Plugged In: Capturing the color of fall

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Alaska might not have the fame of fall color-change regions in the Lower 48, but photographers still have plenty of changing hues to capture. Practice shooting with contrast and against blue skies for good results.

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Alaska might not have the fame of fall color-change regions in the Lower 48, but photographers still have plenty of changing hues to capture. Practice shooting with contrast and against blue skies for good results.

By Joseph Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Autumn is both later and more brilliant this year, providing excellent photo opportunities.

I spent my college and graduate school years in New England, justly famed for its autumn foliage. Although New England autumns have a deserved reputation for spectacular maple forests that flame red and orange, Southcentral Alaska autumns can be just as lovely in a different sort of way.

Two-lane New England highways become very crowded in autumn, with traffic and pollution spoiling the image of pristine beauty. In Alaska, September is often the nicest month of the year. Highways are uncrowded, the temperatures are just right and you can actually stop, admire the view and take photos in most places without being run over or insulted.

Maple forests tend to produce intensely red and orange foliage because they contain a high concentration of certain sugarlike compounds that produce those colors after summer’s deep chlorophyll greens have died back. Quite similar sugarlike compounds are found in fireweed and wild rose foliage in Alaska, the reason that their post-frost foliage often rivals summer flowers in bright colors.

Colorado is similarly famous for the bold, intense yellows of its high-altitude Rocky Mountain aspen forests set against dark spruce trees. Our birch and aspen tend to turn the same brilliant yellows that jump out against a sunny day’s blue sky. Yes, I know — this year’s constantly rainy weather exceeded the biblical 40 days and 40 nights. But as I wrote this article Monday, admittedly a day later than our patient editor’s official deadline, the weather was truly blue sky.

My initial point is to enjoy what we have in abundance around us, rather than believing our photos would be so much nicer if taken somewhere else. Rather than pointing up toward red maples, use a lower viewpoint and capture the many variations of red and orange fireweed and rose foliage. Contrast sunlit aspen and birch foliage in their brilliant golds against a deep blue sky, their color-wheel opposite.

Later in the season, fading foliage, especially fireweed, tends to display softly pastel colors, while its finely detailed seed “cotton” produces intricately detailed images, assuming that your lens and technique are up to the challenge. You’ll need a sharp lens with high inherent contrast and low susceptibility to lens flare to capture these finely detailed subjects.

Let’s consider some of the compositional and technical aspects of capturing autumn in a memorable way.

I’ve already briefly touched on the first item, your point of view. Don’t just take eye-level photos that point up or down. Vary your angle and point of view. A low angle can be quite effective, depending on the subject.

Although most people tend to avoid taking photographs when their camera’s pointed toward the sun, with the light source behind the subject, thus shining directly into the camera lens, that so-called “backlighting” often produces some of the most interesting photographs I’ve seen.  It’s particularly effective with autumn foliage, the transmitted light resulting in much more brilliant and luminous photographs. Light simply reflected off the surface of the foliage, while nice, can’t really compete with the intensity of light transmitted through the now-translucent leaves.

The only real concern with backlighting is it can produce a great deal of flare — the streaks, blotches, glare and haziness caused when a very bright light source, such as the sun, is directly in the image itself, or nearly so. When a lens flares, the intense, direct light reflects off the shiny silicon sensor and the air-glass surfaces of the glass inside your lens.

Flare can, unpredictably, produce very interesting, off-beat images. However, I prefer to avoid flare whenever possible simply because it is so unpredictable and prone to ruining images.

The best ways to avoid flare are to use good lenses that are multicoated and less susceptible to flare in the first instance, avoid pointing the lens directly into the sun or other very bright light source, and use a proper lens hood to shield the front of the lens from off-axis light sources just outside the image visible in your viewfinder. Off-axis light hitting the front of your lens at an angle often produces flare that’s worse than shooting directly into the sun. A lens hood that’s designed for your lens can greatly reduce this effect.

Lenses vary in flare resistance. High price is not a good guide here, so check reputable lens review sites. My 25-mm Leica-Panasonic Summilux lens, though otherwise extremely good, does not handle flare at all well. Images made with this lens show a great deal of flare when there’s a bright light source in or near the image area.

It’s often tempting to make high-magnification “macro” close-up photos of beautiful foliage. Bear in mind that macro photography demands good technique. When shooting so close to the subject, the depth of field (a term that denotes the depth of acceptably sharp focus) is very shallow, especially when you use the longer focal-length lenses necessary for sufficient working space between the front of your lens and the subject. Limited depth of field means that much of the image, probably including important areas, will not be in crisp focus. That’s a problem when imaging something very delicate, such as the “cotton” of fireweed seeds.

The only way to achieve better depth of field is to use a smaller lens aperture, say f/8 rather than f/4. That smaller aperture, in turn, requires you to use either a higher ISO sensitivity, which degrades image quality, or a longer shutter speed, which may cause camera shake if you’re handholding the camera for spontaneous photos.

At slow shutter speeds, not only is normal camera shake a problem, but your body is likely to sway back and forth slightly, which may result in the finely detailed subject going out of focus due to limited depth of field. That’s not a problem at normal photographic distances, only in macro photography.

The solutions are to either use a higher ISO sensitivity and take the image quality hit or mount your camera on a tripod. High-ISO sensitivities introduce noise and rob images of fine detail resolution, so a tripod usually works best unless you’re in bright direct sunshine that allows a fast shutter speed as well as a small lens aperture at the base ISO, where cameras always do best.

Autumn foliage is very bright compared to most subjects. That makes optimum exposure more difficult. Rather than simply trusting your camera’s autoexposure, I suggest you take a series of bracketed photos that expose not only at the single calculated exposure but also one or more exposures brighter and darker than the calculated exposure.

Most good cameras allow you to set automatic bracketing whenever you press the shutter button and allow you to designate the exposure compensation interval. I usually set my cameras to bracket at a 0.7 EV interval and then simply choose the best image. If you choose to not bracket your exposures automatically, then I suggest you increase your exposure from the metered value by +.3 EV or +.7 EV whenever you are photographing sunlit autumn foliage against a dark blue sky. Otherwise, your images will likely be too dark right out of the camera.

Look for contrasting colors that heighten the sense of brilliant foliage. Either a very dark background or a deep blue sky can work.

Finally, you may need to adjust your color balance after the fact, when you import and post-process your images into whatever imaging software you prefer, such as PhotoShop or Lightroom. The automatic white balance of all cameras, both digital and film, is calibrated to assume that every image contains equal amounts of all colors, evening out to a neutral medium gray.

That works well enough in most situations, but it’s prone to error and poor color when a few colors, such as bright yellow leaves and dark blue skies, predominate. Plan on correcting the color hue and saturation of intensely colored subjects when you later post-process your images.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website,

Hanging Around Town

  • Reader photos recognized in Redoubt Reporter photography contests from 2011-2013 are on display at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center through the end of October.
  • The Gary L. Freeburg Gallery at Kenai Peninsula College hosts Richard Eissler’s photography exhibit, “Thirteen + One.”
  • As part of its “Every Friday” series of art and cultural programs, the Kenai Fine Arts Center’s Oct. 4 event includes opening receptions for two shows, a large series of collage with acrylic images by Kathy Matta in the main gallery, and drawings by Robert Rangely in Gallery Too. All “Every Friday” events start at 6 p.m. at the center in Old Town Kenai.

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