Sep 102016

© Paul Mozell

For those of us lucky enough to live in a part of the country where October’s burst of foliage color is most intense, it is hard to resist the urge to photograph the 2 or 3 week parade of orange, yellow, and red hues. Whether you are shooting digital or film and if the weather is cloudy or bright, there is always a compelling image just around the bend.

When is the best time for “leaf peeping”?

Although the PR folks who help fill the country inns and bed & breakfasts in Vermont and New Hampshire would like you to believe that Northern New England has the best fall color, they may be short-selling the rest of the East Coast. As a non-native New Englander who spent his younger years exploring the hiking trails and the outdoors of New York’s Hudson Highlands and North Jersey, I can testify to the brilliance of the trees in the Mid-Atlantic. In fact, the foliage show extends all the way down to the Great Smokey Mountains. What does set the Northeastern states apart are the

Fall colors in Harold Parker State Forest, Andover, Massachusetts

Fall colors in Harold Parker State Forest, Andover, Massachusetts

Red Maples and Sugar Maples that display the most brilliant reds. Often the tall white church steeples of some classic New England villages help punctuate and isolate the changing colors. In the hilly or mountainous terrain of the region the highest elevations have the most advanced color, while the valley levels below may still show plenty of green¾a timeline of autumn color is displayed. Our Rocky Mountain friends would argue that the show of bright yellow Aspen leaves set against deep blue skies of the Teton or Wind River Ranges are equally impressive.

The first color shows up in Northern Maine and the Adirondacks in late September, with the fully developed trees making their statement during the first week of October. Peak color hits The New York/New Jersey area in mid to late October, and even later in the Smokies. It seems that global warming has delayed foliage time by as much as a week in some regions. If you have the time, plan a 2 or 3 week trip following the band of peak color South; you’ll return home with a large portfolio of colorful images. A final word on what is the best time: beware the websites that offer what appear to be authoritative reports on fall color. I’ve found very few that are accurate.

Cloudy days, sunny days

If you are not blessed with dry, sunny days do not despair, a hazy or cloudy day has its merits. Shooting in the woods on a sunny day is often a prescription for blown out highlights and noisy shadows. Instead, find middle distance forest scenics or closeup shots of leaves, water, and bright berries that benefit from the soft light of a cloudy day. Use a tripod as often as you can and take care to select shutter speeds when light levels are low that won’t blur the windblown leaves and ferns in your composition.

When a momentary beam of sunlight struggles out of a mostly overcast sky, it is as if a crew of lighting technicians turned on the electricity and the big lights in the foliage studio.

Walden Pond with fall colors. Concord, MA

Walden Pond with fall colors. Concord, MA

You may prefer to use a polarizing filter to darken the blue sky, reduce reflections and increase apparent contrast. But if the light is variable you may find yourself wanting to remove that filter to regain a stop and a half every time the sun is blocked by a cloud. When I shot fall foliage exclusively with 35mm and 4×5 film I often used a polarizer. however now that I’m shooting digital, I’m finding that the effect of the filter can be too strong. Shoot frames both with and without and compare the results.

Finding strong compositional elements

As much as we are captivated by the autumn color, the colors alone do not make good photograph. Put buildings, people, tree trunks, boulders and water in your photographs. Use foreground and middle ground objects to build perspective into your images. If all that is available to you at a given moment is a flat landscape or an unbroken hillside, exploit the two dimensional quality by using a long lens to isolate objects and patterns. Let the photograph be flat but view it as a painter’s canvas and find alluring shapes and abstractions within the frame. Grey Birches (the species with the smooth white bark) never fail to work as a defining element of a fall photograph. Use still green trees to counter the brighter colors of nearby trees. And always, always, look for reflections in still or moving bodies or water.

As the most colorful season draws to a close, photographic opportunities remain. Many leaves of the oaks whose colors are not as rich as those of the maple, remain on their branches after most of the beech, birch, and hickory leaves have fallen. Bright berries remain, and the shrub plants of Viburnam, Fireweed, Virginia Creeper Poison Ivy, and Blueberry may still be bright red as well. Golden brown branches, grasses and cattails are warmed by late afternoon sun and this is the time for more delicate photographic compositions. Once you get past the cliched photograph of the covered bridge over the perfect Vermont river, Autumn photography has many secrets to reveal.

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  2 Responses to “Photographing the Foliage: Tips for capturing the autumn splendor”

  1. Thank you for sharing this information. I see a lot of tourist that just point their cameras at the scenery up here.

  2. So true on many points Paul. I’ve been searching for those great shots and yes I will play the tourist and shoot an awesome tree in color. But I know that to get a shot worth selling that I need the rest of the elements. The ever present forground element has to be there or having the subject framed in a wreath of leaves.
    You have to keep moving and look for all the compositional elements.
    Jeff Folger, Vistaphotography, Salem MA.

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