Autumn in New York may be a movie title, and even the name of a popular song, but for me it's simply a fabulous time for making pictures. Like the familiar array of cartoon specials that air each year, much of Autumn is fairly predictable. There will be pumpkins, the deer rut, and a brilliant display of vibrant leaf color. Of course it's tricky to pinpoint the prime dates due to weather variations, but generally speaking, mid-October to early November yield the most opportunity in the metro NY area.
The first frost is symbolic of the drastic change Fall brings to the region. I watch the forecast closely for overnight temperatures in the thirty degree range. This will usually produce a picturesque layer of frost at first light of morning. To get the average frost dates in U.S. and Canadian cities, check out this helpful guide. http://www.almanac.com/content/frost-chart-united-states For photos with the most impact, it's important to arrive early as the frost quickly dissipates with the rising sun. To accentuate the feeling of expansive frost, I like to set up my camera near e ground and place the horizon line in the upper third of the frame. A small aperture helps create great depth of field to keep everything sharp from near to far. Since the light is low, and the aperture is small, a slower shutter speed is necessary for a good exposure. If you are making the effort to get out of bed on a cold autumn morning, you need to bring your tripod to make sure you come home with sharp photos.
To maximize the saturation of the forest floor and reduce the glare on wet leaves, I often use a circular polarizer. A basic Hoya or Tiffen model does the job well and does not have a negative effect on image clarity. While the effect is subtle, I believe it makes a postive impact on the overall quality of the photo.
The contrast between rushing water and fallen leaves has long made for beautiful photo opportunities. A slow shutter is necessary to show the motion of the stream or river. The trick is to expose the water as close to white as possible without overexposing the highlights. The histogram is an ideal tool for this, and is actually very easy to use. The only part of the histogram that matters in this situation is the right hand wall. If no data touches the wall on this side, you have not lost any detail in the highlights.
One of the only times you'll see Bucks (male deer) in the wild is during the rut. This annual mating period lasts approximately one month in Fall. Photographing a fully grown male with an eight-point rack in the colorful woods is a breathtaking experience. Yet, it should be noted that Deer can be territorial during the rut, and caution must be exercised to keep yourself out of harms way. Never walk directly towards a Buck. This will be viewed as a threat, and the Deer may charge you with antlers down. A safer approach is to use a longer telephoto lens and approach slowly in a non-threatening indirect angle. Try not to make eye-contact, instead using peripheral vision to find your way. If the Deer looks up startled, stop and look down as if you are a grazing animal. It may take a few minutes for you to get in position, but good wildlife photography takes patience no matter what the season.
Pumpkins and gourds are colorful accents to this season of bounty. I like to challenge myself to come up with a creative way to show these static objects in a festive way. Using a wide aperture like f1.8 can throw the entire background out of focus, and create a wash of distant color. This gives the viewer a feeling of endless pumpkins as far as the eye can see.
Another approach is to use repetition, and a small aperture for great depth of field. The photo below shows the rocky terrain lead off the frame into the distance.
One of my favorite types of light is when the subject is backlit. Rather than shooting with the sun at your back, try pointing your camera right into the sun. Using this technique with a small aperture such as f22 will work to create the beautiful starburst effect of the sun’s rays reaching into the forest. The effect will be further enhanced if the sun is partially blocked by leaves or branches. To find the perfect spot, take the camera off your tripod, and look through the viewfinder while paying attention to the sun beams. Once you find the right location you can set up the tripod and make your photo.
Don’t forget to scan the forest floor for quiet moments, and details that may otherwise go by unnoticed. For inspiration, check out the stunning work of Eliot Porter. http://www.amazon.com/Eliot-Porter/dp/0821216759
For this type of work a lens in the 50-100mm range works really well. This type of work requires a keen eye, so take your time and try to tune in to your surroundings by observing everything slowly. You may need to get down on the ground, or even lay on your belly to find the best angle.
While hiking, I came across this lone branch glowing on the forest floor. It was off to the side of the trail, gently blowing in the breeze. Its leaves, fragile but vibrant, caught the rays of the sun, and then my eye. Over the next few weeks, they'll fall to the earth and join the others. Photographing it was a quiet moment of introspection. It's this type of interaction that allows me to connect with nature on a personal level. To isolate the leaves against the dark background, I used a 400mm lens.
As you can see, the photographic possibilities are seemingly endless in fall here in New York. Thankfully, the activity is not just limited to the East Coast. To see a map of foliage activity in the United States, check out this helpful link: http://foliagenetwork.com/ Hopefully, you have a chance to document what happens in your area this Autumn.
Above: Helpful tips on composition, histograms and more, filmed on location at Harriman State Park in New York.