More Thoughts on Autumn Photography

Two of my favorite locations for autumn photography are the mountains of West Virginia and the Canadian Rockies.

Aspen on hillside, Canadian Rockies

With the arrival of fall, to the delight of photographers, leaf color changes, birds migrate, and animals move from the high country to lower elevations. But also rain and overcast skies often accompany the seasonal change as temperatures fluctuate and the weather becomes less stable. Such conditions can render images dull and flat, but can also be an asset.

Rain – the Sliver Lining

In the Canadian Rockies this September, we had 2 days of continuous hard rain, so much that rock slides blocked the main highway. We just took the time to relax, read, and work on images. Although being driven inside by the rain was disappointing, the following morning was spectacular with beautiful fresh snow on the mountain tops.

Snow Peaks, Canadian Rockies
Snow Peaks, Canadian Rockies

Rain can be a both a blessing and a curse.  With rain, the grass becomes greener,  rainbows appear, water droplets adorn leaves and spider webs, pools of rainwater reflect the colors around them, and waterfalls and cascades flow more swiftly. The color of vegetation becomes more saturated. By using a polarizing filter to remove shine on surfaces, you can make colors even more intense.

Road side falls in the Canadian Rockies on a photo tour this fall.
Tangle Falls after rainfall.

Ok, so the next image is not related to fall photography but it makes the point that rain can be a good thing.  My photos that I shot in Costa Rica of hummingbirds in the rain, were some of my favorite from that trip. (A cheap kids poncho or large plastic bag will keep your gear dry in case of an unexpected downpour.)

Fiery-throated Hummingbird, Costa Rica
Fiery-throated Hummingbird in the rain, Costa Rica

 Fog & Overcast Skies

Overcast skies, low cloud banks, and fog generated by temperature changes in the fall can present photographers with unique photo opportunities. When I rise in the morning, I let the light direct my activities. On a foggy morning, I will head to a nearby lake, pond, or low area where the fog creeps along the ground and slowly rises with the heat of day to reveal interesting ghost-like silhouettes of trees, bushes, and mountains ranges. If in Shenandoah National Park, I am likely to go to a high point to photograph the fog hanging in the valleys between the mountains. (Note: Be careful when exposing foggy scenes. Depending on your camera, if your light meter is reading off of the fog layer, then it will adjust the exposure to render the fog mid-tone gray. This will often result in an underexposed photo. Add more exposure to compensate).

Snow covered peaks near Canmore, Canadian Rockies, fog rising.
Snow covered peaks near Canmore, Canadian Rockies
Morning fog over river, Jasper
Morning fog over river, Jasper, Canadian Rockies
Blackwater Falls State Park, Fog over Pendleton dawn.

If instead of fog, I wake to a sky that is lightly overcast, I will head to a location where the soft light complements the scene, e.g. to a waterfalls, cascade, stand of trees, woodland trails, flowing streams, delicately colored wildflower, etc. On a bright sunny day, photographs of these subjects will often be disappointing with distracting backgrounds, hot spots, and deep shadows that hide important details. (If the sunlight becomes to bright for your subject, you can sometimes get acceptable results by waiting until the light is diffused by a passing cloud.)

Linde Point, Blackwater Falls, view down Blackwater Canyon with fall color
Linde Point, Blackwater Falls State Park, view down Blackwater Canyon. Soft light reveals details.

The Wonders of Backlighting

Backlighting and side lighting bring out the vibrant color of autumn leaves. By using a polarizing filter you can intensify the effect by removing glare from the surface of vegetation. Even towards mid-day, polarizers can sometimes help you achieve satisfactory results. Take note that flare can be a problem when pointing the camera towards the sun. Flare appears as unwanted bright spots across the image or a bright wash over the photo. Flare spots are created by the sunlight reflecting off of glass surfaces within the camera lens or filter.  How can you reduce flare? Your lens shade can help but you may need more assistance. You can shadow the lens with a jacket, hat, card, umbrella, or person’s shadow. You can also stand in the shade of a tree or building. Sometimes you can reduce flare by aiming your lens such that the sun is blocked by an object such as behind a cloud or tree limb.

Blackwater Falls State Park, Reflection
Pond at Canaan Valley State Park. Fall color reflecting in a pond. (For reflections in ponds and lakes, you may capture better color  in the water from the surroundings trees by moving to a higher vantage point where more of the water’s surface is visible.)
Backlit fern


Backlit Tree, Canaan Valley
Backlit Tree, Canaan Valley
Dolly Sods
Dolly Sods.  Leaves from blue berry bushes turn red in the fall and glow when struck by the late afternoon sun.

Isolation and macro landscapes

Instead of using your wide-angle lens for all landscape photos, consider isolating portion of the scene using a telephoto or macro lens. (Be careful when using wide-angle lenses for landscapes.  They alter perspective and shrink the size of items in the background; thereby, lessening the impact of a photo. The mountains you emotionally reacted to are reduced to bumps on the horizon.)

For any photo, identify what attracted you to the scene.  Then chose your lens , angle of view, lighting, etc. to emphasize what initially impressed you.  Concentrate on the key elements and simplify the image, eliminating the non-essential components. Instead of capturing a broad landscapes all the time, look for patterns and portions of the scene that have high visual impact. These are what I call macro landscape. Little things such as bubbles in a stream, water droplets on a fallen leaf, lichen covered rocks, distinctive patterns on tree bark, colorful reflections in a pond, the flow of water across a rock, etc. can be perfect photo subjects.

Bubbles in a stream found during prep for photo workshop.
Bubbles in stream
Fallen leaves floating in pond, fall color
Fallen leaves floating in pond, fall color, Canaan Valley
Iceland cascade
Iceland cascade.
Somewhat abstract image of tree bark from birch along a road in the Canadian Rockies during photo tour.
Bark Patterns

Slow Shutter Speeds

For streams and waterfalls, its fun to experiment using low ISOs, small apertures, and neutral density filters, achieving slow shutter speeds to blur the motion of the water for an artistic effect. With flowing streams, slow shutter speeds can add sense of motion which can be sometimes enhanced by swirling patterns of colorful leaves, bubbles, or foam. There is no way to perfectly predict what the final results are going to be, so take a number of shots with different settings.  Use your camera’s playback mode to judge results.

Slow shutter speed. Photo of cascade. Canadian Rockies.
Slow shutter speed. Photo of cascade. Canadian Rockies.
Creek photographed in autumn capturing flowing water.
Swirling water in a stream.
Roadside cascade, Canadian Rockies. Slow shutter speed to show action. Soft light to avoid hot spots.

Location, Location, Location

If the leaf color is not good in one area, don’t give up.  It might be spectacular a short distance down the road. Autumn colors vary with temperature, rainfall, and altitude. The arrival of peak color in any one location varies from year to year.

Fall color reflected stream
Fall color reflected in a stream, West Virginia, Near Elkins, WV.  Spotted the possibilities as I was crossing the bridge where I took this photo.

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