From “Sleeping in the Rain” by Gordon Henry in When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through, edited by Joy Harjo:
“It is autumn. Pine smoke hanging over the tops of houses, leaves sleepwalking in gray wind, skeletal trees scratching ghost gray sky.”
From “A Vagabond Song” by Bliss Carman in Three Centuries of American Poetry edited by Allen Mandelbaum and Robert D. Richardson:
There is something in the autumn that is native to my blood —
Touch of manner, hint of mood;
And my heart is like a rhyme,
With the yellow and the purple and the crimson keeping time.
Autumn is my favorite time of year for experimenting with natural light and outdoor photography. With the sun at lower angles as fall and winter proceed through the northern hemisphere, there are several hours in the morning and afternoon where the less direct light produces combinations of shadows and highlights that are fun to explore. The low light angle is of course one of the reasons that trees decked out in their fall color not only seem to glow on their own but also wash their surroundings with more intense reflected and filtered colored light.
You could read a lot about how and why this happens — engage in a bit of study to teach yourself the astronomical characteristics — or you could simply walk around in nature and give extra attention to variations in the quality of the light. I prefer working in this kind of lighting over all others except slightly overcast days, and I usually sleep through golden hour and blue hour comes right during my dog’s soccer lessons.
A couple of my photography books — Expressive Nature Photography by Brenda Tharp and Beyond Auto Mode: A Guide to Taking Control of Your Photography by Jennifer Bebb — have sections devoted to different types of light photographers encounter. Bebb’s is a more detailed discussion, but Tharp’s shorter version is a bit more conducive to using in your own natural experiment.
In a section of her book called “The Angle of Light,” Tharp separates the kinds of sunlight into top-down light, front light, sidelight, and backlight. With respect to the position of the outdoor sun, the terms are pretty straightforward; but here’s a way I like to experience them in nature, with or without a camera.
- Find a big-ass tree with plenty of autumn-colored leaves, one you can walk under without hitting your head (safety first!)
- Start outside the tree, a couple of feet from the tree’s bottom branches, with your back to the sun.
- Examine the light and color on the leaves. Depending on the sun’s position in the sky, the light could be characterized as top-down (if the sun is high in the sky as it would be closer to noon), or front light (earlier in the morning when the sun is closer to the horizon). These two kinds of light produce similar renderings of color and shadow, though top light tends to be brighter and whiter — creating excessive highlights and strong shadow contrasts that may wash out much of the color and some of the tree and leaf detail.
- Still outside the tree’s circumference, walk now about a quarter of the circle and observe how the light changes from top-down/front to sidelight. With autumn leaves especially, sidelight can be excellent to work with. It’s easier to expose than top or front light but also begins to reveal some of the effects of backlighting, which makes the leaves appear to glow both to your eyes and to a camera’s sensor.
- Continue walking outside the tree until you are directly opposite your starting position, the sun now facing you. Here you’ll experience backlighting, with the leaves looking as if they’re lit up individually, twinkling like Christmas lights. Your eyes will likely love this position; the camera may like it slightly less since it will be challenged to find a correct exposure between the bright light and shadowy contrasts.
- Now, walk under the tree, close to the trunk, and repeat the same movements: start with your back to the sun, walk about a quarter of the way around the tree, then walk to where your opposite the starting point. Each of the four lighting variations will still be apparent, but now you’ll see how they change when the light is filtered by the tree’s branches and leaves. Working underneath a large tree — or even in the shadows of a nearby tree — can create a nice balance for all the colors, shadows, and highlights that you photograph, and have the additional advantage of keeping the sun (mostly) out of your eyes.
I took all of the photos in the galleries below — except one (can you tell which one?) — from the backlight or sidelight position. I typically start with the camera’s program mode — which interprets the scene and gives me a starting point for exposure settings — then switch the camera to manual mode, slightly underexposing the image by increasing the shutter speed. For sidelight and backlighting, underexposing the image helps reduce flaring highlights; but with the capabilities of today’s cameras and software like Lightroom, the subject’s details and shadows are still well-captured and can be recovered or emphasized during post-processing.
I use the camera’s exposure bracketing function to get three shots of each scene, one that will use the settings I chose, one that underexposes the image, and one that overexposes the image. Using bracketing like this has a couple of advantages: it helps ensure that I have good focus on at least one of the images (in case the leaves move and try to go blurry); and ensures that I have a few exposure variations to work with in Lightroom from which I can choose the image with the best balance of color, highlights, and detail.
Here are the photos, the first two where I found and isolated a single leaf then removed the tree trunk and branches manually with Lightroom brushes…
… and these three where I did something similar, but let Lightroom’s masking select the subject (previously described in my post Autumn Daisies 3 of 3). It chose the branches the leaves were attached to (because they were of similar brightness and focus) and I liked that result.
This was a “from under the tree” photo — and you can see in this single image variations between side-lighting on the left and filtered front-lighting (toward the right).
Full backlighting here, the kind where the light coming at me was bright enough that I could barely see the scene in the camera’s viewfinder — which, in real life, is a good way to learn how to rely on what the camera is telling you about your exposure settings rather than what registers (or doesn’t register!) in your eyes. It can be something of a crap-shoot, this approach, but I’ll just take a big handful of such pictures then throw most of them out when I get home. I don’t mind that, though, because I can get some of the nicest bokeh in the background with the light coming through nearby trees.
Below are the same three images, with the backgrounds removed. Here again, I used Lightroom’s new masking and let it select the subject. It did a nearly perfect job picking out these finely detailed branches, filling in black around each needle with very little intervention from me. Doing the same thing by manually brushing the backgrounds would have taken several hours per image because of the tiny spaces between needles — and I probably wouldn’t have even tried — but letting Lightroom do it was nearly instantaneous and gives me a whole boatload of new ideas about post-processing some of my images.
And, finally, here we have an example of a big-ass tree, the kind you can walk around and under to enjoy the lighting. This is backlit, obviously, with the starburst effect created by using an aperture setting of f/22.
Thanks for reading and taking a look!
Beautiful images, Dale – I may try some of your tree photography techniques!
Thank you! You should definitely give it a try … studying trees like that is a very peaceful experience, almost zen-like. And you may find yourself twirling, too!
Thanks for the comment!