings. I aggressively look for small scenes like this, so it should be no surprise that I have a lot of them in my portfolio. While the position of the leaves in my images is randomly determined by nature (or maybe by the unscrupulous photographer who preceded me at the scene), there’s nothing random about my position when I capture these scenes.

Probably my favorite place to photograph isolated leaves is Bridalveil Creek, just beneath Bridalveil Fall in Yosemite. The entire area is decorated with an assortment of deciduous trees that deposit their leaves liberally among the rocks and cascades each fall. And unlike Yosemite’s other waterfalls, Bridalveil Fall runs year-round. Even in autumn, when it’s often barely more than a trickle, there’s enough water to cascade, splash, and pool among the rocks.

Another great thing about Bridalveil Creek is that its location just beneath Cathedral Rocks and Leaning Tower means it gets very little direct sunlight in autumn.  So even when the sun’s out, I can spend hours photographing here in the full shade that’s ideal for this type of photography.

On this cloudy October morning I was doing my usual thing, bounding about on the rocks upstream from the trail looking for single leaves to isolate in my frame. My of the cascades here are active enough to splash and wet the rocks, so when a descending leaf hits a wet rock just right, it sticks like glue. I didn’t see this leaf land and stick, but I’ve seen it happen enough to know this isn’t that unusual.

This cascade was about 20 feet away, above a pool that was deeper than I wanted to wade, so I went to my 70-200 lens. I spent a little time casually working this scene, circling, framing it from a variety of positions using different focal lengths. But when I got to this spot and saw the smooth curves and dark flowing into light, my mind immediately went to the Yin and Yang symbol (okay, so maybe you need use your imagination a bit). I dropped down a bit and refined my composition, then started working on the exposure.

Not only was this spot in full shade, the morning was overcast. With my polarizer on to cut the sheen on the rocks and leaves, I knew that slowing the water enough to capture any detail was virtually impossible, so I went all-in on the motion blur and just turned the water a homogenous white. It turns out this decision actually enhanced the yin/yang effect I was going for.

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To better understand the science and timing of fall color, read

The Why, How, and When of Fall Color



A Gallery of Fall Color

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:: More photography tips ::

The Why, How, and When of Fall Color

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Cascade, Bridalveil Creek, Yosemite

Autumn Cascade, Bridalveil Creek, Yosemite (2005)
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II
Canon 70 – 200 f/4 L
1 second
F/10
ISO 160

Autumn is right around the corner. To get things started, I’ve updated a previous post that demystifies why, how, and when of fall color.

Few things get a photographer’s heart racing more than the vivid yellows, oranges, and reds of autumn. And the excitement isn’t limited to photographers—to appreciate that reality, just try navigating New England backroads on a Sunday afternoon in the fall.

Innkeeper logic

Despite all the attention, the annual autumn extravaganza is fraught with mystery and misconception. Showing up at at the spot that guy in your camera club told you was peaking at this time last year, you might find the very same trees displaying lime green mixed with just hints of yellow and orange, and hear the old guy behind the counter at the inn shake his head and tell you, “It hasn’t gotten cold enough yet—the color’s late this year.” Then, the next year, when you check into the same inn on the same weekend, you find just a handful of leaves clinging to exposed branches—this time as the old guy hands you the key to your room he utters, “That freeze a couple of weeks ago got the color started early this year—you should have been here last week.”

While these explanations may sound reasonable, they’re not quite accurate. Because the why and when of fall color is complicated, observers resort to memory, anecdote, and lore to fill knowledge voids with partial truth and downright myth. And while we still can’t predict fall color the way we do the whether, science has provided a pretty good understanding of the fall color process.

A tree’s color

The leaves of deciduous trees contain a mix of green, yellow, and orange pigments. During the spring and summer growing season, the volume and intensity of the green chlorophyl pigment overpowers the orange and yellow pigments and the tree stays green. Even though  chlorophyl is quickly broken down by sunlight, the process of photosynthesis that turns sunlight into nutrients during the long days of summer continuously replaces the spent chlorophyl.

