A Season For All Conditions: Explore the Beauty of Autumn… In Any Type of Light

Photo of autumn foliage along a lake. “Bear Mountain State Park Autumn Scene in Direct Sunlight,” © F.M. Kearney
“Bear Mountain State Park Autumn Scene in Direct Sunlight,” © F.M. Kearney

By F.M. Kearney

As nature photographers, we’re always searching for the best light in which to capture our subjects. What looks good in direct sunlight probably won’t look its best in flat light, and vice versa. It’s not often you find a single subject that will shine equally in any type of lighting condition, but that’s precisely the case when it comes to the colors of autumn.

Direct sunlight 

The photo above is probably one of the most common type of scenes you might envision when you think of fall foliage. Direct sunlight doesn’t usually bring out the best in many subjects, in fact, it’s often widely avoided due to the high-contrast accompanied with it. I shot this image on a sunny day in Bear Mountain State Park—part of Harriman State Park in Upstate New York. Instead of producing an excessive amount of contrast, the harsh lighting did wonders to bring out the crisp, clean colors of the foliage. As an added bonus, the blue sky added even more color to the scene.

Blue skies and colorful fall foliage are always a winning combination. Try looking straight up through a canopy of leaves. I captured this fisheye view (below) in the middle of the forest area of the New York Botanical Garden.

“Upshot of the Sky and Foliage,” © F.M. Kearney
“Upshot of the Sky and Foliage,” © F.M. Kearney

While you’re looking up, try isolating a single leaf or a small cluster of leaves with the sun peeking through small openings (below).

"Sun Shining through Oak Leaves," © F.M. Kearney
“Sun Shining through Oak Leaves,” © F.M. Kearney

This type of shot is a little tricky to expose (and somewhat dangerous to execute). Auto-exposure will most likely yield disappointing images. Even on the calmest of days, the leaves will constantly sway back and forth, playing peek-a-boo with the sun—generating extreme changes in exposure and inconsistent results. It’s best to shoot on manual and spot-meter a clear portion of the sky next to the leaves. Your exposure will remain constant no matter how much the leaves dance around. Also, unless you want to create a silhouette, use a flash or a reflector to retain color and detail in the leaves. As far as the danger is concerned … you’re looking directly at the sun. A slight shift in the position of the leaves will transform a tiny sliver of light into a full, shotgun blast of sunlight directly into your eye. To minimize this risk, use a heavy ND filter and select an area of the leaves where this is less likely to happen.

Overcast

The light is just as good on an overcast day—some might even argue it’s better. The even lighting enhances the purity of the colors with no distracting, shadowy areas. A polarizing filter should be used in either lighting condition, but it really makes the colors pop on a cloudy day. One thing to keep in mind is the amount of sky to include in the shot. I prefer to come in much tighter to exclude as much of a boring, white sky as possible. I shot the photo below on a cloudy day in New York’s Central Park at 70mm. Besides the autumn colors, I was attracted by the heavy concentration of duckweed that formed an interesting pattern on the surface of the lake. Had I pulled back a bit on my focal length, I would have included a blank sky (as well as the surrounding buildings).

“Central Park Autumn Scene in Overcast Light,” © F.M. Kearney
“Central Park Autumn Scene in Overcast Light,” © F.M. Kearney

Overcast light offers the opportunity to capture a variety intimate landscapes. I shot the images below under such conditions. I’m sure they would have worked just as well in direct sunlight, but the heavy buildup of contrast in certain areas may have been a bit overwhelming.

“Quiet lake in Wolfe's Pond Park,” Staten Island, NY (left) and “Stream in Croton Dam Park,” Croton-On-Hudson, NY © F.M. Kearney
“Quiet lake in Wolfe’s Pond Park,” Staten Island, NY (left) and “Stream in Croton Dam Park,” Croton-On-Hudson, NY © F.M. Kearney

Early morning

The first light of the day is always special. This holds true for any season, but it’s especially beautiful in the fall. The warm colors of autumn are further enhanced by the warm tones of the light at this “magical” time of day. The photo below is a view of the sun rising above The Lake in Central Park. On the left is Bow Bridge—a popular spot for romantic wedding photos. I used the Gaussian Blur filter in Photoshop to give the image a soft glow.

“Sunrise at The Lake in Central Park,” © F.M. Kearney
“Sunrise at The Lake in Central Park,” © F.M. Kearney

Fall foliage looks great even when the morning light is less than perfect. I shot the scene below in Wolfe’s Pond Park. Although it may not appear so, this park is actually within New York City. Located on Staten Island, it’s one of the least accessible parks in the city (unless, of course, you happen to live on Staten Island). Much of the park is wilderness with very few roads or paths. The sun was visible on my way to the park, but it was eventually overtaken by a thick cover of clouds by the time I was able to make my way through the heavy brush and get into position. Nevertheless, the colorful foliage livened up the scene quite a bit.

“Dreary Morning in Wolfe's Pond Park,” © F.M. Kearney
“Dreary Morning in Wolfe’s Pond Park,” © F.M. Kearney

Fog

I think fog is one of the best conditions in which to shoot. Nothing creates a more mysterious or foreboding mood than seeing objects gradually disappear into the unknown abyss. Fog can work equally well in any season, but it lends a special appeal to fall foliage—probably because you don’t often see bright, cheerful colors under such gloomy conditions. I shot the photo below along a desolate trail in the New York Botanical Garden. I’d love to do more shots like this in the future … only next time, I might add an ominous-looking figure in a fedora and a trench coat at the end of the trail to really up the “creep-factor!”

“Foggy Trail in the New York Botanical Garden,” © F.M. Kearney
“Foggy Trail in the New York Botanical Garden,” © F.M. Kearney

Clearly, it’s hard to go wrong with autumn. There’s no such thing as “bad light” when it comes to capturing the glory of this beautiful season.

F. M. Kearney began his photography career as a photojournalist for New York City newspapers. His focus soon shifted to capturing the beauty of the natural world. As an award-winning nature photographer, Kearney’s images have been widely published. A slight  departure from photography, his recently published horror novel, “They Only Come Out at Night,” about supernatural happenings in the New York City subway (partially inspired by his travels as a photojournalist), is available on Amazon. To see more of Kearney’s work, visit http://www.starlitecollection.com.