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Tips and techniques

FIELD TECHNIQUE: Autumn—The foolproof season

By September 23, 2016No Comments

Story and photography by F.M. Kearney

If there was such a thing as a Super Bowl season for nature photography, it would have to be autumn. Perhaps the best thing about this time of year is that there are no bad days for a shoot. Fall foliage is one of the few subjects in nature that look good in virtually any type of lighting or weather condition.

Fall foliage at Hessian Lake Bear Mountain State Park Bear Mountain, NY

Overcast condition. © F.M. Kearney

Fall foliage around Richmond Lake Clove Lakes Park Staten Island, NY (5-image HDR compilation)

Sunny condition. © F.M. Kearney








Colorful foliage and bodies of water are a great combination. Look for reflections along the shorelines of lakes and rivers. I used to think that sunny days provided the best reflections, but as you can see from the images above, stunning results can be obtained in cloudy conditions as well. Although purely a personal choice, I prefer shooting fall foliage on overcast days. However, there is one important thing to keep in mind: a gloomy white sky won’t add much to your photos. In fact, it can be distracting. In the overcast shot, I zoomed in tight to crop it out—placing the emphasis on the multicolored tree line.

The sunny day shot was another story. You just can’t beat the marriage of vibrant fall foliage against a bright blue sky with large, white puffy clouds. To take it all in, I used a 24-70mm lens set at 24mm. There was a lot of contrast in this scene, so to retain detail in the highlights and shadows, I did an HDR compilation of five separate photos of varying exposures (-2, -1, 0, +1, +2). I find that in all but the most extreme contrast situations, perfect images can be made from a single capture and careful processing in Camera Raw. This wasn’t an extreme case, and I probably could have done just that, but I opted for the HDR technique because I like how it gives colors that extra pop. You need to be careful, though, to make sure that they don’t pop too much—giving your photos that infamous “cartoonish” look that this technique is prone to do when pushed too far.

HDR may have been an optional method in the sunny day scene above, but sometimes it’s the only way to get the shot. A forest scene in bright sunlight just might be the most notorious of all high-contrast situations. In the days of film, it was the type of scene you would definitely try to avoid if you didn’t want a hodgepodge of overexposed highlights and blocked-up shadows.

Fall foliage in Bear Mountain State Park Bear Mountain, NY (HDR compilation of 5 images)

High-contract condition. © F.M. Kearney

 Fortunately, that’s no longer the case today. The photo above is a five-image HDR compilation (using the same bracketing sequence) of just such a scene. I shot this late in the afternoon in New York State’s Bear Mountain State Park as the sun was setting behind the trees. What was once a taboo subject for a sunny day can now be viewed as simply another opportunity to capture the glory of this beautiful season.

Autumn colors tend to impart a cheerful and happy mood. But, if you want to capture a totally different mood, try shooting on a foggy day. The vivid colors are now muted, creating a much more ominous vibe. To accentuate this, it’s important to use slightly different compositional and processing techniques.

Fall foliage in dense fog New York Botanical Garden

Foggy condition. © F.M. Kearney

To avoid a dull, lifeless photo, you need to place something strong and dominant in the foreground. I shot the photo above on a foggy morning in the New York Botanical Garden. Besides drawing the viewer into the scene, the overhanging branches and the leaves on the ground also serve as a sort of “control” for the shot. Because of their close proximity to the camera, they’re not as affected by the fog as the trees in the background—giving the viewer a way to gauge its overall intensity. Without these elements, this would be little more than a hazy-looking image.

While a cloudy sky may not add much to an overcast scene, it does seem to contribute to the overall gloominess of fog. Nevertheless, I still didn’t want it to dominate the shot, so I filled most of it in with the branches.

When it came to processing, I did the opposite of what I would normally do—especially with a fall foliage image. The Vibrance control in Camera Raw really punches up the yellows and oranges, but I wanted just the opposite for this shot. By moving the slider into the negative values, I was able to tone these colors down, creating an image that much more accurately represents what I saw at the time of the shoot. When it comes to colors and fog, less is often more.

Although there are reports of fog conditions lasting for well over 100 straight hours in some parts of the world, this is exceptionally rare. In most cases, fog will usually only last for a few hours. So, you need to move fast when you encounter it. The day I shot this photo started out under dense fog. The fog lessened as each minute passed, and by mid-morning, it was a perfectly clear, blue-sky day.

Even rainy and windy days can offer something special. Look for closeups of colorful, rain-soaked leaves or hanging droplets. Of course, you may want to wait for the rain to stop first.

Sharp images can be frustratingly difficult to obtain in strong winds. On those days, try to use the wind to your advantage. Billowing foliage and slow shutter speeds can make for some truly colorful and whimsical images. Just be sure to use a sturdy tripod and focus on something stationary, like a large tree. Without some type of anchor, your shot will simply deteriorate into a blurry mess.

Clearly, you do not have to restrict your shooting to the magic hours in the fall. Successful images are all but guaranteed no matter what Mother Nature may decide to throw your way.

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