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Backcountry Photography

Color Sense for a Colorful Season

By Tamia Nelson

October 6, 2009Showing His Colors

Paddling photographers look forward to fall like kids counting the days to Christmas. With the passing of the autumnal equinox, every bend in the river discloses a new panel in an endless tapestry, rich in primary colors. Each headland looming out of the fog dissolves into a brooding chiaroscuro. And the mountain pond you reached only after sweating over a long portage is magically transformed into a golden pool of light, perfectly framed by a dark surround of wood and rock. You can even discard the head net that's been your constant companion since April. No longer do you have to view the world around you though a gauze curtain. In short, it's almost impossible to shoot a bad picture at this time of year.

Or is it? If you're anything like me, you've often returned from a fall trip to find that the photos that looked so good on your camera's preview screen now seem a little less than perfect. The colors are there, to be sure. Yet something vital is missing. Sometimes you can recover what was lost with the help of a "digital darkroom," and I'll have more to say about this in a later column. But it's much better to get everything just right in the first place. So let's see how to…

Shoot Autumn Photos That Really Rock the Boat

It's not rocket science. And that's lucky, because I'm not a rocket scientist. Of course, the basics don't change from one season to the next. But the colors do, and if you want to make the most of fall's once‑a‑year spectacle, you'll need to…

  • Stay out of the midday sun
  • Shoot in the rain
  • Take chances
  • Get in close
  • Exploit contrasts
  • Reflect

Now let's look at each of these points in turn. The slanting sun at dawn and dusk baths the landscape in refulgent light and intensifies colors. To take advantage of this, get up well before the sun rises, or plan to be out and about in the hour just before sunset. Here's a shot I took only 20 minutes after the sun cleared the tops of the foothills:

Hedgerow at Sunrise

And here are some maples at the head of a portage trail, shortly after a thunderstorm passed over, their leaves and branches illuminated by the dying light of the descending sun:

After the Storm: Maples at Dusk

In each case the oblique lighting helped to bring out the warm tones of the fall colors, an effect that was intensified in the first instance by long shadows, and in the second by a storm‑darkened sky. At high noon, however, the direct light washes out many colors. That's why midday is my least favorite time to shoot photos. Simply put, stronger light isn't always better. In fact, rainy days make for great photos. Here's a shot of The River on a drizzly fall morning, taken as the first tendrils of fog were probing through the pines:

Drizzly Day

The day is dark, but the whole spectrum of fall colors is visible, while The River reflects the variegated grays of the lowering sky.

It goes without saying (I hope) that taking chances doesn't mean leaving your life jacket at home. It just means throwing the rule book out the window now and then when you frame a shot. Take a look at this photo of Farwell's pack canoe carving a path through the glassy waters of a mountain pond as the sun lights up the esker behind him:

A Different Perspective

You don't see much of Farwell in the shot, and you don't see very much of the canoe, either. The emphasis lies elsewhere: on the deep blue sky and the flame‑colored hills, both seen only as mirror images on the water's surface. But that's enough.

Another way to make color the focus of the story is to move in close to your subject, as I did here:

Up Close

I took this on a drizzly, gray day. The ocher leaves of the yellow birch are outlined in carmine and highlighted by the warm hues of the distant woods, just visible as a blurry background. Now here's a further example, a single backlit maple leaf that came to rest on a rock outcrop along The River:

A Study in Crimson

The early‑morning sun picks out the wavelets on the dark water, while the lone leaf casts a long shadow across the pink gneiss. The colors in the leaf run the gamut from crimson and burgundy to mauve, while the scarlet stem seems to glow against the velvety black backdrop.

OK. We're almost ready to move on, but before we do, let's take a moment to reflect. We've seen one example already of the uses of reflected light in the earlier picture of the pack canoe cutting through the waters of a mountain tarn, but here's another, a portrait of maples reflected in an ephemeral pool:

Reflect on This

The living mirror of water throws back the brilliant scarlet of the maple leaves. No studio shot could match this! And now let's consider a third example. When looked at directly, the sky in the picture below was a uniform pale gray, but the reflection in the still pool disclosed islands of blue concealed within the ragged cloud.

