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Fall photography, Part 1 (09/12/2004)
By Tom Hirsch
Whatever the season, there are distinct characteristics that distinguish that time of year from all others. A few of the things that define fall are football, kids returning to school, chrysanthemums, the harvesting of crops, hunting, and the wonderful changes that take place in the foliage of trees and shrubs. All of these provide great picture-taking opportunities.

Unfortunately, the period of time conducive to fall foliage photography passes quickly. In many communities, the local media provides frequently updated information as the peak time for color approaches. Maps are published or areas identified where colors are expected to be at their peak for a given place and time.

Because of the fleeting nature of fall, you'll want to have your camera handy at all times. For this purpose, a compact camera is ideal. It can be slipped into a pocket or purse, and you'll be ready when you come upon a grove of trees decked out in brilliant gold and orange. Small, inexpensive disposable cameras are ideal for this purpose. One can be carried in a pocket or purse, and when you come upon that once-in-a-lifetime scene, the camera can be pulled out and a few pictures taken, and you can again be on your way. A compact 35mm or digital camera can also be used for this purpose.

When shooting fall foliage, many of us assume that a vast, beautifully colored landscape will be equally magnificent as a photograph. It usually won't. Vastness often translates into monotony. It might be better to select one tree, one branch or a few branches with brilliantly colored leaves and isolate them against a blue sky.

This brings up an important factor for making effective fall foliage photographs: contrast. An expansive landscape photo can be helped if the sky contains dramatic white clouds or a few hawks flying over the scene as the picture is taken. Clouds or hawks will add a sensation of motion that contrasts with the stillness of the trees. Viewers will then have other interesting elements to attract their attention, and the trees will become just one component of the scene.

A diagonal path, fence, or meandering stream can add contrast to a fall vista. Any of these can also increase the feeling of depth, and serve as a leading line, carrying the viewer into the scene. Such a line is usually most effective if it begins near the bottom of one corner of the frame, cuts diagonally across the image, and terminates before exiting the opposite corner.

The intensity of color in fall foliage is greatly dependent on the lighting conditions. In many respects, midday sunlight is best. This is especially true when trees or branches are photographed against a blue sky. Usually during this time of day, at this time of year, there will be less atmospheric haze than would be found earlier or later in the day. This can result in a more contrasting blue sky.

If you have a film or digital SLR camera, a UV or polarizing filter can further increase the contrast and brilliance of the colors. Such filters are also available on some compact 35mm and digital cameras. The effects of these filters can be enhanced, and even simulated, by overexposing print film by one stop. This can be accomplished by using the +1 setting on the exposure compensating dial. Digital works just the opposite of film cameras in this regard. For the same effect, you would underexpose the image by one stop, or -1 on the exposure compensation dial. With a digital camera, you can observe on the LCD monitor the effect of exposure compensation.

Very interesting effects can also be obtained under early morning or late afternoon sunlight during the days of fall. As a contrast to the midday hours, these time periods result in softer lighting, less contrast, more highly saturated colors in bright foliage, and long shadows that can produce increased depth perspective.

Interesting effects can also be obtained if there is no sunlight at all. Such conditions are found before sunrise, after sunset, on cloudy days, or in a deep forest setting. But again, contrast is important. Brightly colored leaves, flowers or foliage around a dark tree trunk or against a backdrop of water can be very striking.

In fall foliage photography, it would be great if we could control such things as hawks, clouds, water, paths and lighting. We can't, so we must use good composition, contrast, simplicity, and appropriate equipment and techniques. More next time. 


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