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Backcountry Photography

Shooting Tips for the Autumn Woods Fall Scene

By Tamia Nelson
tamia@paddling.net

October 1, 2013

What photographer can resist the lure of the autumn woods? Not I. After the lazy, hazy days of summer, the hills come suddenly alive, sharply outlined against robin's‑egg blue skies and cloaked in rich colors. From the first scarlet highlights on the red maples to the lingering, muted yellows of the last larch, each autumn dawn paints the land anew. It's enough to shake even the drowsiest paddler from her creative doldrums.

And yet… The fruits of my autumnal photo safaris often disappoint, like the sour taste of pulpy windfall apples from a blighted branch. Once back home, after stowing my boat and hanging my gear up to dry, I sit down in front of my computer, all eager anticipation, only to rise from my chair half an hour later, with a long face and an unquiet mind. My photos simply didn't measure up to my expectations. What, I ask myself, …

Did I Do Wrong?

The answer, usually, is nothing. Or rather, nothing out of the ordinary. As is so often the case in photography, the problem is the light. The autumn sun hangs low in the sky, illuminating the understory of the woods — a woods bereft of much of its leafy canopy, of course — in a way that the lofty sun of high summer cannot equal. But this gift of light comes at a price. Glare and flare are now your enemies. Still, if you can master the wayward autumnal light and bend it to your will, a good bag of trophy shots is all but assured.

Easy enough to say; far from easy to accomplish. But fortune favors the prepared mind, in photography as in so much else. And here's …

My Recipe for Success

Is it foolproof? No. I'd be foolish indeed to suggest that it is. But it does improve the odds that I'll get up from my computer with a smile on my face, rather than a frown. And to make doubly sure, I begin each year by …

Reviewing the Basics.  Photographic principles — like the rules of composition, for example — know no season, and putting them into practice requires that you understand how your equipment works. So read (or reread) the user's manual for your camera before you head out to the put‑in. And while you're at it, be sure to refresh your understanding of the interplay of aperture, shutter speed, and depth of field, as well.

Caring for your equipment is pretty basic stuff, too. Which is why I take time to …

Clean My Lenses and Filters.  What with drifting pollen, blowing dust, driving spray, and sudden showers, summer leaves its mark on lenses. Inspect your glass now, and clean any lens surfaces that bear the hallmarks of neglect.

And speaking of lenses, you have no better ally in your battle with flare and glare than …

A Lens Hood.  Use one. Not only does a hood keep stray light from fogging your shots, but it also helps protect the lens from damage. Are there downsides? Sure. A hood lengthens the lens, making shooting close‑ups awkward. It also complicates the business of fitting and manipulating filters — though some hoods, like those on my Pentax lenses, are outfitted with windows, facilitating access to the filter ring. Nonetheless, despite the drawbacks, hoods are worth fitting to any lens you take into the autumn woods. Luckily, most new lenses come with them, but if yours didn't, or if a hood has gone AWOL, it's easy to find a replacement in the catalogs of photographic suppliers.

Now that you've read the instructions, cleaned your glass, and mounted hoods on all your lenses, what's next? That's easy. It's time to …

Expose Yourself.  And no, I'm not suggesting that you do anything that will attract the unwanted attention of the boys and girls behind the mirrored sunglasses. Far from it. I'm talking self‑control here. Take control of your exposure. Move the dial on your camera to Manual — or if that's too much to ask, at least select Aperture or Shutter priority. You can't rely on Auto mode to cope with the vagaries of autumn light and the astonishing palette of autumnal hues. It's far, far better to do the job yourself. A couple of examples: Deliberately underexposing a shot can intensify colors while making it less likely that highlights will wash out. On the other side of the ledger, overexposing when shooting in fog and mist will enhance a scene's otherworldly quality. But how do you know how far to go to get what you want? Good question. There's no universal rule of thumb. You'll just have to experiment. To play it safe, bracket your shots several stops in either direction. Then check the resulting photos in your camera's LCD display. For some reason, this is known by the not very flattering term "chimping," but don't let that put you off the idea. Take the time to review each shot's histogram, too. (If you're not sure how to read a histogram, check your camera's manual or read Wikipedia's article on the subject.)

Exposed!

OK. Since you're already exposing yourself, you might as well go the whole hog and …

Shoot RAW.  Once again, there's less here than meets the eye. RAW is a format (or to be precise, a family of formats) that captures all the information in each shot, without compression or algorithmic processing. Wikipedia refers to RAW* images as "digital negatives." That's not a bad description. And just as film negatives often required hours of darkroom work to yield the final print, RAW images will need extensive post‑processing in order to bring out their best. RAW images are big, too. But flash memory is cheap today, so cost shouldn't be much of a barrier. Just remember to bring a couple of spare cards with you if you're planning to shoot a lot of pictures.

