Pro Tips For Stunning Autumn Images
Photography week|October 14, 2021
Discover how to shoot images packed with colour and detail that capture the essence of autumn

FLOODED WITH COLOUR

Autumn is a deceptively difficult season to shoot, due to the need for strict colour control and a creative approach to framing

Autumn (or fall to our friends across the Atlantic) has to be the favourite season for many photographers. The combination of stunning color and detail, and the sheer extent of the transformation of the landscape, inspire wonder like no other time of year. Ues, snow-covered hills are truly beautiful to behold, and summer light can create dramatic shadows, but autumn is the season where we get to explore familiar locations in a whole new way.

Although the radical colour changes are the aspect which most of us eagerly anticipate from September onwards, there is of course far more to the autumn season. The weather is starting to turn in most parts of the northern hemisphere and is becoming decidedly more unsettled. This might not be particularly attractive to walkers and cyclists, but for a photographer, the dramatic storms and raking light observed as the weather changes state are reason enough to pick up your camera and head out. There’s the matter of the shorter days too – it’s always nice to be able to shoot a sunrise without having to get out of bed at 4:30 am.

With all of this photographic potential at our fingertips, it’s easy to get carried away, and head out with the assumption that the physical changes to the environment will be enough to enable us to capture stunning images. It’s critical to understand the psychological reasons why autumnal images resonate with viewers, however, and how best to use colour, light and detail to tell a story of the season and capture the atmosphere. It’s not as straightforward as it looks! Here we explore the pro secrets for shooting truly magnetic autumn scenics.

USE LIGHT CHARACTERISTICS

Make the most of low, directional lighting to compose images that glow

FRONT LIGHT

EASIER EXPOSURE

Depending on the scene, it can be easier to maintain a full tonal range. Look for darker skies in the background for greater contrast.

FOREGROUND PRESENCE

Where you have engaging foreground interest, front lighting can work to lead the viewer’s attention back here for a full image exploration.

FLATTER PROFILE

Without care, images lit from behind the camera can seem flat and dull, especially in shots taken at a longer focal length.

SHOT TIMELINE

Capture images through the day for a variety of lighting structures

PREDAWN Before the sun rises over the horizon there are some wonderfully muted, yet attractive colors to be found, proving that intensity and saturation are not the only options. Look for misty forest paths receding into the distance, quiet glades, and still reflections that create scenes with an overall warm tone.

SUNRISE/SUNSET Capture the sun glinting through a canopy of colourful leaves or burning through a fog bank. Use this time to capture long shadows, but watch out for micro-highlights – hotspots of blown detail on small branches or in puddles, which can be distracting.

NOON It’s not many photographers’ favorite time to shoot, but midday can offer some great contrast during autumn. Shoot golden leaves against a blue sky for a stark, graphic composition, which also reveals the veins and texture of the leaves themselves. Avoid capturing the sun in-frame.

DUSK Autumn is as much about the weather as it is about bold colors. Drizzly, cold evenings can be atmospheric, so look to capture flat, hazy scenes with a dominance of high-Kelvin colours (blues and cyans). Use low light to capture long exposures of woodland streams.

It’s often said that the first signs of summer transitioning into autumn are in the quality of the light. As the daylight starts to draw in, you notice both a change in the air temperature and also the intensity of the reds and yellows in the late afternoon sunlight. Some of this will be an illusion, caused by the sun reaching a lower position in the sky earlier, but there is an effect on temperature and air density.

There are also the colors of the surfaces from which light is reflected in the environment to consider. The greens of spring have almost all faded throughout the hot summer months, and browns, reds, and yellows start to appear. This changes the tint of reflected sunlight and contributes to that elusive glow.

Understanding this gives photographers a head start when planning the timing and locations of our shoots. By checking up on expected sunrise/sunset times and the exact position of the sun at a given time, we can choose to use light to optimally enhance the impact of a location. Selecting a spot where the setting sun will fall behind a canopy of leaves, for example, provides a lovely rim light, with trees appearing to emit light from within. Without correct planning, however, you may end up at a location where the sun won’t directly fall on the landscape after around 3 pm, creating a dull foreground and the impression that all of the action is happening in the next valley. This is why it’s important to choose your locations well in advance. That way, once you arrive at a spot, you can focus on capturing the broadest range of lighting conditions possible, for varying looks between frames.

You should consider the weather too; when you’re at a particular location, imagine what it might look like in misty conditions or in the rain. Keep an eye on the forecast, and then seize your opportunity if and when these conditions align. The key is to find and immortalize the characteristics which make autumn lighting unique.

BACKLIGHT

MINDFUL EXPOSURE

Increase exposure if the camera attempts to underexpose the scene, due to the direct light of the sun.

RIM LIGHTING

Excluding the light source from the frame still introduces contrasty and eye-catching edge glows, creating subject separation.

ATTRACTIVE GLOWS

Backlighting makes colourful leaves seem to be illuminated from within, highlighting internal structures for added detail.

USE FLASH

Try this: add a little flash to make foreground detail pop in backlit shots, by filling in some shadows. Remember to use a CTO gel to prevent ‘cold’ light from ruining the warm autumnal feel.

SIDELIGHT

ADDED DEPTH

Varying light and shadow helps to convey the distance between scene elements, creating a 3D perception.

BLOWN HIGHLIGHTS

Watch out for small areas of burned highlight detail, which can occur on one side of a tree or leaves higher up a branch.

SHAPE AND FORM

Glancing beams bring out the texture in tree trunks and rock faces, adding to the ‘feel’ of a shot.

RETHINK COMPOSITION

Evaluate your framing choices, and compose scenes that emphasise the impact of color on the landscape

With experience, it becomes clear that colour in an autumn scene affects the location at multiple levels. As you walk up to a location you’re immediately struck by the breadth of the colour range, and the scope of the change that has taken place, in a relatively short time. Even if you’ve never visited that spot before, you can see from the trees present how the seasonal change will have metamorphosed the environment. Then, once you look more closely, you can see how on a small scale colour can be seen to interact at a local level.

Even an array of fallen leaves on a path, all of the different shades of red, yellow, and orange, can create a beautiful vignette of the greater scene. From this realization it’s possible to understand how scale is the hidden aspect that ultimately controls the impact of color on the viewers of an image.

The colours of autumn are stunning, and care needs to be taken to correctly render them in our images; it’s the impact of these hues on the surrounding landscape which inspires the imagination. The viewer of an image needs to identify with the scene and imagine how it looked before and after the transformation. By incorporating elements into our shots that demonstrate how the scene appears when standing within it, we can provide greater context.

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