Share this photo on Twitter Share this photo on Facebook

Brilliant Aspen, Lundy Canyon, Eastern Sierra

Posted by
Gary Hart (California, United States) on 5 July 2010 in Plant & Nature and Portfolio.

One of the great things about photographing fall color is that it doesn't really matter where you are. Colorful scenes featuring tree-lined lakes or rivers are wonderful, but let's not forget what makes those colorful scenes so grand is millions of individual leaves, each with its own personality. Sometimes it's nice to find an anonymous leaf (or four) and build a composition from there.

This isolation approach is particularly useful when the color isn't as ubiquitous as you'd hoped, and when the sun's out. Generally full sunlight photography is for tourists (not that there's anything wrong with that), but a fine art photographer who selects his or her subjects carefully can find great success in the middle of the day. Poppies are great for this; so are dogwood. And so are colorful fall leaves.

The approach for fall leaves is the same as it is for poppies and dogwood: Find a subject that's backlit and make it the brightest thing in the scene; and choose a background that will soften to color and shape.

When you expose, take care to not blow (overexpose, or "clip") the highlights. The best way to ensure this is to spot meter the highlights in manual mode, and slightly underexpose. And be careful when you review your histogram: The standard luminosity histogram is a single graph that may indicate that your highlights are safe when in fact one or two of the three color channels is blown. The RGB histogram (the 3-color histogram with a separate graph for the red, green, and blue components of each pixel) is the only way to know for sure that you haven't lost any highlight detail. For example, in this fall color frame, a little more exposure would have completely blown the red channel (I won't get into why too much yellow blows the red channel, so you'll just have to trust me), but the luminosity histogram would have told me everything's fine.

Underexposure helps in a couple of ways besides preventing clipping: It saturates the color (naturally, without Photoshop intervention) and it turns the shadows quite dark (sometimes completely black). Dark shadows, when well positioned, help your bright subject stand out even more.

Ideally your background will be no brighter than your subject, and soft enough to approach abstract. I often try to soften my background so much that it isn't recognizable. There are many ways to accomplish this: Moving closer to your subject, lots of distance between your subject and the background, a telephoto lens, an extension tube, a large aperture , or some combination of all these factors will do the trick.

On this afternoon early last October, I set out along Mill Creek in Lundy Canyon in search of backlit leaves that stood out from their neighbors, with a distant background of color. The group in this image was made to order. My favorite lens for these shots is my 70-200; in this case an extension tube allowed me to focus closer to fill the frame with the leaves and soften the background. I went to ISO 400 because the extension tube reduced the light enough that I was concerned the slight breeze would cause motion blur at this extreme magnification.

The composition was pretty straightforward, but the depth of field was tricky. A wide open aperture would have softened the background entirely; stopping all the way down wouldn't have made the background completely sharp, but it would have revealed individual leaves. Rather than decide on the spot, I simply bracketed f-stops, going in one-stop increments from f4 to f22. Even on my monitor at home the decision was difficult, but I finally decided I prefer the subtle geometrical shapes caused by just a little individuation of the leaves.

* My Facebook page *

Upcoming workshops

Yosemite winter, spring, and fall; New Zealand; Grand Canyon; Death Valley; Eastern Sierra; Maui; Hawaii's Big Island; Columbia River Gorge

Other Links

* Facebook

* WordPress Blog

* Website: Eloquent Images

Thanks for visiting. Even if I don't respond, your comments are always read and appreciated.

Denny Jump Photo from Easton, PA, United States

This is marvelous, Gary - I think it is so wonderful how you bring out the finite details in your subjects in images such as this one and I really love the veins in these leaves. Your explanations and suggestions, as always, are so easily understandable and I thank you for that. A beautiful piece, this is.

5 Jul 2010 1:39pm

Tamara from Aarschot, Belgium

WHat a beautiful light ! I love the composition, so simple and effective ! Nice work. Have a great day Gary :)

5 Jul 2010 2:36pm

Judy from Brooksville, Florida, United States

Wonderful ... and you did well to 'stop' the breeze.

5 Jul 2010 3:54pm

Dulcie from Danville, CA, United States

The beautiful bokeh is a lovely background for these light-infused overlapping leaves. I love the purity and simplicity of this image.

5 Jul 2010 4:44pm

john4jack from Corvallis, Oregon, United States

Gorgeous lighting.

5 Jul 2010 8:03pm

Tracy from La Selva Beach, United States

This is wonderful! such a cheerful little group! Thanks for the exposure tips! I am just starting to use the RGB histogram, and I have to say it is different! We hear so much about "expose to the right" but I am guessing that if any one of the channels is to the right without being clipped- that would be the best exposure for that subject???

6 Jul 2010 12:01am

@Tracy: Thanks, Tracy. Yeah, "expose to the right" is advocated by pseudo-experts because it sounds impressive. It certainly has merit, but I don't like to teach it unless I know my subject really understands exposure and how to read an RGB histogram. You can't really do ETTR using only the luminosity histogram for exactly the reason you state: two of three channels can be clipped and the luminosity histogram will still indicate all's well. In other words, if you're going to expose to the right you must make sure none of the channels is clipped.

DarkElf from Perth, Australia

this is beautiful! the aspen leaves are very well isolated and set against the background indeed - perfect illustration for your commentary and suggestions! the light is fantastic here and bokeh beautifully smooth and creamy!

6 Jul 2010 3:07am

Skyriani from Nelson, New Zealand

the golden light is lovely...

6 Jul 2010 6:24am

Vaido from Võrumaa, Estonia

Wonderful colors captured... It's always hard for me to find right object to capture the mood, here is one example... Still keep looking, you have very good tips here :)

6 Jul 2010 10:18am

steve loos from hollister, United States

Gary; my vote is for the f11 shot! I like the way the sharpness of the foreground leaves is separated from the background by a gentle softness and not by a strong brightness or color gradient.

6 Jul 2010 10:39am

Tracy from La Selva Beach, United States

Thanks Gary! Your response helps! I did not realize that with the brightness histogram I could be clipping individual color channels until I switched to using the RGB histogram....But it's always fun and gives me inspiration to learn something new~ :)

6 Jul 2010 3:39pm

PD from Overland Park, Kansas, United States

Great shot Gary - I like your decision on the background... and yes I have started using the RGB histogram - thanks for the lesson.

6 Jul 2010 10:27pm

Julie Brown from Indianapolis, United States

Beautiful color and lovely background. I like the shadows on the leaves.

7 Jul 2010 5:44pm

Jeff Longenbaugh from Elkhart, United States

Beautiful shot, good photo lesson......AND I learned a new word today......individuation. Thanks!

8 Jul 2010 11:00am

@Jeff Longenbaugh: Thanks, Jeff. Yes, I'm a full service photographer. :)

Daniel from Kenmare, United States


11 Jul 2010 1:56pm

Vitor Martins from Lisboa, Portugal

Amaizing image with a fantastic backlight.

15 Jul 2010 10:33am

Marie from FRESNES, France

très belle lumière.

19 Jul 2010 2:53pm