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Tips and techniques

Urban Nature: Creative Ways to Capture the Beauty of Autumn

By November 2, 2022November 12th, 2022No Comments
Colorful trees over a calm lake that reflects the brilliant colors. Fall foliage by Hessian Lake, Bear Mountain State Park © F.M. Kearney

Fall foliage by Hessian Lake, Bear Mountain State Park © F.M. Kearney

By F. M. Kearney

Whenever I’m asked if I would like to live in the tropics, my answer is always a resounding, “Absolutely NOT!” It usually elicits an incredulous expression and a wonder as to why anyone would not want to live in “paradise.” Indeed, every time I’ve taken a trip to the Caribbean, I’ve always returned with some pretty amazing images. But, as beautiful as palm trees, unspoiled beaches and spectacular sunrises and sunsets are, I think they might get a little old after a while. I say “I think” because I’ve never been in the Tropics long enough for monotony to take hold. But I believe it would be a totally different story if I lived there. Personally, one of the appeals of living in the northeast is the changing temperature. I truly hate the heat of summer, but I love it in the fall, when the temperatures begin to drop below broiling. Along with the changing temperatures, of course, are the changing seasons. This is, by far, the main reason why I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

Of all the seasons, autumn is definitely my favorite. It’s the time when even those who care nothing about photography are inclined to pick up a camera (or, more likely, a phone) and get a photo of the magnificent colors. Also, it’s a season that’s as beautiful as it is versatile. In this article, I will attempt to show how great images can be captured on any kind of day and in a variety of interesting ways.

Cloudy Day Possibilities

I particularly love overcast days. The flat, even lighting produces little to no contrast and helps to saturate the colors. I shot the opening photo on such a day at Hessian Lake in Bear Mountain State Park in Upstate New York. The lack of harsh shadows made it easier for the true colors to come forth. However, for some scenes, overcast conditions are more of a necessity than anything else. There are few absolutes in photography, but waterfalls will almost always look better on cloudy days. The inherent contrast between the dark, wet rocks and the lighter foliage will only be exacerbated in anything other than the flattest light. Photo “A” is a waterfall I shot in the northern, more rural, section of Central Park. It was a dreary, overcast day – unsuitable for most “traditional” landscape scenes, but perfect for a waterfall. The soft lighting revealed details even in the darkest shadows. Keep in mind that you may want to use a long lens to compose a tight composition in order to crop out a white, featureless sky.

PHOTO A: Waterfalls almost always look best on cloudy days. © F.M. Kearney (Photo of a waterfall in the middle ground, some gray boulders in the foreground and colorful Autumn trees in the background.)

PHOTO A: Waterfalls almost always look best on cloudy days. © F.M. Kearney

PHOTO B (left): Sun rising above a small stream. PHOTO C (right): Golden leaves bathed in midday sun. © F.M. Kearney

PHOTO B (left): Sun rising above a small stream. PHOTO C (right): Golden leaves bathed in midday sun. © F.M. Kearney

Harsh, direct lighting isn’t flattering to most subjects in nature. But that isn’t the case when it comes to fall foliage – which really tends to shine on sunny days… literally. I shot Photo “B” in Central Park by a small, leaf-covered stream around 8:30 in the morning. As the sun rose above a nearby ridge, it cast a warm light on the golden leaves – nicely complimented by the clear, blue sky. Later in the day, I shot Photo “C” in another part of the park. It was at 11 a.m., nearing the time of day when the light is at its harshest. Instead of being a distraction, the high-contrast lighting enhanced the colors and really made them pop.

PHOTO D: Rocks in the shade surrounded by the reflection of sun-drenched foliage. © F.M. Kearney

Unusual juxtapositions are always interesting in photography. Look for compositions that combine subjects in the shade and in direct sunlight. The rocks in Photo “D” were in the shade, but was surrounded by water reflecting the sun-drenched foliage of a nearby forest area.

PHOTO E: Skyward view of forest canopy with yellow leaves on trees contrasting with clear blue sky. © F.M. Kearney

PHOTO E: Skyward view of forest canopy. © F.M. Kearney

Most people go through life viewing the world at a normal eye-level. As a nature photographer, you need to get in the habit of looking at things from more unconventional angles. I shot Photo “E” in the middle of the Thain Family Forest in the New York Botanical Garden. I used a 16mm fisheye lens and pointed my camera straight up. Unique angles can reveal unique results. The ultra-wide view captured not just the colorful leaves, but an interesting design created by the trees themselves. As an added bonus, I also managed to include the sun in the upper-right. Once again, this isn’t the type of shot you would want to take on an overcast day, unless, of course, you want a white sky for a more “artsy” type of image.

Look down

PHOTO F: Ground-level view of forest floor. © F.M. Kearney (photo from ground level of path covered with leaves and bordered by fences in a forest.)

