Every year, Autumn brings a breathtaking display of natural artistry with the changing colors of leaves and foliage. The elegant blends of yellow, orange, and red embellish our daily backdrop and transform the mundane into the ornate. For photographers of all ranges, from the casual hobbyist, to the seasoned professional, to the everyday instagram-er, the captivating visuals at this time of year is a golden opportunity to practice basic techniques and hone desired skills in photographing beautiful and colorful foliage. Here are my tips to taking better photos during the Autumn season.
1) Pick Your Location
New England is unequivocally the the number one destination when it comes to photographing fall foliage. If you're able to make it out to the Northeast (or happen to live there), you will quickly understand why the area is such a coveted location for fall foliage photography. It's wide expanses of maples and pines combined with classic Americana staples such as, white picket fences and steepled churches, make for great photo portfolio content, or instagram worthy posts. There is no correct answer to finding the right location; one doesn't need to make a trip to a far away destination to document the fall season. A good location is a subjective in the sense that it will encompass all the little intricacies that make Autumn special to you. If a trip to New England is out of your budget, take a stroll to your nearest park, your old grammar school, or try to find a quiet and quaint street to represent your outdoor Autumn oasis.
2) Find Your Subject(s)
Autumn is one of the few times in the year that a tree can serve as a photography subject all on it's own. From the red-orange sugar maple trees, to the golden-yellow sweet birches, nature's clever color palette paints the foliage in a way that you can't go wrong in selecting your subject. To make your fall photos more personalized, try throwing in some personal items as props and arrange the scene in a creative and whimsical fashion. If you have the time, ask some of your adventurous friends to model in and have them pose in compliment to the natural foliage.
3) Determine Your Distance (Wide - Mid - Macro)
When you've decided on your subject, it is important to make a conscious decision of your distance. Determining your distance before taking your pictures is fundamental in all forms of photography, not just fall foliage. If you are using a DSLR, you have a much wider variety in determining the distance you want to shoot at. Wide angle lenses are ideal for capturing entire trees, forests, landscapes, etc. When strolling through nature and taking pictures, it will be very tempting to try to capture as much as you can fit into the frame. Variety, however, is important to any photo set. Shoot the large, expansive landscapes coupled with macro shots. There is beauty that can be found in the smallest of details. To achieve those shallow depth of field/background-out-of-focus shots, open up your aperture to the largest that the lens will go. The converse of that, a smaller aperture setting, will increase the range of focus, resulting in an overall sharper focus.
If you're using a point-and-shoot camera for your photography, you are limited to the camera settings. Essentially, the camera's capabilities are in it's name, point and shoot. If you're a mobile camera photographer, and want more lens varieties, there are phone accessories that you can purchase to upgrade your phone's camera. I, personally, use the Olloclip lens for my iPhone 5. This smart phone add on ranges from $69.99 - $129.99, and gives your phone wide angle, fish-eye, telephoto, and macro lens capabilities.
4) Adjust Your Lighting
Lighting is the most important ingredient in a photograph. When it comes to fall foliage photography, understanding how to use sunlight to your advantage will make those fall colors as bright and powerful as you want. In the film and photography world, there is a term known as, 'magic hour', or 'golden hour'. These terms refer to the first half-hour of sunrise, and the last half-hour of sunset. During these times, the sun's "golden" light enriches the natural colors of the fall leaves, giving your photos a warm, golden, and consistent color tone and temperature. The sun is also shining on your subjects from a lower point than other times of the day, resulting in interesting textures from which the sunlight shines through.
Shooting back-lit pictures (sunlight behind your subject) can really increase the rich color of fall foliage. Sometimes the lighting won't be perfect (especially with outdoor photography) because you are relying on the location of the sun. Move the camera to use other leaves to block the sun and shade the lens in order to reduce or eliminate the lens flare.
5) Steady Your Shots For Clearer and Crisper Pictures
A simple purchase to help improve the overall quality of your photos is to buy a tripod. A tripod provides increased stability of the camera and results in steadier and crisper photos. Practicing with a tripod will help you in your consistency of your photo sets. The downside of using a tripod is that because of their large sizes, they are much less versatile and can become cumbersome to have to constantly set up as opposed to shooting photos off the hip (hand-held).
Overall, within each of these steps is the foundation that practice makes perfect. The best way to get better and faster at fall foliage photography is to build up your own experience and just get out there and start shooting.