Autumn begins around late September, bringing with it a seasonal change that inspires photographers across the nation: Fall foliage. Autumn’s dramatic landscapes are stunning to behold and the challenge is how to preserve the impact in a still photograph that captures the unique quality of this season.
An autumn-colored tree is a subject unto itself. It is a time where a photograph of a simple tree can stand on it’s own and, in most cases, break all the rules of composition. There’s just something special about a tree (or landscape full of trees) turning brilliant colors this time of year. However, if you take it a step further -- give the tree some dramatic lighting, throw in a compositional aid such as a creek or road, make use of color filter effects, and think carefully about framing and composition -- then you’re on the right track to making a great photo that doesn't just rely on pretty colors.
Location, location, location
In New England, most scenes will include scenic structures such as a picket fence or a quaint steepled church. The mid-Atlantic states and mid-west regions will have large areas of rolling hillsides, with possibly some farming composition opportunities. The West has grand mountain landscapes with pockets of color and majestic mountain peaks. The color starts up north and works it’s way south like an ocean wave. There are many helpful web sites that chronicle foliage progress and colors through the country, for example: The Foliage Network, The Weather Channel, the US Forest Service, and The Sacramento Bee, to name but a few -- and countless others that are specific to regions, states, and even neighborhoods.
Out west, the colors seem more influenced by altitude than latitude. At the 10,000 ft. level foliage can be in full color by September 21st, most years. Foliage in the 4,000-5,000 ft. altitudes will usually see color the end of October.
The temptation of wide shots, of entire forests or mountainsides may be hard to resist. However, variety is important. Shoot the panoramic landscapes, but also remember that beauty can be found in the details.
Macro photography is a great way to explore the colors and textures of autumn, while also using unique points-of-view.
Another way to get closer is simply zooming to a longer telephoto setting, or switching to a tele zoom lens. Telephotos are great for isolating parts of subjects, and they usually will throw your backgrounds beautifully out of focus. Try focusing close with that telephoto lens – with many of today’s zoom lenses, you can fill the frame with a single large leaf.
Out-of-focus backgrounds are a photographic effect you can heighten, or reduce, by controlling your aperture: wider apertures will result in a shallower range of focus, and soft backgrounds. Smaller apertures will increase the range of focus, resulting in sharper backgrounds. You’ll need to make the creative choice depending on what, and how much of the background you want to see in the image.
Take the time to consider the background, and experiment with more dynamic ways to make your main subject stand out
Don’t forget the power of wide-angle lenses. A standard zoom lens, such as an 18-55mm lens can produce some spectacular results – especially if you move in close at its widest setting and focus upon one object in the foreground. A low-hanging branch with leaves can suddenly become a broad burst of color and detail, if you move in and focus upon the nearest leaf.
Most photographers will agree that lighting is the most important ingredient in a photograph; with foliage it really is, because understand how to use sunlight to your best ability will make those fall colors as bright and vivid as you want them.
Shooting during the ‘magic’, or golden hour, generally during the first half-hour right after the sun rises in the morning, and the last half hour just before the sun sets at the end of the day. During these times, the quality of light is ideal for autumn landscape photography: the sunlight is naturally warm, rich, and golden-hued - further enhancing the colorful leaves. The angle of the sunlight is lower and more directional helping create enhanced textures and shapes using it as side-light, or increased depth if used as a backlight.
The quality of magic-hour sunlight is more diffuse, with a pleasing contrast that is less likely to overexpose in the highlights, or underexpose in the shadows.
Ambient and overcast lighting bring a completely new set of opportunities. These forms of lighting are diffused, or non-directional, and will produce shadowless subjects and render your colors in soft pastel shades. On overcast days you only have to remember to keep as much white sky out of your frame as possible. Fall showers can inspire beautiful photo opportunities, as well. Fall colors can look even more saturated during or right after a rainstorm, and moody skies can offer that perfect contrast to the colored foliage. Use a macro lens and look for details such as raindrops clinging to the leaves.
Shoot some back-lit pictures, with the sun coming toward the camera and shining through leaves. Back-lighting can really increase the rich color of fall foliage. Move the camera to use other leaves to block the sun and shade the lens in order to reduce or eliminate the lens flare.
The secret to metering any lighting situations is to fill the frame with the light you’re trying to photograph. This can be accomplished three ways: First, you can move closer to the subject to fill the frame - but this can be difficult if you’re framing some trees with a distant mountain in the background.
The second solution is to use the longest focal length on your zoom lens, or a long telephoto prime lens, to crop your frame tightly onto your main subject, and meter it in isolation from distracting elements in the scene that may otherwise confuse your meter. Then, reposition the lens/zoom out to the correct focal length for the best composition and plug in the right exposure.