As the days shrink toward autumn, things begin to change. Cells at the abscission layer at the base of the leaves’ stem (the knot where the leaf connects to the branch) begin the process that will eventually lead to the leaf dropping from the tree: Thickening of cells in the abscission layer blocks the transfer of carbohydrates from the leaves to the branches, and the movement of minerals to the leaves. Without these minerals, the leaves’ production of chlorophyl dwindles and finally stops, leaving just the yellow and orange pigments. Voilà—fall color!

The role of sunlight and weather

Contrary to popular belief, the timing of the onset of this fall color chain reaction depends much more on daylight than it does on temperature and weather.  Triggered by a genetically programmed day/night-duration threshold (and contrary to innkeeper-logic), the trees in any given region will commence their transition from green to color at about the same time each year, when the day length drops to a certain point.

Nevertheless, though it doesn’t trigger the process, weather does play a significant part in the intensity, duration, and demise of the color season. Because sunlight breaks down the green chlorophyl, cloudy days after the suspension of chlorophyl creation will slow the chlorophyl’s demise and the coloring process that follows. And while the yellow and orange pigments are present and pretty much just hanging out while they wait all summer for the chlorophyl to relinquish control of the tree’s color, a tree’s red and purple pigments are manufactured from sugar stored in the leaves—the more sugar, the more vivid a tree’s red. Ample moisture, warm days, and cool (but not freezing) nights after the chlorophyl replacement has stopped are most conducive to the creation and retention of the sugars that form the red and purple pigments.

On the other hand, freezing temperatures destroy the color pigments, bringing a premature end to the color display. Drought can stress trees so much that they drop their leaves before the color has a chance to manifest. And wind and rain can wreak havoc with the fall display—go to bed one night beneath a canopy of red and gold, wake the next morning to find the trees bare and the ground blanketed with color.

Since the fall color factors come in a virtually infinite number of possible variations and combinations, the color timing and intensity can vary a lot from year to year. Despite expert advice that seems promise precise timing for the fall color, when planning a fall color trip, your best bet is to try to get there as close as possible to the middle of the color window, then cross your fingers.

About this image

Looking for something to do in this COVID-constrained world, I dialed my way-back machine all the way back to 2005 and landed on this image. I wish I could tell you I have a memory of its capture, but I don’t. I do, however, have lots of general memories of photographing fall color at Bridalveil Creek in Yosemite, just below Bridalveil Fall. Since I’ve never visited Yosemite in autumn without shooting here, when I set out find a fall color image in my archives, I specifically targeted my Bridalveil Creek shoots.

I started by digging up another image from this trip that I’ve always liked, but felt was too soft to share. Given that I virtually never take a single frame of a nice scene, I was pretty confident that I’d find something similar, and crossed my fingers that the sharpness problem was a one-off that I quickly corrected. This is actually the very next image I clicked, and I was very pleased to confirm that it is indeed sharp.

This image is a perfect example of my approach to intimate fall color scenes: Look for color to juxtapose with another feature in the scene. Often that’s a single leaf (no, I do not place leaves, ever), but in this case I accented a nice little cascade with a group of fallen leaves that were plastered against water-soaked granite. And when there’s water motion in the scene, I usually shoot it at a variety of shutter speeds to give myself multiple motion effects to choose between. Looking through my captures from this shoot, I can tell that’s exactly what I did. This image is a 1-second exposure, long enough to blur the cascade, but not so long that I obliterated all detail. And though I have no memory of it, I know I used a polarizer because I always use a polarizer when photographing fall color, and I can tell that the sheen has been removed from the rocks, leaves, and water.

Autumn Intimates

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Up a creek

Gary Hart Photography: Wonderland, Bridalveil Creek, Yosemite

Wonderland, Bridalveil Creek, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f/4
1/4 second
F/10
ISO 100

Many photographers vary their portfolios by visiting as many locations as possible. While I love visiting new locations, I’ve always preferred the kind of intimate familiarity that’s only possible with frequent, quality visits. And as enjoyable as it is photograph the icons, for my personal pleasure I’m most drawn to quiet pastorals and intimate portraits of nature that could be anywhere—wildflowers, fall color, solitary oaks, sparkling reflections, and tumbling creeks can keep me happy for hours.

