“There are … the winds of autumn, those that whirl through the streets tearing the dry, ruddy-brown leaves from their moorings. Alive with the scents of fallen fruit and soil and smoke, the autumn wind teases our nostrils as it whooshes past, scattering the humped piles of carefully raked leaves, mingling their constituents with other leaves spiraling down from the branches…
“Our bodies witness this gradual release of leaves, this stripping away of color from the gray, skeletal limbs, and cannot help but feel that the animating life of things is slipping off into the air — that the wind moaning in our ears is composed of innumerable spirits leaving their visible bodies behind….
“The wind is haunted, alive. Only in this liminal season, before the onset of winter, does the wild psyche of the land assert itself so vividly that even the most rational persons find themselves lost, now and then, in the uncanny depths of the sensuous….”
“As I go across a meadow directly towards a low rising ground this bright afternoon, I see, some fifty rods off toward the sun the top of a Maple swamp just appearing over the sheeny russet edge of the hill, a stripe apparently twenty rods long by ten feet deep, of the most intensely brilliant scarlet, orange and yellow equal to any flowers or fruits, or any tints ever painted….
“As I advance, lowering the edge of the hill which makes the firm foreground or lower frame of the picture, the depth of the brilliant grove revealed steadily increases, suggesting that the whole of the enclosed valley is filled with such color.”
This is the first of a pair of posts featuring yellow and orange fall colors. They tend to be my favorite colors to photograph and post-process this time of year, as both are bright in shade or sun, and both create nice sharp contrasts with the backgrounds they appear in. More muted than the reds that also fill the autumn landscape, my eye or my camera or both always seem drawn to these color variations. With the reds it always seems harder to isolate individual leaves and branches and produce colors I’m satisfied with in Lightroom, but the yellows and oranges — woohoo!
If you would like to see my previous fall color posts for this year, they’re all organized under this tag:
“Think how much the eyes of painters of all kinds, and of manufacturers of cloth and paper, and paper-stainers, and countless others, are to be educated by these autumnal colors….
“The stationer’s envelopes may be of very various tints, yet not so various as those of the leaves of a single tree. If you want a different shade or tint of a particular color, you have only to look further within or without the tree or the wood. These leaves are not many dipped in one dye, as at the dye-house, but they are dyed in light of infinitely various degrees of strength, and left to set and dry there.”
Continuing with some autumn-color photography … here’s a collection featuring images of isolated leaves that turned early, mostly at the tips of branches, still hanging on in mid-November … but probably not for long.
If you would like to see my previous fall color posts for this year (you might have missed one!), they’re all organized under the same tag, this one:
“When I was small, the straight dirt roads had a wild character despite their layout: a tangle of trees, shrubs, vines, and native grasses screened the houses that nestled in the growth….
“Many people … had carved small gardens out of their back yards, and you could catch a glimpse, around the corners of the houses, of small emerald green patches, proper gardens with wisteria, hydrangea, and daylilies. While the face toward the road was often unkempt and chaotic, the small private world behind the house was often lush and well groomed; each of these gardens was different from the next.”
“The wind in the woods sounded like an incessant waterfall dashing and roaring amid rocks, and we even felt encouraged by the unusual activity of the elements. He who hears the rippling of rivers in these degenerate days will not utterly despair….
“That night was the turning-point in the season. We had gone to bed in summer, and we awoke in autumn; for summer passes into autumn in some unimaginable point of time, like the turning of a leaf.”
The Thoreau quote above pretty much captures the seasonal change to instant autumn here in the southeast: suddenly temperatures drop from the seventies into the forties and thirties for a couple of days, and many recently green things seem to turn yellow, orange, and red over night. As I was working through a couple of batches of new fall-color photos, I pulled out these few of vines climbing among the statues at Oakland Cemetery’s gardens — the last leaves still hanging from their stems, sometimes suspended in midair as they stretched from their attachment points.
The last image below is a minimalist variation of the one just above it, where I let Lightroom select the subject and it chose only the central vine and the single leaf on it. Then I converted the background to white and added some yellow and orange saturation, to emphasize the leaf and give the vine a little extra punch.
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.
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.