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.
* Website: Eloquent Images
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