PHOTO F: Ground-level view of forest floor. © F.M. Kearney

What probably goes more unnoticed than the view above is the very ground you’re walking on. In our haste to get to the next great venue, we often trample upon some real gems. I shot Photo “F” in the same forest as in Photo “E,” but on an overcast day. The harsh shadows of a sunny day would have distracted from the image I was trying to create. Once again, I used an ultra-wide-angle lens to capture as much of the scene as possible. But, instead of a fisheye, I used a 14-24mm lens. It gave me the same angle of coverage, but without the barrel distortion. If you have a lens like this, you should use it to its best advantage. That means getting as close as possible to the subject in the foreground in order to exaggerate the perspective. I mounted my camera on a mini-tripod – just inches above the ground. I wanted to create the illusion of the leaves rushing toward me. Upon reflection, I think I could have exaggerated that perspective even more by placing the camera directly on the ground – using small twigs or rocks to angle it upward, if necessary. Tripods are invaluable tools, but sometimes, a low-tech method may work even better.

Look Down… From Way Above

PHOTO G: An overview of Central Park at peak color. © F.M. Kearney

PHOTO G: An overview of Central Park at peak color. © F.M. Kearney

An ant’s eye view of the leaves is one thing, but a bird’s eye view is truly a sight to see. If you’re able to get an elevated view of a large park at peak season, be sure to have your camera handy. I shot Photo “G” from the terrace of my workplace, which overlooks Central Park. The usual field of green was transformed into a multi-colored, urban tapestry. These types of views offer a variety of compositional options. You could go for a wide view and include elements of the city, as I did here, or opt for tighter, frame-filling shots of foliage.

Look for Contrasts in Color and Closeups

PHOTO H (left): Red maple leaves against a green background.     PHOTO I (right): Closeup of maple leaves. © F.M. Kearney

PHOTO H (left): Red maple leaves against a green background.     PHOTO I (right): Closeup of maple leaves. © F.M. Kearney

Color contrasts are always eye-catching. While strolling around Central Park, I came across some bright red maple leaves with vivid, green/yellow foliage in the background (Photo “H”). Since the red leaves were in the shade, I needed to use a flash for better lighting and to reveal their true color.

When fall foliage is at its peak, it can sometimes seem like information overload. Don’t just focus on the grand scenes. If you have a long lens, use it to compose tight compositions of the millions of colorful leaves all around you. These “intimate landscapes” or “visual extractions” will open a myriad of additional opportunities. Photo “I” is a closeup of some multi-colored maple leaves, which is a nice segue into my next topic regarding pre-peak conditions.

The Advantages of Pre- and Post-Peak Conditions

Planning a faraway trip to capture fall foliage at its peak can be tricky. A misjudgment by a week, or even a few days, can make a tremendous difference in the quality and color of the leaves. Planning a trip closer to home is a safer bet, but still, not always full proof. But don’t worry, off-peak conditions can offer images that are even more interesting and unique than the usual fare. If I had to choose between shooting during peak or pre-peak conditions, I think I would pick pre-peak. As seen in Photo “I,” closeups of leaves that are beginning to change can be quite beautiful. But, what about a whole tree that’s in transformation? Photo “J” is an example of this. It’s a sweet gum tree that was mostly red at the top, more yellow in the middle and surrounded by the mostly green foliage at the bottom. I shot it in mid-October in the New York Botanical Garden – about a full two weeks before peak conditions in the rest of the park. Like people, some varieties of trees peak before others. These solitary, clusters of color stand out like beacons in pre-peak conditions.

If you’ve missed both the pre-peak and peak periods, do not despair… all is not lost. Focus on the nearly bare branches during post-peak conditions. Although the mood isn’t quite as cheerful, they can exhibit a different type of beauty, nonetheless. Adored with only a few leaves, defiantly clinging on, the branches exhibit a more ominous mood. For all of you urban photographers, head to your local park and try incorporating some man-made elements for added interest. I shot Photo “K” in Central Park during the final stages of the season. The trees on the far side of the lake, known as the Harlem Meer, were still in fairly good shape, but the ones on my side had seen better days. I used a nearby overhanging tree to frame the buildings on the opposite side. Its sparsely populated branches allowed for more of the scene to show through. Also, the overcast sky further accentuated the ominous mood. Another advantage of post-peak conditions is the carpet of fallen leaves that litter the ground (as seen in many of the photos used in this article).

PHOTO J: Tree with multi-colored foliage © F.M. Kearney

PHOTO J: Tree with multi-colored foliage © F.M. Kearney

PHOTO K: Bare branches steal the show in post-peak conditions. Fall foliage around The Harlem Meer Central Park New York, NY © F.M. Kearney

PHOTO K: Bare branches steal the show in post-peak conditions. © F.M. Kearney

Tropical paradises are beautiful, indeed. But, much like a favorite meal that might become tiresome if you had to eat it every day, the same applies to subject matter. A change in seasons and scenery is good to keep the creative juices flowing. Hopefully, this article has provided you with fresh ideas and inspiration for photographing this annual spectacle.

F.M. Kearney began his career as a photojournalist for a variety of local New York City newspapers. It was an exciting profession, which allowed him to cover everything from famous celebrities to ride-alongs with NYPD and FDNY. He now specializes in nature and urban landscapes. To view more of his work, visit www.starlitecollection.com. He can be contacted at starcollec@aol.com, or followed on Facebook (@fmkearneyphotos) and/or Twitter (@fmkearneyphoto).