One of my favorite intimate settings is Bridalveil Creek beneath Bridalveil Fall in Yosemite. Not only is there lots to photograph here, it’s different every time I visit. In spring the water in all three of the creek’s branches roars down the slope beneath Bridalveil Fall like it can’t get to the Merced River soon enough. And I’m especially fond of Bridalveil Creek in autumn, when the flow is often down to a single leisurely trickle, its whispering cascades and spinning pools adorned with vivid yellow leaves. Winter can find Bridalveil Creek in a variety of states that range from a gentle rivulet to a raging torrent. During one particularly cold winter the creek was solid ice, as if some frostbitten wizard had waved his wand and frozen the flowing water in place.

For some reason I haven’t had as much success here in winter as autumn or spring, so this winter I redoubled my efforts. On last month’s snow trip, while waiting for Yosemite’s monoliths to emerge from the clouds, I headed to Bridalveil Creek and found every square inch covered with snow—not a fine etching, but a dense glazing that covered virtually every exposed surface with several inches of white powder.

I hadn’t even crossed the first bridge when I was stopped by the scene here. I extended my tripod and evaluated the possibilities, starting on the bridge before moving down to a rock right on the creek. My first compositions were horizontal, but I eventually adjusted to vertical to emphasize the creek. Following my standard click, review, refine, click process, I finally landed on this composition—just wide enough to include both sides of the creek, and tall enough to include the parallel tree trunks and the creek’s exit from the bottom of the frame. I had to drop down quite low to get beneath an overhanging branch and keep it from occluding part of the creek.

The non-compositional variables I had to consider were motion and depth of field—there was no wind to sway the branches, but I knew the water’s blur would vary greatly with my shutter speed choice. And because I wanted everything in my frame sharp, I needed to be careful with my f-stop choice. The closest point of interest, the snowy foreground rock, was about five feet away. My hyperfocal app told me that at my 22mm focal length and f/8, my hyperfocal distance was about six feet (sharp from three feet to infinity). Because hyperfocal data draws the acceptable sharpness line a little less critically than I do, I stopped down to f/10 and focused on a small rock about eight feet away. Playing with a few ISOs to vary my shutter speed for different water motion effects, I decided I liked 1/4 second because it blurred the creek enough to clearly convey the water’s speed, but not so much that it lost its definition.


Intimate and Anonymous

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Photographic matchmaking

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Pool and Cascade, Bridalveil Creek, Yosemite

Autumn Pool and Cascade, Bridalveil Creek, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4
6 seconds
F/16
ISO 200

While everyone loves a pretty scene, I’m afraid our aesthetic sense has been numbed by the continuous assault of “stunning” images online. A picture grabs our eyes on Instagram or Facebook and we reflexively click Like and move on to the next (similarly) stunning image. The photography equivalent of pop music, formula fiction, or (most) network television, these images exit our conscious about as fast as they entered because they fail to make a personal connection.

But every once in awhile an image surprises us and we pause, float our eyes around the scene, examine detail, bask in its mood. Who knows the trigger for such a response? Maybe is as simple as aspect of the scene that spurs a memory or taps a longing. Or maybe the connection reaches deeper than that.

Pictures succeed not just by virtue of their visual elements, but also by how those elements are connected. I used to believe that the sole purpose of including visual elements throughout my frame was to create the illusion of depth in photography’s two-dimensional medium. While I still strongly agree, I think the value of multiple points of visual interest goes deeper than that. Just as humans seek interpersonal connections in our daily lives, I think we’re programmed to favor images with relationships between heterogeneous elements in the nature. Not just Grand Canyon, but Grand Canyon speared by lightning; not just Half Dome, but Half Dome beneath a rising full moon; not just glowing Kilauea Caldera, but glowing Kilauea Caldera beneath the Milky Way.

Creating relationships between elements work on a smaller scale as well (albeit, usually without the opportunity for planning that celestial or meteorological phenomena provide)—small forest scenes and intimate macros benefit from inclusion of multiple elements as well. Of course an image with a disorganized arrangement of elements, no matter how beautiful each is individually, probably won’t get a second look. But find a way to organize a scene’s elements in a way that allows the eye to flow effortlessly through the frame and you have the potential for visual synergy—an image that’s greater than the sum of its visual parts.

