It’s that magical time of year in the Northern Hemisphere. Cool mornings and warm afternoons. The mountains are glistening with the season’s first snowfall. Elk are bugling. The deciduous trees are changing colour. Photographers everywhere are trying to capture the beauty of one of nature’s most spectacular displays, but getting a good photo of fall colours has never been easy, and today’s digital cameras make it even harder.
In the film days, you took whatever camera you had, put a roll of Fuji Velvia in it, and went out to photograph the changing of the season. Even with a cheap point and shoot, the colour saturation of film was so good that the colours of autumn looked vivid and memorable in the resulting photograph. Essentially, amateurs and professionals all used the same medium to capture the photo, even if they used a different camera.
Now, most people use point and shoot digital cameras with tiny sensors. I’m a professional photographer, not a physicist, so I don’t really know why fall colours taken with a point and shoot camera look so much worse than those taken with a professional DSLR, and even those don't look as good as film, but I’ve learned four big tricks for making my autumn photography look better regardless of which camera I'm using. This photo, taken with a professional grade Nikon digital camera, demonstrates all four.
1. Shoot in the shade. Your eyes are so much more sensitive to colour range than your camera that you are tricked into thinking you see a good photo just because you see a pleasing view. When the leaves are sunlit, they are often so bright that the sensor cannot record the subtle colours and instead records washed-out highlights. In the shade, natures colours – be it spring flowers or autumn leaves – are revealed to the sensor in a much more manageable hue. Those cloudy days, or shady hillsides like in this photo, often result in better photos than the perfect bluebird morning.
2. Crop other colours into the frame. Cameras and the human eye have one thing in common: colour is relative, not absolute. When you include other colours in the frame, it changes how the sensor and the viewer’s eye records or perceives the colour. For this photo I looked for a place where the yellow and orange contrasted against each other to make both look better.
3. Include compositional elements, not just the leaves. In this case, the ghostly aspen trunks give a sense of depth to the photo. Including singular evergreens amidst a forest of leaves, small meadows, a stream, or even a road or trail in the frame can often help your camera record a memory and an emotion rather than a just a photograph.
4. Buy a good camera. All sensors are not created equal. The difference between a good camera and a bad one has never been greater. Buy the best camera you can afford at the size you're willing to carry.
For a great chance to learn and shoot alongside a professional wilderness photographer in an unbeatable setting, check out the CMH Photography Workshop with John E. Mariott next summer in the Bugaboos.
Photo by Topher Donahue