Reflect on This, Too

Reflections can intensify as well as unmask, of course, as this shot of drifting leaves shows:

Reflect on This, As Well

The sun is behind me, and the floating leaves are bleached to a uniform pallid yellow. But the wooded hillside reflected in the placid water is a riot of color. Conclusion? If you want to capture the full glory of an autumn scene, it's worth taking time for reflection before you shoot.


Your choice of subject, how you frame your shot, the weather, and the time of day — these are all important in determining how a photo turns out. But this is just the start. If you want good photos, you have to do more than hold 'em and squeeze 'em, and that often means…

Taking Over the Controls…

And overriding your camera's automatic settings. Point‑and‑shoot is great when seconds count, but when you can take your time, it's often best to make your own decisions. Luckily, even inexpensive digital cameras now permit you to set such things as aperture, shutter speed, and sensitivity. Of course, many folks are understandably intimidated by owner's manuals that are longer than some novels. But you don't have to give up so easily. You can take control. And here's how:

  • Choose quality over quantity
  • Don't be too sensitive
  • Bracket your shots
  • Overexpose when necessary
  • Limit depth of field

First, though, study your camera's manual. Yes, even if it hurts. If you've lost it — or thrown it away — just bing or google your way to the manufacturer's website, where you'll most likely find the owner's manual that you need, available as a free, downloadable PDF. Begin by searching the manual for terms like quality, recorded pixels, or compression, and when you find the relevant section, follow the instructions and set your camera to record the highest number of pixels per shot. A digital photo is simply a file. If you limit the file size unnecessarily, you limit the information it can hold. And that information is your image. You can always throw away the bits you don't need or don't want. But you can't add back what isn't there. The upshot? If your camera allows separate compression settings for JPEG images (the most‑used photo file format, though pros often opt for other formats), select the highest quality setting available. Of course, this means that individual pictures will take up a lot of space in your camera's memory, reducing the number of shots you can take before you have to delete images or download them to your computer. So buy the highest capacity memory card your camera can accept — or your budget permits — and while you're at it, buy a spare.

Next, if your camera allows it, decrease the sensitivity. This corresponds to the ISO rating of photographic film. Low ISO (low sensitivity) settings limit low‑light performance, but they also increase resolution and reduce false colors, or "noise." On the other hand, high ISO, or high sensitivity, settings make low‑light photography easier, but the resulting images are both grainy and noisy. For most backcountry photography, image quality is more important than low‑light performance. So go low.

Now set your camera to Manual mode. This will allow you to select aperture and shutter speed. Why do this? Simple. Manual mode puts you in control. The mistakes you make will be yours, not your camera's. That's both good and bad. Bad because you'll probably spoil shots, at least at first. Good because you'll soon learn how to manipulate shutter speed and aperture to get just the result you want. Don't worry. The good outweighs the bad. Moreover, digital photography makes it easy to experiment. Take full advantage of this. And don't forget that you can hedge your bets on critical shots by bracketing, taking a series of images of your subject while altering exposure in regular increments, underexposing or overexposing by as much as a full stop (±1.0 EV). This makes it more likely that at least one shot will be exactly what you're looking for. A hint: If you're hoping to capture the rich, vibrant colors of an autumn landscape, deliberately underexposing your shot can help — unless there are sunlit waves sparkling in the foreground, that is. Then overexposing may give better results.

Here's an example, a complex scene that came out pretty well, despite deep shadows and brilliant highlights:

Fall Colors

I'd eddied out near a small falls on The River to capture the first signs of autumn color in the surrounding woodland. The light was coming over my right shoulder, it was early afternoon, and the sun was about as high as it gets in September. I zoomed in tight on the maple, metering on the leaves in the foreground and underexposing by one stop to "develop" the deep red color to the fullest. But just as I was about to shoot, a boater in a red kayak came into view. I immediately zoomed out to get him in the frame, simultaneously increasing my exposure by two full stops (to +1.0 EV), hoping to offset the effect of the sun's glare on the water. Then, as soon as the boat moved into the light, I squeezed the shutter. While the Class II‑III rapids is a featureless wedge of white in the resulting image, the young maple, boat, and paddler are all in the picture. Had I kept the original exposure unchanged — or had I relied on the camera's Auto setting — the leaves and the kayaker would been little more than dark blobs, though the details of wave and rock would have been better delineated.