The opportunity to connect disparate elements is everywhere if you look, from the broadest panorama to the most intimate macro. Whatever the scale, the key is not locking onto your subject until you find something to pair it with. In other words, finding a photo-worthy subject should never be your goal, it should be your starting point.

Without diving too deeply into the concept of visual weight (a subject in and of itself), I try to create a frame with balance between visual elements (not loaded too much in on of the scene’s quadrants: upper left, upper right, lower left, lower right). I also try to keep objects with a strong visual tug away from the edges of my frame. And finally, I look to position my elements so they’re connected by virtual diagonal lines.

 

About this image

On the final morning of last month’s Yosemite Autumn Moon photo workshop, I set the group loose in the forest beneath Bridalveil Fall to scour the possibilities in and around Bridalveil Creek. Always a workshop favorite, I usually save the Bridalveil Creek until the workshop’s final day, when my students have found their creative zone after three days of shooting and training. This approach seems to pay off, because no matter how much time I give them in there, it never seems to be enough.

When I found this accumulation of just-fallen autumn leaves floating in a glassy pool, I knew I had the start of a nice scene. Scanning my surroundings, I didn’t have to look hard to find a small cascade to connect with my colorful leaves. But with the pool tucked beneath a fallen log, accessing the best angle was tricky. Sprawling nearly flat on my back beneath the overhanging log, with one tripod leg in the water, turned out to be the best way to maximize the virtual diagonal connecting the leaves and cascade.

The other consideration here was depth of field—the leaves started no more than three feet from my lens, while the cascade was about 12 feet away. To ensure maximum sharpness throughout with getting too far into the diffraction zone, I stopped down to f/16 and focused on the back of the leaves. I wasn’t too concerned about shutter speed and the cascade’s blur because the difference between one and six seconds was insignificant, and freezing the water would have required a ridiculously high ISO, while the pool was so still that I could discern no motion at all.

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A Gallery of Relationships

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Letting motion work for you

Gary Hart Photography, Autumn Swirl, Yosemite

Autumn Swirl, Bridalveil Creek, Yosemite
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
154 mm
30 seconds
F/22
ISO 100

Of the many differences between our world and our camera’s world, few are more significant than motion. Image stabilization or (better yet) a tripod will reduce or eliminate or photographer-induced motion, but we often make compromises to stop motion in our scene, sacrificing depth of field or introducing noise to shorten the shutter speed enough to freeze the scene.

But what’s wrong with letting the motion work for you? While it’s impossible to duplicate the human experience of motion in a static photo, a camera’s ability to record every instant throughout the duration of capture creates an illusion of motion that can also be quite beautiful. Whether it’s stars streaked into parallel arcs by Earth’s rotation, a tumbling cascade blurred to silky white, or a vortex of spinning autumn leaves, your ability to convey the world’s motion with your images is limited only by your imagination and ability to manage your camera’s exposure variables.

I came across the this little scene in the morning shade beneath Bridalveil Fall in Yosemite. A thin trickle of water entering at the top of the pool, and exiting just out of the frame behind me, was enough to impart an imperceptible clockwise vortex. To my eye, the motion here appeared to be random drift, but I guessed a long exposure might show otherwise.

To ensure sharpness from the closest rock all the way back to the cascade, I was already at f22; by dropping my ISO to 100, dialing my polarizer to minimize reflections (thus darkening the scene by two additional stops), in the already low light I achieved a 30-second exposure. The result was an image that recorded the path of each leaf for the duration of my exposure, revealing that what looked like random drift, was indeed organized rotation.

Visualizing the way your camera will record motion requires practice—the more you do it, the better you’ll become at seeing as your camera sees. Sometimes you’ll want just the barest hint of movement; other times, lots of movement is best. I usually bracket exposures to cover a broad range of motion—not only does this give me a variety of images to choose from, each click improves my ability to anticipate the effect the next time.

 A gallery of motion

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