PHOTOGRAPHING FALL COLOR
By John Poimiroo
California has the longest, most diverse and – I am convinced – the most spectacular autumn in North America. As editor of CaliforniaFallColor.com, I write this with conviction and thousands of photographs that support that contention.
Incorporating fall color adds a richness to outdoor photography not seen in any other season. Though the air is often crisp and still, grasses, shrubs and leaves carry their warmest, most inviting tones to all sorts of outdoor sports and scenes.
Because of the low angle of sunlight and its warmth, gorgeous images can be captured all day, though the golden hours after sunrise and before sunset are even better than in other seasons of the year.
During sunrise and sunset, sunlight must pass through more of the atmosphere before we see it. Blue light, because of its shorter wavelength, is scattered easiest by nitrogen and oxygen air molecules. Whereas longer wavelength reds and oranges aren’t scattered as easily. As days grow shorter, sunrise and sunset light intensifies.
Autumn weather patterns also bring drier, cleaner air from the north, allowing more colors of the spectrum to be seen without being scattered by particles in the air, “producing brilliant sunsets and sunrises that can look red, orange, yellow or even pink,” The Weather Channel advises.
All that rich color intensifies the drama of fall color photography. To capture it, follow these tips.
Get Up Early and Don’t Give Up –The most successful landscape photographers are early risers and stick around, well past sunset when others have given up. Because they’re out when others are still snug in bed; they capture light others never see. And, because they don’t quit after the sun has set, they discover that often, the light just keeps getting better.
Be Prepared – Waterproof boots, woolen socks, warm gloves, a knit hat, a light jacket, layers of clothing, freshly recharged and extra batteries, extra blank memory cards, two camera bodies, varied lenses, a lens brush, a tripod, a collapsible reflector, a flashlight, eye glasses, water, an energy bar … these are essential kit for an outdoor photographer to stay comfortable, to stay out longer and to come back with good photographs.
Think Big – Set your camera to take large pictures. Small images are useful only on social media. They’re not useful to publications. Move personal shots off your camera or device to a photo sharing app so that you have space for new photos. Delete images you don’t plan to keep or use, to conserve memory. If you plan to reprint photos, shoot in RAW. Otherwise a “Fine” .jpg is big enough for most newspapers, all web uses and some magazines, but anything smaller is probably useless.
Steady As She Goes – Getting a sharp picture that shows crisp detail and can be enlarged is more challenging in low light conditions, which is often the case during autumn. Be mindful of adjusting your camera’s ISO (sensor speed) to 400 or higher to allow for a faster shutter speed in low light, or use a tripod with a camera remote.
Back to Basics – Taking pictures with your camera set to manual “M”, aperture “A” or shutter speed “S” mode makes you a better photographer, because it engages your mind in deciding what’s most important to the picture you plan to take. When you shoot on programmed auto “P”, you disengage your brain.
If you are most concerned about what will be in focus, set the mode to “A.” In this mode, you set the aperture and shutter speed is adjusted by the camera. A small aperture (e.g., f22) will allow more of the scene, foreground and background, to be in focus. A large aperture (e.g., f3.8) reduces the focal distance, concentrating attention on the point of focus. Photographers who set their camera to small apertures in order to get foreground and background in focus are seeking what photographers call, “hyper focal distance.”
If you are most concerned about stopping motion (such as in stopping quaking aspen from fluttering out of focus), set the mode to “S” and set the speed to show or stop motion. A speed of 1/125 of a second will stop camera shake and slow movements. With landscape photographs, snap a test shot and view it in the camera’s monitor, enlarging to see any motion, then adjust speed to stop motion. The appearance of motion in a photograph can be a good thing, if not distracting, but informative.
“M” mode adjusts both “S” and “A” concurrently by the photographer, providing the greatest latitude for creative expression, but also can result in underexposed or overexposed images. If you plan to shoot a specific scene (e.g., fireworks, the moon, city lights), Google “How to photograph … ” in advance, so that you know how to set your camera to get a good result.
Know Where and When To Go – Peak fall color began appearing in California at 10,000’ in elevation in mid-September. Full peak occurred at California’s highest elevations before the first day of autumn, and it will continue to peak at successively lower elevations (dropping at a rate of 500 to 1,000’ each week) to December. That means, your photographs can dependably include brilliant yellow, orange or red leaves if you plan trips to where it will be peaking, as occurred in past years. CaliforniaFallColor.com can help. I you know where you plan to be, search on the site for when it was peaking in the past and go then. If you know when you plan to travel, use the site to find locations that peaked in the past at that time and go there. By using this approach, you should be able to dependably include fall color in your outdoor photography.
Then, too, you’ll be adding the most spectacular autumn in North America to your fall articles.