It is that time of year again in the Northern Hemisphere when Mother Nature signals the approach of winter by turning the leaves into an ephemeral kaleidoscope of color. There can be few photographers who will not be drawn to turning their camera toward this annual display but you need to seize the moment, as the show does not last long. In light of this I thought it would be timely to discuss a few techniques and offer some advice on how to capture some great shots of the fall.
Shooting under an overcast sky and using a polarising filter allowed me to capture the full intensity of the color inthese leaves on a church tower
It is easy to understand the temptation to wait for a bright sunny day before venturing out with your camera to photograph the fall colors; however, apart from the rarity of such light at this time of year, it is best avoided, as harsh, direct sunlight produces a high level of contrast where leaves become lost in deep black shadows, or bleached out due to reflections. Soft, even light from an overcast sky is both far easier to work with and much more flattering if you want to capture the intense colors of the fall. You can add an extra dimension to your pictures, especially close-up shots, if you shoot after rainfall, or early in the morning before the dew has evaporated to record moisture on the leaves, which adds both texture and potentially increased color saturation.
The heavy dew has added some extra texture to the grass and lone leaf;
a polarising filter has helped to enhance the color saturation
Setting the in-camera white balance is an important consideration. For any photographer shooting in Raw it is still advisable to set the white balance with care, rather than rely on adjusting it at a later stage, as the preview shots displayed on your camera will be JPEG files with the in-camera white balance embedded, so if the white balance is well off course you will see skewed results when you review your images while out shooting! For the JPEG shooter it is imperative to get the white balance right in camera, as changing things during post-processing will be considerably more difficult that adjusting a RAW file. All too many photographers are content to rely on the automatic white balance and allow the camera to sort things out for them. That is fine if you are prepared to accept the typically neutral to cool color rendition and potential inconsistency of automated white balance; however, the more discerning shooter will want to take control over the way their camera records color, so consider using the custom white balance, or a white balance option, such as “overcast”, or “shade” that has a fixed color temperature value. One way to boost the naturally warm fall colors is to create a deliberate color-cast by setting the color temperature of the in camera white balance to a higher value than that of the prevailing ambient light.
By using the Cloudy white balance under the early, soft sunlight
I was able to warm the natural colors
Many photographers will be familiar with using a polarising filter to intensify the color of a blue sky on a sunny day, but the benefits of this filter do not stop there; it can help improve color saturation in a wide range of lighting conditions. Fall leaves, as with everything else we see, reflect light; objects with an irregular surface reflect light in a randon manner, scattering it in all directions, while objects with a smoother surface, such as a leaf reflect light in a more defined direction, rather like a mirror, especially if it is wet with rain, or dew. Unfortunately, leaves, unlike soldiers on parade, are rarely aligned with each other but face in a myriad of different directions and bounce light across the scene in a way that reduces contrast and lowers color saturation. A polarising filter blocks light waves that are not aligned with its axis of polarisation, which allows you to refine the light reaching the camera’s sensor by eliminating, or at least reducing these scattered reflections, which in turn increases the color saturation and contrast in the scene. The downside of using a polariser is that it reduces the overall level of light passing through the camera lens by anything between one, to two-stops but the relatively high base ISO levels of modern digital cameras is usually enough to offset this, allowing you to work with combinations of shutter speed and aperture that do not impact on your shooting.
Hint: In most shooting conditions it is best to avoid wearing polarising sunglasses, as they distort your perception of color; however, since they work in exactly the same way as the polarising filter on your lens they can be useful in allowing you to pre-visualise your shots of fall leaves, which you might otherwise miss due to random reflections and weak color.
As useful as a polariser can be, other forms of color enhancing filters can be a positive hindrance to shooting pictures of the fall. A good example is the red enhancing filter I used when I shot on film; made from a specialised didymium glass it is designed to boost the red colors without affecting other colors and hues. The problem with this type of filter on a digital camera is that you will more than likely “over-cook” the red channel and compromise image quality. If you want to adjust a specific color, or colors you will achieve far more satisfying, predictable and repeatable results by applying appropriate controls during post-processing.
As with any other images you process in your chosen imaging software, shots of fall color will benefit from good, basic editing techniques to adjust ‘Levels’, ‘Curves’ and so on.
Appropriate post-processing can help achieve a picture that matches our visual memory of the scene
When it comes to adjusting color our visual memory of how a scene appeared can quite often be rather different to a literal interpretation of that scene, where the colors and hues are reproduced with strict accuracy. Most of us shoot pictures with more purpose than to produce a mere record of what we saw but to also express our thoughts and feelings of what it was like to present at the scene. Optimizing certain attributes of an image to convey those emotions to the viewer is a perfectly valid process when we process an image and should not be considered a deceit; however, there is often a fine line between what appears natural and an image that is over-processed to the point that it appears faux. Assuming you used appropriate camera settings and applied your polarising filter correctly you should already have images in which the principle colors look strong. The last thing you want to do is push them any further, so avoid the lure of the ‘Saturation’ slider in your image processing software. A far more subtle and controllable effect can be achieved by adjusting the ‘Vibrance’ slider, which influences colors in a more proportional manner by boosting the less saturated ones more than those that are already saturated.