Also keep the muted autumnal light in mind. You'll probably need longer exposures, and that means you'll want to …

Use a Tripod.  The problem is at its most acute during dark days, when you're framing a shot that demands a deep depth of field. Since you'll be stopping your lens down, you'll have to lengthen the exposure. And while a good brace can dampen the shakes that blur many shots, a tripod does a much better job, especially when very long exposures are involved.

Is a tripod too much of a nuisance on a light‑load trip? Or is cost a concern? Then give a monopod a try. It will often do the necessary, and you can make your own.

Calendar Shots

Matters of equipment and exposure aside, autumn is a good time to expand your repertoire of techniques. The world is awash in panoramas of tinted hills and lapping waters. So why not …

Do Something Different?  If you normally stand tall to shoot your scenics, try squatting, instead. And eschew the usual calendar fare. Create abstract compositions by concentrating on color and shape. Or deliberately blur portions of your shot. (You can do this by panning or "zoom blurring" as you trip the shutter.) While such sleights of hand are often overdone, when they're used sparingly the results can be spectacular.

A Walk on the Wild Side

Or ignore the big picture altogether, and …

Delve for Detail.  The poet William Blake reminds us that there's "a world in a grain of sand." And while I'm not urging you to abandon scenics for microphotography, there's a lot to be said for studies of individual leaves, not to mention photos of the last, limp wildflower in a wilting meadow, of milkweed seeds sailing under their silken canopies, or of wild apples hanging from a bare branch.

You might even want to experiment with monochrome photography. This may seem counterintuitive — after all, autumn is the season of color, isn't it? — but black‑and‑white images can evoke the shape and sinew of leaf and landscape like nothing else can, particularly when the land has thrown off its concealing summer raiment.

Microcosm

And make no mistake: Vibrant color is only one chapter in autumn's narrative. The slanting light and fitful autumn winds create pockets of light and shadow everywhere, in addition to setting the bare branches dancing. Which means that you'll have an easy time of it when you …

Look for Contrasts.  Pools of golden light on a dark forest floor, a lone scarlet leaf among hundreds of drear companions, white mist swirling above a drop on a rainfall‑swollen river… These are only a few examples. Contrast creates interest and interest makes a photo work.

Studies in Contrast

Now let's return to technical matters for a minute. You'll have an easier time capturing autumn's abundant contrasts if you …

Fit a Polarizing Filter to Your Lens.  By allowing you to block light from all but one "privileged" plane, polarizing filters can enhance contrast and enrich (saturate) colors. But beware: Polarizers can also make an already dark scene even darker. Be sure to review your images in your camera's LCD display before you move on.

Polarized Views

As useful as they are, therefore, polarizers aren't a panacea for all the ails that afflict photographers in fall. For example, they won't help you …

When You Shoot Reflections.  And since still waters make good mirrors, these are a natural subject for paddling photographers. Reflected images can also show familiar landscapes in a new light. But what if the waters aren't still? What do you do when a rising wind ruffles the surface of a pond, for instance? Easy. Try capturing the infinitely varied effects produced by the resulting ripples and wavelets.

Pause for Reflection

Which just goes to prove that there are good reasons to venture out in less than perfect weather. In other words, …

Don't Hibernate at Home on Stormy Days.  Scudding clouds and driving rain are familiar traveling companions in fall, and the occasional snow flurry (or squall) isn't unknown. These challenging conditions make the photographer's job harder, but if you and your gear are prepared for any trick the weather can turn its hand to, you'll be rewarded with a whole album's worth of dramatic shots in a single day. It's worth the effort.

Stormy Weather

Get the picture? If you're hankering to shoot calendar scenics, by all means do so. But don't stop there. The ever‑changing moods of the autumn woods and waters have much more to offer. Don't let this fall go by without bagging your share of trophy shots.

Autumn Gavotte

Autumn teases and tantalizes. Summerlike days are followed by arctic nights, and skies can change from robin's‑egg blue to coal‑scuttle black in a heartbeat. It's a short season, too. Blink once and the maple woods have turned from green to scarlet. Blink twice, and you'll find yourself staring at a landscape blanketed by the first snows of winter. Which gives you even more reason to make the most of any time you can steal away from the demands of work. Summer's over. Winter's coming. If you're a photographer, there's not a moment to be lost. And that's the most important shooting tip of all.
 

* Is it "RAW" or "raw"? Authorities vary. The tag isn't an acronym (RAW just means raw, as in raw vegetables), so "raw" would seem to be the logical choice, and that's how Wikipedia labels it. But a lot of other writers cling stubbornly to the all‑caps convention, including the anonymous hacks behind the manuals for many cameras. So I will, too. RAW it is. For now, at any rate

 


 

Related Articles From In the Same Boat
And more from my own website:
  • The Inquiring Eye, another collection of jottings, plus photomontages featuring samples of my work — and that of other, better photographers, too.

 

Copyright © 2013 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.









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