Autumn is a fantastic time of year to take your camera into the woods, as the normally green landscape goes a little nuts, and the result (in much of the U.S.) is a spectacular palette of yellow, orange, and red.
But simply stumbling upon a stand of Technicolor trees doesn't always guarantee a great photo.
I’m reminded of a quote from the great French Impressionist painter, Claude Monet, who said, “For me, a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment; but the surrounding atmosphere brings it to life—the light and the air which vary continually.”
Or to put it another way: while peak foliage is a great place to start, what you do with your camera—and your eye—makes the difference between a striking and memorable image of an autumn landscape and one that's merely colorful.
Here are six tips to consider to help you capture powerful foliage photos this fall.
Focus on a Single Element
The first challenge of landscape photography is figuring out what to focus on. While leaf peepers may enjoy immersing themselves in nature, for a photographer, gazing out at an entire landscape can overwhelming. That's why I try and focus on just one particular element that captures my imagination and build a photo around that.
In the photo above, which I shot near the top of Mount Tom in Holyoke, Massachusetts, I was struck by the way the trees changed color.
The trees closest to me, at the bottom of the photograph, had much more contrast and were much more colorful than those in the distance at the top of the photograph.
I realized that this was a textbook example of what in fine art we call atmospheric perspective, which is something you'll often see in great Renaissance paintings (including the "Mona Lisa," by Leonardo da Vinci. It refers to the gradual decrease in color intensity and detail as objects recede in space.
For this shot, I composed the image to highlight this effect—putting the horizon at the very top of the frame—and didn't worry about anything else. The result is a photo that has a calm, almost serene quality to it. But it's also chock full of luscious detail.
Play With Depth of Field
If you've ever read a review of a high-end lens, you might wonder: what's bokeh? Look at that photo above and see how the green trees in the background have been transformed into wonderful blobs of light and shadow. The name for this blur effect is bokeh, and it's one of the hallmarks of cameras with a quality lens.
How do you achieve it? By minimizing depth of field, so that only certain objects are in focus and the rest are blurred. The effect is easy to achieve, if you have a camera with manual settings.
In the shot above, the goal was a shallow depth of field, which allowed me to keep just the yellow leaves in focus.
First, I backed up from the leaves and shot using the telephoto end of the zoom lens.
Then I set my camera on aperture-priority mode and used the widest aperture I could. In this case that was f/5.0. but if your your camera and camera lens allow it, try opening up even more, to f/2.8 or even wider. (The lower the f-stop number, the wider the aperture, which results in a narrower depth of field and better bokeh.)
Use a Simple Background
It's fun to shoot an entire landscape, but there are also times when you want to focus on the form and color of just a few leaves, like in the image above.
Occasionally a shot like that will just reveal itself, but other times you need to do a little leg work. If you've identified leaves and branches in an interesting pattern, try walking around and approaching them from different angles until you can find the background—in this case, a wall—that really highlights them.
In this case, I not only used that green wall to simplify the composition, I also employed extreme contrast of light and dark to enhance the photo and make those yellow maple leaves pop.
Change Your Point of View
Sometimes, when I'm shooting photos, I feel like I'm in the zone, and no matter where I turn I can't take a bad shot. But most of time that's not the case. And some days, it's completely the opposite: I feel like it's a struggle to take even an average shot.
At times like these, I make a conscious effort to change my point of view. Literally.
I might reach up and shoot with the camera over my head. Or do just the opposite and put the camera right down on the ground. That's what I did in the above photo: I crouched and positioned the camera only inches above the forest floor. Since I was using the Nikon Coolpix P900, I was able to change the angle of the swiveling LCD screen so I could still see what I was shooting. if your camera has this great feature, take advantage of it for an ant's eye view of autumn.
Look for Leading Lines
He's been dead for 500 years, but Renaissance painter Filippo Brunelleschi still has a thing to teach us digital photographers. Using leading lines in an image, whether it's in a photo or a painting, is a classic compositional device that dates back to the mid-15th century. The most common type is the one you see above: a path leading into a scene. Other examples include roads, train tracks or a long dock.
Visually, what leading lines do is to draw your eye to a particular point in the image. In this shot, I used the path to lead your eyes to the tiny figures that are heading toward the vanishing point of the path.
In this shot I tried to take this idea one step further. Instead of placing the path in the center of the photo, I positioned it to one side.
The large tree in the middle divides the composition into two distinct halves: On the left, you have the leading lines of the path, which creates a powerful sense of deep space. On the right, you have a chaotic jumble of bushes, tree trunks, branches, and leaves that's a bit like the effect of an abstract expressionist painting. By putting the path off to one side, I was able to create an image that includes both very deep and very shallow space, which makes for an interesting composition.
Experiment With Settings
Many advanced cameras, and even some point-and-shoots and smartphones, are equipped with a plethora of settings. The best way to use these tools to take better photos is to actively experiment with them.
In the photo above, which is actually a composite of three images, I used a panorama mode to capture the broad expanse of the landscape. (The top and bottom images were captured on the Apple iPhone 6s while the middle image was shot on the Nikon Coolpix P900 superzoom.)
In these three I chose to emphasize the horizontal aspect of the landscape, but on some cameras, the panorama mode allows you to capture images vertically as well. For instance, if you were shooting a waterfall in the woods, a vertical panorama might be your strongest option.
But the panorama mode is just one of many options. Try macro mode, which lets you get super close so you can explore the veins on a leaf. Or employ high-dynamic range (HDR), which allows you to capture more accurate detail in areas of highlight and shadow.
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