FIELD TECHNIQUES: After the Fall

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Story and Photo by F.M. Kearney

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After the Fall, (c) F. M. Kearney

The brilliant colors of autumn have faded. Most of the leaves have already fallen; only a handful of stubborn diehards remain clinging to the trees. I used to think that come the end of October, the “show” is over until I started noticing all the little holes in these weather-beaten leaves. If the sun is placed directly behind them, a multitude of interesting sunbursts can be created.

I specifically look for low-hanging leaves with an unobstructed line of sight of the sun in the background. Exposure is best determined manually. Auto exposure will only drive you nuts as the meter bounces from one extreme to another with each subtle movement of the leavesresulting in a series of inconsistent exposures. I simply spot-meter the area of the sky next to the sun and lock it in. Now, no matter how much the leaves want to dance around, the overall exposure will remain the same. For a more dramatic image and to better emphasize the sunbursts, I’ll sometimes slightly underexpose the sky. So as not to underexpose the leaves as well, a flash is a must. Fill-flash isn’t always strong enough in these situations, so I usually turn it off and use the flash at normal power. If necessary, I increase its output by a stop, which restores detail in the leaves as well as any lingering traces of color.

Adequate flash power is important, but it can only be achieved with the proper aperture setting. The smallest apertures will produce the most distinct sunbursts, but if they’re too small the flash may not be able to carry the distance to the subject. In most cases, f/11 or f/16 should work well. As with manual exposure, manual focusing works best too. The considerable depth of field will compensate for any minor shift in the position of the leaves.

A word of caution: The risk of serious eye damage exists any time you aim a camera directly at the sun, especially if you’re using a long lens. Fortunately, there are a number of factors involved in the shooting of these images that minimize this risk. The leaves themselves block the majority of the sun’s intensity. Also, in order to accurately see where and how the sunbursts are forming, it’s necessary to depress the depth of field preview button while taking the photos. This will allow you to see the scene at the “taking aperture,” with the added benefit of darkening the view to a much safer level. For another layer of protection, add a neutral density filter, but keep in mind, this may increase the chances of lens flare.

The show’s not over yet. Give those sad-looking, worn-out leaves a closer look. You may be surprised at the amazing photo ops they’re still capable of offering.

F. M. Kearney began his photography career as a photojournalist for New York City newspapers. His focus soon shifted to capturing the beauty of our natural world. As an award-winning nature photographer, Kearney’s images have been widely published. He is a frequent contributor to the weekly photography blogger on www.contemporaryartgalleryonline.com. His 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 at http://www.amazon.com. To see more of Kearney’s work, visit http://www.starlitecollection.com.

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