The third and easiest metering method is to use the spot-metering mode on your camera, and let it do the work for you. After enabling the spot mode, place the spot over your main subject, set your exposure (either by manually adjusting the shutter speed/f-stop using the exposure meter in the viewfinder, or hold down the shutter button HALF-WAY if you’re using an auto mode), then move the camera for proper composition, and fully depress the shutter release to take your photograph.
One way to make sure you always have a usable exposure is to use the automatic exposure bracketing (AEB) feature on your camera. This is a menu item and can be set for 1/3 stop to 2 stops on most models and can produce a sequence of three exposures. The professional EOS-1D series cameras can bracket up to 7 exposures. Another setting you should consider is the 'continuous shooting' setting in the drive mode. This allows you to keep the shutter pressed and take all of your bracketed exposures in rapid sequence.
Canon’s low-noise at high ISO sensors are ideal for capturing fall foliage. Using ISO 400 allows shooting most daytime scenes at 1/125 second at f/11 with a polarizing filter. If a breeze comes up and makes the leaves move too much, move to 1/250 second at f/8 and use the ‘sweet spot’ of the lens for maximum sharpness. ISO 800 is also available if needed.
In addition to using the AEB feature, consider shooting your foliage images in RAW mode, which will give you much higher image detail in under- and over-exposed areas, and many options to manipulate the image using exposure, white balance, contrast, shadow/highlight details, Picture Style information, and many other correction tools in Canon's Digital Photo Professional.
You can find a series of video tutorials covering every feature and function of Digital Photo Professional, the free RAW processing and image editing application that comes bundled with every EOS camera on the Canon Digital Learning Center: Digtial Photo Professional (v3.8+) Tutorial Videos
Playing With Color
Once you find the perfect scene for your photos, consider how to not just capture the colors, but how to really make the most of them in a way that compliments your overall image.
The camera's white balance settings will help create different tonal effects. Simply switching from Automatic White Balance (AWB) or Daylight to the Shade or Cloudy modes will add a warm, golden hue to your image. Also try to shift your camera's white balance towards amber or amber/magenta to add warmth to the image. (You can easily do this with the White Balance Shift/Bracket feature, a menu option on most recent EOS digital SLRs).
Take a custom white balance (such as with an ExpoDisk Portrait, or blue WarmCard White Balance Reference) to create a golden cast to your photos. In your RAW images, if there is something white or neutral grey, try using the "click" white balance feature when you view the images in the DPP.
Remember that contrast can help colors to 'pop' – for example, the warm tones of autumn leaves will be enhanced with the subtle inclusion of something cool (blue, or blue-green) in the frame. For example, a vivid sliver of sky, or a blue-painted automobile or house strategically placed in the foreground.
As a reminder, White Balance settings are 'locked in' to JPEG images, but can always be changed when processing a RAW file.
Picture Style, and Other Enhancements
Canon's Picture Style can help create just the look and feel you want in your fall foliage shots. You can select one of the preset styles, such as Standard, Portrait or Landscape. For fall foliage, Landscape gives the greatest default level of saturation, emphasizing blues and greens. It also boosts yellow objects with added saturation. The added sharpness and saturation even adds vividness to foggy/overcast scenes.
Another Picture Style you may want to try is Canon's "Autumn Hues". This one isn't preset in cameras right out of the box, but can be downloaded free of charge from Canon's web site and uploaded into your camera. You can find this, and several other specialized looks at the Canon Picture Style Special Site. You can also create your own Picture Style, using Canon's Picture Style Editor software and store it in the camera's memory for future use. If you prefer to shoot in the .JPEG format, whatever Picture Style you choose will be 'locked in' to the image file.
If you shoot in the RAW format, you can always add or change your Picture Style in Canon's Digital Photo Professional (DPP) Software. First, use the Detail Settings within Canon's Picture Style to increase the contrast and color saturation of your images, for brighter colors and more definition. Then, download and install your custom, special-purpose Picture Style Files into your camera.
The Canon Digital Learning Center has a series of instructional video tutorials on the features and functionality of Canon's Picture Style Editor, a free application bundled with every EOS camera, used to selectively modify any existing picture style or even create your own, found here: Picture Style Editor Tutorials.
High Dynamic Range (HDR)
Another technique to try is High Dynamic Range imaging (HDR). There are two HDR methods:
- Multi-image (learn more with the tip series Capture More Light)
- Single-image (learn more with the tip series Single Image HDR)
Multi-image HDR is created by combining several images of different bracketed exposures, taken at the same time in rapid sequence. This is the traditional method, and depending on the amount of bracketed images your camera can take, offers the widest range of exposure and tonal detail to create your HDR image. However, the challenge with using this technique with foliage is the amount of movement from frame to frame with wind blowing the branches, leaves moving, clouds passing across the sky, and other uncontrollable elements.
