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How to Make Your Fall Outdoor Photography Pop

September 10, 2017
fall photography

Fall is great time for photography…but it’s hard to make images that haven’t been made a million times before.

The tricks fall into two categories: artistic and technical. As photographers, we operate gizmos with lots of buttons that connect to our computers, so it’s really easy to focus on the technical aspects: exposure, white balance, and depth of field. But at the end of the day, we’re telling stories—and that’s about creativity, meaning, and art. We’ll handle the artistic ideas first, and then the technical tricks.

Fall is More than Colorful Leaves
Everyone takes photos of colorful leaves. And that’s the signature image of the season, especially if you live in an area full of maples or Aspen. But those images have been done a million times, so if you’re going to shoot colorful leaves, do it in a creative way and make sure your images stand out. Even more importantly, don’t forget the other stories of fall. In the Pacific Northwest, fall is when salmon spawn and die in the rivers on the west side of the Cascades, when the mornings are suddenly crisp and cool, when gangs of geese form giant Vs and stage for heading south. Every region has its fall traditions, and colorful leaves are just one of them.

Tell Transition Stories
Photography is about telling stories, not just about recording what’s in front of the camera. Think in terms of transition themes: the end of summer can be about the kids going back to school, the last gasp of summer activities, a break from the humidity, or when the mountains empty out and you have them to yourselves. It could be about the mad dash to finish summer projects, or looking forward to ski season just around the corner, or brown hills turning back to green when the rain finally provides some drought relief.

fall photography

Now we go from the artistic topics to the technical ones.

Fall images call for a polarizing filter. What’s a polarizing filter? It’s a circular gray filter composed of two rings. The effect is to darken the sky, cut glare, and increase saturation slightly. The inner ring screws into the lens; the outer one adjusts the effect, which is strongest at 90 degrees to the sun. It’s great for darkening skies, making fall colors pop, and cutting the glare of light reflected off water. They’re designed to screw onto DLSR lenses, but can also be held carefully in front of the lenses of point and shoots and phone cameras.

Use Colors Wisely
Fall color is spectacular, but to be truly spectacular it has to be paired with something else. Think red leaves against the green needles of evergreens, or the yellow-blue contrast between leaves and water or sky. If you remember your art classes from middle school, these are complimentary colors that make each other look more saturated when they’re next to each other.

Move the Camera
When you’re wandering around on your two feet, it’s easy to always put the camera at eye level. This works sometimes when you’re shooting grand vistas, but it definitely doesn’t work in fall, when you’re likely either shooting up or down. Get close to the edge of leaves, the color of water at sunset, and kneel down or climb high to get a perspective other than the usual.

Get Stable
In the days of film, serious photographers always used tripods because the only way to get a decent image was to use slow-speed film. In the digital world, we have more flexibility because of adjustable ISO. But tripods—even small tabletop ones or Gorillapods help make sure your images are sharp. They let you shoot at low ISO, which means less pixelization. They also help you control focus when shooting close-up: less camera movement ensures that things close to the camera are sharp.

Control Depth of Field
Learn how to adjust the f-stop on your camera. Many point and shoots allow this, or have picture modes that have different pre-set depths of field. F-stop controls depth of field: the smaller the opening, the more of the field of view is in focus—but the harder it’s to hold the camera still, since the shutter has to be open to let more light in. Shallow depths of field are great when you want a soft background free of distracting elements. Deep depth of field is great when you want to establish a relationship between elements in a frame. Since fall photography involves lots of leaf edges, you want depth of field under your control, not the camera’s automatic settings.

Say goodbye to summer, but say hello to one of the richest photographic seasons we’ve got.

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