Autumn is upon us and the great migration is in full swing with hordes of photographers descending upon small towns all across the northeastern United States to capture the changing colors of the leaves. Leaf peeping (and photographing) is hard work. It requires patience, solitude, and the ability to put up with the constant aroma of pumpkin spice latte in the air. For those of you heading out to photograph fall colors this year, here a few tips that I hope will help you get the most out of your experience.
I live in Houston, Texas where the idea of "seasons" is nice in theory but in reality nonexistent. Last October, my wife and I decided to get out of town and enjoy fall in all its majesty by spending a few days in the beautiful town of Stowe in northern Vermont. Camera (and drone) in hand, I set out to capture the colorful foliage.
1. Get Up Early
The subheading to this section should be "A Love Letter to Sunrise." I firmly subscribe to the notion that the best time of day for landscape photography is dawn (for more inspiration, see Michael Stuart's three-part series about photographing sunrises). During our visit to Stowe, we stayed at the Trapp Family Lodge (yes, that Von Trapp family), a stunning 2,500 acre property at the foot of the Green Mountains. I used The Photographer's Ephemeris app to determine exactly where the sun would crest over the mountain and made sure I beat the rooster's crow to get set up in the best position to catch the first rays of light pour into the valley.
I learned a handy trick from Elia Locardi's "Photographing the World" tutorial series (Part 3 is out now!) to avoid lens flare when photographing the sun directly: physically block the sun with your hand in a frame and manually blend in that frame over other frames (ensuring that you keep the camera locked on the tripod so everything aligns perfectly) in Photoshop to eliminate any unwanted lens flare in the final image.
The smaller the aperture, the more pronounced the starburst; f/16 worked well in this case to get a strong starburst effect in camera. I manually blended multiple exposures together in Photoshop to account for the high dynamic range in the scene and dodged and burned to add extra contrast and highlight some of the array of colors in the trees.
2. Use Colorful Frames
Exploring the back roads around town led us to a hiking trail towards Bingham Falls. We inadvertently followed our inner Robert Frost by taking the road decidedly less traveled which fortuitously led us to discover the waterfall through a clearing. The composition presented itself immediately with the waterfall framed perfectly by a well-balanced smattering of color. It was a great way to use color to create an interesting frame for the subject. I set a shutter speed of 4 seconds (with my camera on a tripod of course) to capture a long exposure of the water for a pleasing, flowing look. The canopy above blocked out a lot of the light so I was easily able to use a long shutter speed. If there had been more light in the scene, I would have had to utilize an ND filter to avoid overexposing the image. I used a focus stacking approach by taking several exposures and blending them all together in Photoshop to ensure that all parts of the final image were tack sharp.
3. Look for a Different Perspective
I lugged around my DJI Phantom 4 throughout the trip in the hopes of being able to take to the sky if the opportunity presented itself. Fortunately I got a couple of chances to fly from secluded spots without disturbing anyone, first endeavoring to point the camera straight down to capture an interesting, uncommon perspective of the foliage. I next actively looked for the best vantage point to frame the town and found one with miles of reds, yellows, oranges, and greens spread out throughout the surrounding hills and mountains.
Check out Jerome Courtial's article on drone photography for a comprehensive look at drone photography settings and tips.
Who's shooting the fall colors this year and where are you going? I'd love to hear your tips and see your images in the comments.