Where subject motion is possible, as with landscapes, the single-image process may be preferable. It starts with a single RAW image - from there, you make several lighter and darker exposures using RAW processing software such as Canon's Digital Photo Professional. Then use a editing program such as Photomatix or Adobe® Photoshop® to combine those images and create an expanded dynamic range. You can create HDR effects that range from subtly increasing detail in the highlights and shadows, to much more dramatic effects that surreally exaggerate the colors and tones in your scene.
As of September 2012, the EOS line includes two DSLRs with in-camera HDR processing: the EOS 5D Mark III and the recently announced EOS 6D. This allows for the capture and creation of bold HDR imagery, without the need for any additional software or editing time. To learn more about how to use this creative feature in the EOS 5D Mark III, click here.
Thinking Beyond Color
The most difficult part of fall foliage photography for most people is simply finding the right subject. Ironically, it's easy to be distracted with the color, so that actual subject content and scene composition are less important that the leaves. The secret to overcoming this challenge is to start by getting rid of the color - that way you can concentrate on finding the perfect subject, composition, and lighting, to 'hold' the color. To do this, try using the Monochrome Picture Style mode.
How will Monochrome Picture Style help you? Your images will appear in B&W on your camera's LCD, and without the distraction of color, you will be better able to find that perfect combination of scenic composition, point of focus, angle of light, subject texture, etc. These are the elements that will make your photos really powerful.
Please note that if you shoot in JPEG your Picture Style is locked in - so the monochrome image you capture in camera will ALWAYS be a monochrome image. If you shoot in RAW you will preserve all the original color information in the photo, allowing you to produce a finished color or B&W photo - even if you originally shot it with the Monochrome Picture Style.
If you prefer shooting in Monochrome Picture Style, EOS cameras also allow you to simulate the effect of applying traditional yellow, orange, red, or green filters used with B&W photographic film. When using the color filter effects, the B&W tones are portrayed differently, depending on the color. Basically, each filter will lighten its own color tones, and darken their complimentary tones. For example a green filter will lighten green grass and darken reds or yellows, such as warm skin tones. The red filter will lighten the deep reddish or golden tones of autumn leaves, and darken a blue sky, resulting in a very dramatic effect.
There are three types of filters that are most commonly used in the field to create effects or control lighting in ways that contribute to an effective and beautiful photograph.
The first is the circular polarizer. The circular polarizing filter performs three functions in varying degrees. It deepens a blue sky, adding drama while minimizing atmospheric haze and reflections. When shooting in the mountains all three can be incorporated in one shot but usually we are looking to eliminate the reflection of the sky off each leaf surface to saturate the colors and then deepen the blue sky -- just rotate the filter until everything looks more vibrant.
The other two filters are related: the neutral density, and graduated neutral density filters. These filters come in varying densities and are used by themselves or in combinations to reduce the amount of light coming through the lens without affecting color. This enables use of long exposures that allow images with moving water captured with a nice blurred effect. Neutral density filters come in several calibrated levels: rated as .3, .6, .9 and ND 1.2 , with each .3 rating representing one stop of light. Therefore the .6 ND filter would reduce light by two stops, the .9 ND filter reduces light by three stops and the 1.2 will reduce by four stops of light. These filters can be stacked in any combination to achieve the desired amount of light reduction needed in brightly lit circumstances or when used for longer exposures.
The graduated neutral density filters come in the same ratings, but are clear on the bottom and slightly opaque on the top, with either an abrupt (hard edge ‘grad’) or a gradual shift (soft edge ‘grad’) in the middle. They are used to darken the brighter part of a scene so that it falls within the dynamic range of the camera.
One way to improve the over-all quality of your photographs is to use a tripod. Using a tripod accomplishes a few very important goals: It allows you to shoot at slower shutter speeds than you would normally get away with, even with an Image Stabilized (IS) lens. Second, shooting on a tripod tends to make photographers more aware of their horizontal and vertical level, and you will notice right away if the horizon is not perfectly straight or if your subject looks off-balance in the frame. Lastly, even the fairly minimal effort it take to set up and level a tripod makes you work slower and more deliberately, which can help photographers to notice imaging possibilities they may have otherwise missed with faster, hand-held shooting.
Autumn is a great opportunity for all photographers to make some really colorful and outstanding photographs. There are few subjects as universally inspiring as fall foliage. Remember to look for different ways to shoot familiar subjects, whether it's up-close, down low, with filters, after dawn, or during a storm -- and you will find it pay off in many wonderful, dynamic shots that capture the spirit of the season.
The CDLC contributors are compensated spokespersons and actual users of the Canon products that they promote.