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I’ve recently returned from leading a photography workshop in the Alaska Range, south of my home in Fairbanks, Alaska. The trip was timed with the peak of fall colors. My students and I spent dozens of hours over the week, exploring the vibrant colors, and trying really hard to make the weird orange, red, and yellow landscape look the way we wanted it to in our autumn photos.
It occurred to me that autumn, photographically speaking, is weird. It throws our perception of colors through a loop. The world, normally a mix of blues and greens, suddenly shifts to crazy warm tones of yellow, orange, and red.
To effectively photograph autumn colors, you need to refocus not just your camera, but also your brain. The standard compositional “rules” of landscape photography shift quite a bit during the fall. The background, which for much landscape work is the actual subject of the image (think big mountains) becomes the setting rather than the subject in the autumn. Our attention falls to the foreground, where the colors are exploding.
In this article, I’m going to cover three composition types for autumn: details, broad landscapes, and local landscapes. When mixed together, these three types of images will help you tell a compelling visual story of your autumn experience.
Photographing details lies in the fuzzy gray area between macro and landscape photography. Sometimes it’s one or the other, sometimes it is a little bit of both. In general, however, I see photographing the details as another part of landscape work. These images tell a small, but important part of the story.
Mentally, details give us a starting point for seeing the way a landscape will come together, and they also play an important role in providing a sense of scale. The small bits of the scene are rarely captured in a big landscape photo, and yet they are a very important part of our experience in the field. The details too should be an important part of the story we are telling our audience.
Close-up work requires a lens capable of a relatively close focus, or a powerful telephoto. I’ve used big 500mm and 600mm for this kind of shot and I’ve used wide angles that have the ability to focus a few inches away from the lens. But most often I use a moderate telephoto with decent macro capabilities. Nothing fancy, just a good lens that lets me get close to the subject.
Whichever you choose, these kinds of images rarely have a great deal of depth. Even photos from a low perspective only show a few inches from front to back. Therefore detail shots are usually about pattern and color. Here are a few things to look at as you compose:
When you zoom back a bit from the details, you get local scenes within the landscape. This type of image is rarely shot wide, rather you apply medium to strong telephotos to isolate compelling parts of the scene. I really like these kinds of shots. They allow enough space to apply the elements of both depth and scale, and yet are tight enough that distractions are more easily avoided and make great autumn photos.
This type of shot is particularly suited to autumn photography because the fall colors are by nature, patchy. Using a short to moderate telephoto, you can select the patches of dramatic color that may be surrounded by brown in late autumn or green early in the season.
Consider using focal lengths in the 70-200mm range, and select a part of the landscape that draws your eye. Find lines that guide your image through the frame, not out of it, or look for juxtapositions of color and texture.
I’m going to be honest here. In the fall, when the colors of my home state are going off like fireworks, it is rarely the wide open scenes that draw my eye. However, sometimes the scope and size of the landscape cannot be ignored. It is in those rare moments that I reach for my wide angle lenses.
And yet, my focus often remains close to me. The foreground in the autumn, perhaps even more than other times of the year, is vital. When shooting wide, I will often get low, using my background not as the subject, but as the setting for something bright, flashy and interesting close by.
I was shooting in late August in Denali National Park. The colors were bright and beautiful, and on one sunny day, the mountains of the Alaska Range, including Denali itself, had emerged from behind the clouds to loom, white and glaciated, over the landscape. It was beautiful, and yet my focus kept falling on the colors in front of me. I didn’t ignore that dramatic backdrop, but I used it as just that, a backdrop.
When shooting wide, don’t forget about the details I noted earlier, nor the patterns of local landscapes. Those two are integral to the wide scene and will help you understand how the elements of the landscape fall together.
I once heard it said that wide-angle landscapes were easy. I disagree entirely, wide angles are the hardest because there is so much space for distraction. Understanding and including compelling foreground subjects, like a splash of fall color will take you a long way toward creating a dynamic wide angle landscape.
In a world where most of our images end up on Facebook and Instagram, the art of a photo story is fading. Stand-alone shots get the most attention, the most likes, hearts, or whatever, on social media, but they do a lousy job of telling the whole story. Details, local scenes, and wide landscapes in combination are far superior.
In conclusion, I encourage you to tell the whole story by embracing numerous shots. Use the focal lengths available to you, all of them. Through your lens, explore the fall landscape, and share your autumn photos in the comments section below.