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Tips and techniques

FIELD TECHNIQUE: Autumn Colors in the Digital Age, Story and photographs by F.M. Kearney

By September 16, 2015No Comments

The morning started out under foggy conditions in the New York Botanical Garden. The autumn colors were at their peak, but they looked somewhat subdued as they disappeared into the mist. By mid-morning, the fog had almost completely dissipated and the sun was struggling to make an appearance. As I approached a couple of Japanese Zelkova trees, I noticed that a thick stand of bushes that used to be there had been completely cleared. This allowed me to view the trees from a totally new angle, which had previously been inaccessible. I positioned one tree directly behind another one—making the one in front appear as though it had far more branches than it actually did. From a wide-angle, ground-level perspective, I was able to include much of the colorful background. Also, the trees on the far left and right leaned inward just enough to create the perfect framing elements.

The sun wasn’t quite at full power yet, but it was strong enough to create some areas of high contrast. I did an HDR compilation of five images (+/- 2 stops, 0) to balance out the difficult light.

Regular HDR © F. M. Kearney

Regular HDR © F. M. Kearney

One of the great things about the digital age is being able to play around with existing images and create new ones with completely different moods. I was curious to see how this image would look with a romantic touch. Using Photoshop CS6, I applied a soft effect using the Gaussian Blur filter.

HDR + Gaussian Blur © F. M. Kearney

HDR + Gaussian Blur © F. M. Kearney

Don’t go to Filter>Blur>Gaussian Blur, because that will just throw the entire image out of focus. The key is to apply the blur while still retaining some areas of sharpness. Therefore, you need to create a background copy of the image by duplicating the layer. Create an adjustment layer and select “Levels.” Lighten the image to the point where it looks grossly overexposed. With the background copy selected in the Layers panel, now go to Filter>Blur>Gaussian Blur, and select an appropriate amount of blur. Make sure your opacity is set to 100 percent, and select “Multiply” as the blending mode. To fine tune the overall exposure, double-click the layer thumbnail in the Levels layer and adjust it to your liking.

The resulting image I made was satisfactory, but I didn’t think the chaotic nature of the scene was really conducive to a romantic theme.

Because of the abundance of color, I wanted to try something really off the wall, like an explosion—an explosion of color behind the tree.

HDR + Radial Blur

HDR + Radial Blur © F. M. Kearney 

This effect was created with the Radial Blur filter. Just like the Gaussian Blur, this filter is applied globally and requires a bit more effort and artistic skill to make it look realistic. The more complex the image the more effort and skill is required. To remove the effect from select portions of the image, you need to use Smart Filters.

 Go to Filter>Convert for Smart Filters. Once the background layer is converted to Layer 0, go to Filter>Blur>Radial Blur. Set the Blur Method to “Zoom,” and the Quality to “Good.” Click the approximate area in the Blur Center window where you want to place the point of origin for the effect. This window is not live, so it may take several attempts before you’re able to locate the exact position. Make sure the Smart Filter mask is selected in the Layers panel. Now, it’s just a matter of adjusting the opacity, brush sizes and switching between white and black foreground colors to paint the effect in or out.

 This image was extremely complex. By setting the brush opacity to 100 percent, I completely removed the effect from the main bark of the tree and most of the foreground. I then gradually decreased the opacity as I worked further into the background and toward the edges of the frame—leaving the extreme left and right at 0 percent to show the effect at full strength. The tedious part was removing the effect from the major branches and the smaller trees in the background. Time-consuming as it was, this created the illusion that the color was literally exploding from behind the tree.

Autumn has always been a magical time for nature photography, and today’s digital capabilities have only made things better. Of course, these effects may not be for everyone, but it’s nice to know that many options are available to match your vision—no matter how far out it may be.

Digital imaging reminds me of the old Minolta slogan: The only limitation is your own imagination.

F.M. Kearney is a fine-art nature photographer specializing in unique floral and landscape images. To see more of his work, visit

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