Manual mode will also permit you to reduce the depth of field when you want. Remember depth of field? I wrote about it in "Up Close and Personal." It's a tool for directing attention to the vital element(s) in a picture. Limiting depth of field in order to focus on one subject pushes the rest of the scene into the background. Here's a for‑instance:

Turning Over an Old Leaf

If I'd used a smaller aperture, and thereby increased the depth of field, I could have kept the whole scene in focus, but then the leaves would have had to compete with the water for attention. By sticking with a wider aperture and limiting depth of field, I ensured that the leaves — and not the river — were the stars of the shot.


Most of the tricks of the trade I've talked about so far are available to many owners of point‑and‑shoot cameras, but if you own a digital SLR, you've got a few more arrows in your quiver. For instance, you can…

  • Fit a lens hood, or…
  • Add a polarizing filter

A lens hood protects against lens flare, a phenomenon that shows itself either as a uniform gauzy haze or as discrete starbursts of color which trail across a photo like footmarks on a freshly painted floor. While some photographers exploit flare for its dramatic impact, it's often little more than a distraction. The cause is usually a bright point‑source of light just outside the frame of the shot, and the cure is a lens hood. Many lenses come fitted with them right out of the box, but if a lens that you depend on lacks a hood, they're easy to find — and cheap, besides.

Polarizing filters are a different story. They can be very expensive, though not all are, and you don't always have to pay top dollar to get a good filter. I've discussed polarizers in "Shooting Through the Sunstone," so make that your first stop if you want to know more. The executive summary? Polarizers can cut glare, increase color saturation, and (to a degree at least) reduce the overall brightness of a scene, standing in for a neutral‑density filter. I find polarizers particularly useful on sunny days when I'm shooting photos around moving water. Look at the following pair of shots to see what these versatile filters can do.

No Polarizer


The first photo — shot without benefit of a polarizer — appears flat and faded. Contrast this with the vibrant, deeply saturated colors and velvety shadows of the second. And while the first might be more accurate in its rendering of "true" colors, the second does a far better job of reproducing the subjective experience enjoyed by anyone viewing this scene late on a bright autumn afternoon. Human eyes are not laboratory spectrographs, after all. Our emotions also color what we see, and a polarizing filter can do a wonderful job of capturing this. It has its limits, however. Polarizing filters can make photos too dark at times.

And since I'm talking about limits, this is also a good place to trumpet the virtues of tripods. Low sensitivity settings mean high resolution and low noise, but they also mean longish exposure times. If your hands shake — or even if they don't — a tripod can make a world of difference, permitting longer exposures. The two photos below illustrate this point.

Whole Lot of Shakin' Goin' On

Steady as She Goes

The first shot was made with the camera held in my hands. It's OK, but I had to use a faster shutter speed than I wanted. So I took another shot, mounting my camera on a tripod and opting for a longer exposure. The result? The water now displays its characteristic root‑beer brown hue, and the early hints of fall colors to come are clearly visible in the woods. There's a bonus, too. The gauzy flowscape created by the longer exposure invokes The River's headlong rush much better the first shot's static freeze‑frame. What do you think? I think it's almost blur‑fect!


Fallen Leaves on the Gravel Bar


Canoe Country is at its most colorful in fall, and that's very good news for paddling photographers. But it takes more than vibrant colors to make a photo stand out from the crowd. How about it? Are your seasonal snaps starting to stale? Then maybe it's time to recalibrate your color sense. It's easy. It's fun. And before you know it, you'll be shooting photos that all but invite viewers to step right into the frame. That's a promise.

See more examples of fall colors in "The Fall of the Leaf Begins" and "Autumn in the Northeast."

Copyright © 2009 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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