Photo Tips
caption Photo tips. Photo: iStock.

Capture autumn with a camera

By Fred Durso, Jr.
AMC Outdoors, October 2008

A tree’s loss is a hiker’s gain.

The transition of a leaf’s green color to an array of vibrant hues signifies its impending demise. As summer turns to fall, sunlight begins to diminish, which triggers a slowing down—and eventual halting—of a leaf’s chlorophyll production (the process that gives leaves their green shade). Pigments once masked by chlorophyll turn the Northeast landscape into a feast for the eyes.

This region is ideal for viewing the autumn explosion of reds, yellows, and oranges. Point-and-shoot cameras can capture this ritual, but if you don’t use some key techniques, your photos may not look as breathtaking as their subject. Gary Stanley, who has conducted fall foliage photography workshops in the Northeast since 1991, says taking captivating images starts with appreciating nature’s fireworks.

“Get out there and enjoy [the foliage],” the Massachusetts-based photographer advises. “Photographs are the added bonus. The experience is primary. Photographs inspire because nature inspires.”

PEAK PERFORMANCE Before shooting scenery, know when your area will reach its colorful height. “Each state provides a foliage watch to tell you when it’s peaking,” Stanley says. “But be careful—they’re a bit optimistic about these dates.”

Stanley notes that autumn’s hues are typically most vibrant in the northernmost sections of Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine during the last week of September. The mid-sections of these states peak the first week of October while Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and the Mid-Atlantic states reach their pinnacle around mid-October.

When scouting out shooting locations, Stanley’s rule of thumb is to calculate an area’s fall foliage percentage. “If 90 percent of an area is in full color, I have a week and a half before colors are really strong. “Don’t be discouraged if you’re not seeing foliage in one area—go higher,” says Stanley. Color shifts first at higher elevations.

THE LIGHT STUFF If using a camera with a wide-angle lens, Stanley says, a polarizing filter is a must-have. “It’s designed to take glare and reflection off subjects,” he says. “By taking the glare off of fall foliage, you allow the true color to come through.” (For more information, see Jerry Monkman’s story “Photo Tips From a Pro” in the April 2008 issue or in our online archives.)

Proper lighting can further punctuate fall’s glory. Since the Northeast’s autumn sun isn’t directly overhead, you’re able to shoot longer in the morning and sooner in the afternoon without harsh lighting. However, prime photography time is early morning and late evening. “I love photographing in the fog,” Stanley says. “You get very consistent, rich, saturated light. The subject—such as foliage—is very rich looking.”

BREAK FROM THE NORM Making pictures pop isn’t hard when there’s a plethora of color to work with. But accentuating those colors while staying away from photographic “no-nos” does require practice. Stanley advises against “dead center syndrome,” opting instead for the compositional rule of thirds. Envision a tic-tac-toe grid in your viewfinder and place the subject at a point where the lines cross.

“If you have an elk placed in the dead center [of the frame], you look at the elk and your eye comes back,” Stanley says. “But place the elk to the left or right, your eye goes to [the animal] and then goes to the scene behind it.” Foreground images also create a 3-D effect and give a picture some depth.

The use of lines and Scurves within photos also leads your eyes through the composition. A prime example is a shot of a winding road heading to a colorful mountain in the distance.   

“I’m a big believer of working your subject,” Stanley adds. “If there is one picture to be taken, there are two or three or four. Move around, try something different. Try it with a rock in the foreground, try to have the horizon line low in the picture while showing a lot of sky, or limit the amount of sky and increase the amount of landscape.”

Experimentation is key—and the Northeast offers many photographic options as the weather gets colder. “Fall is my favorite time of year,” Stanley says. “It’s nature’s
adrenaline to get you through the winter. Spring is the reward for making it.”