Fall is my absolute favorite time of year. Hillsides and mountain roads are blazing with color, cozy blankets and sweaters reappear from summer hibernation, and my personal favorite … it’s the season of pumpkin spice everything! (I know… you can explain the error of my ways to me later.)
Fall is also one of the most magical times to be a photographer.
You’ve gotten up and out, quite possibly at zero-dark-thirty (way to go!) and headed to your favorite vista. You’ve created the sweeping landscape shots that you know will wow your friends and family, and now you’re dying to go download your card…
But wait! Don’t head home just yet! There are many additional ways to capture the beauty of fall that go beyond (or below!) the sweeping landscape shot.
As impressive as big landscapes are, smaller autumn scenes can create a compelling sense of intimacy and mood that can be just as captivating.
Look for smaller areas that feature fall’s trademark colors, but also give your viewer a sense of being immersed in the scene with you. Find pathways that serve as leading lines and give your audience a visual invitation to move deeper into the photo. Shooting from a lower angle can also be an effective way to invite your audience to experience the scene alongside you.
Areas where the light is focused on just one small piece of a scene can also create intimacy by offering a private glimpse into a “secret” world. Partially cloudy days or dense forests are great for this, as sunlight can filter through in a much more focused way. Or look for areas where dense stands of trees give way to clearings, creating contrast between forest shadows and brighter, open spaces.
Isolate the fall details
So many beautiful details can easily go unnoticed by the casual observer, so show them just what they’re missing! Dewdrops on a fallen leaf or a tiny explosion of color on the side of a trail can be the stars of a unique composition. Experiment with using wider aperture settings (lower f-stop numbers) to give you a shallow depth of field. This allows you to keep your main subject sharp while minimizing any distracting background or foreground elements by throwing them out of focus.
Positioning yourself so that the sunlight shines through your subject from behind can really highlight hidden structures and details. This is called backlighting, and is a technique you can use to get that luminous, “glowy” look at your leaves. You don’t even have to show a whole tree — you can focus on the contrast between the bright, round shapes of the leaves and the dark, straight lines of limbs and trunk.
A macro lens is great for detail shots because it will allow you to get nice and close to your subject, but you can create detail shots with whatever lens you have. Just make sure you aren’t so close to your subject that your camera can’t focus properly. Don’t worry — if you have to back up to get everything in focus and it creates a larger field of view than you want, you can always crop later in image editing software.
Is your natural instinct to point the camera at whatever is right in front of you, at least to start? Me too.
But, when we’re talking about trees, don’t forget to look up! Capture a sense of towering height by shooting straight up through a stand of trees from the ground. Showcase luminous leaves against a clear blue sky.
If you’re like me and not super excited about lying right on the muddy, buggy ground (ick!), hold your camera close to the ground and point it up through the branches. Use an articulating back LCD screen and the Live View function to frame the image the way you want it, then take the shot.
… And look down
Often we focus so much on the colorful leaves, we forget to check out what’s going on underneath those magnificent trees. Especially here in Colorado where the majority of our fall color is yellow, the bushes and scrub below those elegant aspens can often yield fantastic contrasting reds and oranges that complement and highlight the golden canopy.
Look for little collections of varied colors and leaf types, and see what kind of “still life”-style compositions you can create. Fill your frame with little vignettes of interestingly shaped leaves, or find a single bright leaf that is highlighted by the sun against a dark background. Use a shallow depth of field to isolate one sharp, textured leaf among a jumble of colors.
Do the Hokey Pokey!
OK, maybe not exactly, but experiment with movement!
Set your camera for a longer-than-usual shutter speed, and as you hit the shutter button, move the camera while the exposure is being recorded. The resulting “blurry” image transforms a static subject into something abstract and unique.
Fall is the perfect time to play with this kind of intentional camera movement, because the bright colors make for vivid and interesting images. Try moving up and down, side to side, and for a really different effect, try zooming your lens in or out during your exposure. Stabilize your camera on a tripod if you want to reduce or eliminate the “wiggles” you can get from trying this technique hand-held, or if you want straighter lines.
You may have to play with different shutter speeds to get the amount of blur you want, but experimentation is half the fun. Just remember that increasing the length of time your shutter is open means you are letting more light into your camera, so you’ll need to adjust your other settings accordingly.
Dry? Drizzly? Dramatic!
While we all love feeling the warm sun on our faces and the abundant light of a bright fall day, cloudy and stormy days can mean unique and dramatic images.
Cloudy light means colors are more saturated, bringing out the very best in colorful fall foliage. It also creates a lot more contrast that can add drama and intrigue to a composition.
Look for areas where the background falls to almost black and highlights a bright branch of leaves. Stormy skies can offer a turbulent backdrop above tranquil foliage. And darker scenes add an air of mystery and moodiness that can put a whole different twist on a classic fall shot. The softness of mist and fog in particular cannot only add a dash of spooky, but can create fabulous textural contrast between the much more well-defined lines of trees and leaves.
Whatever the weather and wherever you are, I hope this energizes your creativity for the next time you head out on a leaf peeping adventure. Observe, explore, experiment, don’t be afraid to make mistakes (I make a ton of them!) — you never know when a mistake may turn out to be a masterpiece. And, most of all … have fun!
Editor’s note: We welcome this post from Michelle Fox. Michelle accidentally started a portrait photography business 18 years ago, and the rest, as they say, is history. After many years of chasing children with a camera and nurturing a longstanding love affair with high school senior photography, her passion has taken a distinctive left turn into the world of landscapes and wildlife. Fueled by her favorite chai lattes, she also enthusiastically teaches beginning photography and editing classes through the Denver Photography Group. Her images can be found at a gallery in Frisco, CO, as well as (coming soon!) on her website.