Fall through a lens

By Stephen Patterson

shunpiking, october / november 1997, No. 16


Trees and foliage make up a large part of both the natural and man-made landscape and have been our companions since the beginning of time. They are always within our subconscious as we see them in their various forms from day to day, yet we generally pay little attention to their details as we rush off on our daily routines.

I became interested in photographing trees because of my developing sense of colour, form and texture. These visual elements can be properly combined to inspire the viewer to see a common subject such as a tree in a whole new perspective. The natural sculpted forms of trees allow a photographer to make wonderful studies in visual design and freely express his or her personal artistic vision.

Living in a climate where there are definite seasonal changes allows me to see trees in all phases: clothed in green, yellow, orange or bright red; unclothed in the dead of winter, often laced with snow or sheathed in a layer of crackling ice; half-clad in the soft haze of spring buds. Their branches are always there underneath; never changing directly with the seasons, they present themselves as sculpural forms when laid bare during the winter.

It is the lowering sun of autumn that allows trees to radiate their true and often brilliant colours which have been hidden through the summer months by a green mask of chlorophyll. Soon advancing frosts and shortening days will slowly strip away layers of colour, turning the forest into a wonderful mosaic of bare branches against a lingering layer of colour. For a short time I will enjoy structure and colour together. The brilliant tones of red and orange seem to disappear first, then the softer golds, bronzes and browns. It is not really until mid-November, and later, that we see the last of its colour.

On a technical note, I use 35mm cameras and several zoom lenses that cover a whole range of focal lengths. Sometimes I use a polarizing filter to eliminate shine, unwanted reflected light or rain drops, but I never use colouring filters over my lenses that would alter the natural colour of the trees. No need.

Stephen Patterson, photographer, created the shunpiking poster. The Fall Colours of Nova Scotia. His work has appeared in Photo Life and exhibits of his prints have been held on several occasion in Halifax.

Fall photography tips
Maine Dept. of Conservation

Here are a few tips for those of you who are taking photos of the foliage with point-and-shoot cameras.
400-speed colour print film The lenses of most point-and-shoots are fairly slow. A fast film helps you on those less than bright days and the quality and sharpness of modern 400-speed print films is outstanding. Don't worry about using it when the sun is bright. Print films have broad exposure latitudes and at worse, your automatic camera will be using its fastest shutter speeds (cutting down on camera shake) and its smallest lens openings (improving depth of focus). Add Depth Add a sense of depth to your landscapes. When shooting the distzant hills of colour, include a closer tree, or other object in the foreground.

Occasionally include an object for a sense of scale to give a sense of how large a landmark is in real life. This way, when you're home looking at your vacation photographs, you can point to how high you were on top of (a hill or mountain), for instance. You can include a man-made object or another person to achieve a sense of scale.

Think Macro!
Don't forget the macro setting on your camera. Most point-and-shoot cameras have a close-up or macro setting (many times indicated by a tulip symbol on the controls). Bringing your camera as "up close and personal" as its minimum focusing distance will allow, can give you a whole different type of foliage photo to enhance the large landscapes.

Cloudy Skies? - Don't Dispair
If the sun isn't out, sometimes the best foliage shots are possible. As long as you're not insistent on having blue sky in your photos, the light available from an overcast or even a rainy day can give you a host of colours with a nice even contrast. On especially dark days, one of the new 800 or 1000-speed films might be advisable.

Capturing the colour
A photo editor interviews her two favourite photographers on how to take the finest foliage pictures

by Ann Card, Tankee Magazine

HOW IS THE FOLIAGE going to be this year? It's more than a passing interest for us at Yankee Magazine. It's an obsession. I worked in Yankee's art department for 15 autumns, and New England's color is always great. Some years it's a little more red or the leaves turn earlier than the year before. But it is always beautiful. Always.

I reviewed more than 500,000 foliage photos as picture editor for Yankee. Not all were beautiful, but some were so spectacular I wanted to climb right into them. I asked Kindra Clineff and Alison Shaw, two of Yankee's finest foliage photographers, how they capture images that preserve the essence of autumn. Here are their tips to help you create better photographs on your foliage safari. Some suggestions deal with interchangeable lenses, but most of these words of wisdom apply to anyone, whether you are using a disposable box camera or a sophisticated 35mm or digital camera.

If you want handy prints to pass around or put in an album, use print film. ASA 100- or 200-speed film will give you better color than faster films (such as ASA 400) and will allow you to make crisper enlargements. If you want the absolute best images, shoot slide film. Most Yankee photographers choose Velvia (ASA 50), a transparency film favored for its rich color saturation. This is very slow film, so in low-light situations, you will need a tripod.

Kindra urges anyone serious about his or her photographs to pay the extra money for professional film from a proper camera shop instead of buying it at the local drugstore, because the color density is better. It has been perfectly aged and properly stored. She says, "Film is like fruit. The professional film is ripe."

If your prints come back looking grainy or gray, it may not be your technique or your camera -- it could be the processing. Old chemicals result in washed-out prints. Invest in better-quality processing. Ask to see samples before you trust anyone to process your film.

Keep it simple. Look for a dominant element, like one tree in a field or a single branch of leaves against the sky. Alison suggests that photographers "should isolate elements by using a shallow depth of field. This allows one tree or part of a tree to be in focus while everything else is out of focus." The sharp part of the photo is then your dominant subject.

"Change your point of view," advises Kindra. "Get down on your belly and shoot through things, letting objects in the foreground go out of focus. This will give you a nice wash of color in the foreground and lead you into the background that you've kept in focus. Or you can keep the foreground sharp and let the background go soft."

In sunny conditions, try a polarizing filter to cut glare and capture brighter colors in the leaves and sky. This offers better overall definition. Look through the filter and see what it does, turning it for more or less polarizing effect.

When to photograph
Early morning and late afternoon provide the most interesting light, but don't grumble on an overcast or rainy day. Alison insists that she loves to shoot foliage in these conditions: "Overcast days will show color better than sunny ones."

Kindra's favorite time to shoot is during the 30 minutes before and after sunrise and sunset. But she adds, "Don't put your camera away in the middle of the day. And forget all that advice about keeping the sun behind you when you photograph." She prefers shooting into the sun, so her subjects are backlit. If you've ever seen a sugar maple with the sun punching through the leaves, you'll agree. Be sure to protect your lens from sun flares. A lens hood or a piece of cardboard will shade your lens from the sun.

"Avoid wide-angle lenses," says Alison. If you want the big, long view, "buy the postcard." Alison suggests that a photographer should "come in closer, focusing on a single tree -- or just part of it."

If you want the view
Well, then do what Kindra does: "Be sure to have something interesting in the foreground to frame the view." This can be a porch railing, a tree, or whatever strikes your fancy. Remember backlighting, when applicable.

Alison reminds us that "Everything doesn't have to be in focus. If you're near running water, put your camera on a tripod and focus on some bright leaves on a rock just above the water. Set your shutter speed for one second or longer. This will give you a sense of movement in the brook, while capturing the still part of the frame as you see it."

On a windy day, use a tripod and focus on a beautiful tree or row of trees. Be sure the trunk is in focus, and expose your film at one-half second or slower. The trunks will be sharp, and the moving leaves will create a lovely, fiery look. Experiment with slower and slower shutter speeds.

Early morning is the best time to capture reflections in a lake or pond. The water is more likely to be still, and you may get mist rising off the water.

When asked how she keeps photographing foliage in fresh ways, Kindra answers, "It is such a short season every year -- fleeting really. I don't have time to get bored with it. So at the end of each autumn, I look forward to the next one, when I can go to new places or return to some of the old favorites and try something different."