Off-Peak Performance: Dealing With Pre- and Post-Peak Fall Foliage Periods

Pre-peak colors in the White Mountains National Forest (5-image HDR compilation).
Pre-peak colors in the White Mountains National Forest (5-image HDR compilation).

Story & photos by F. M. Kearney

few years ago, I went to the White Mountains National Forest in New Hampshire
to capture the fall colors. I booked the trip weeks in advance, scheduled for
mid-September – figuring that should be around the peak period in that part of
the country. It was my first time visiting the New England area, so I was
really anxious to witness and photograph its legendary color display. As fate
would have it, I arrived about a week too soon. The photo above, shot along the
Saco River in Bartlett, NH, was representative of the amount of color (or lack
thereof) I was greeted with. Although the scenery was quite beautiful, the
colors were nowhere near as vivid as what I was expecting.

I got back home, I turned to Photoshop to see how I might improve my images. In
the past, I had gotten terrific results using a special blur filter, called the
Gaussian Blur. This filter adds a beautiful glow to your image, while also
increasing its color saturation. It can be applied locally to selected areas,
or globally – affecting the entire image. For my purposes, I chose the latter.
Below is the opening photo with the Gaussian Blur technique applied.

Pre-peak colors enhanced with the Gaussian Blur technique.
Pre-peak colors enhanced with the Gaussian Blur technique.

this filter alone will not produce the effect you see here. In fact, simply
applying it to your image will only result in a blurry image. It’s definitely
not a one-click solution to a perfect photo. Hence, the reason why I use the
word “technique” instead of “filter.” To achieve optimum results, a
considerable amount of prep is necessary, but the end results are well worth
the effort.

start off, I create a “high-key” image in the Camera Raw software. I lighten
the exposure, highlights and whites; while reducing the contrast, shadows and
blacks. Once I bring it into Photoshop, I copy the image by duplicating the
layer. I then open a Levels Adjustment Layer and lighten the image even more.
(I’ll explain the reason for all of this lightening in a second.) Next, I click
on the background copy and apply the filter: Filter>Blur>Gaussian Blur.
Duplicating the layers is what prevents you from ending up with a blurry image.
The blur is only applied to the background copy, while the original
background remains sharp – creating an overall, soft glow. The amount of radius
(blur) to apply is subjective, but I find that a single-digit setting for small
files and a 20+ setting for larger files generally works well. My files are
over 200mb, so I usually choose a setting between 34 and 36. I then make sure that
the Opacity, located with the Layers panel, is set to 100% and select
“Multiply” as the blending mode. This is why I lighten the image so
much. The Multiple mode drastically increases the contrast and saturation. When
I first started using the Gaussian Blur, I would only apply it to images taken
on cloudy days. The high-contrast levels I got with this blending mode were
consistently blocking up my shadow details. I could have chosen other modes,
but they didn’t produce quite the same type of effect. The excessive
over-lightening solved that problem. However, if you don’t experience these
issues, you can probably skip the lightening step in Camera Raw. Finally, I
return to the Levels layer and adjust the exposure to my liking. In most cases,
the image will still need a bit of fine-tuning. After some selective burning
and dodging and a desaturation of some of the more overly vivid colors, the
image is finally complete. If you absolutely hate doing a lot of digital
editing, a much easier workaround would be to simply increase the color saturation
globally, or of specific colors. However, the overall tone won’t be as rich,
and of course, you won’t get that nice, soft glow.

Original photo without Gaussian Blur technique.
Original photo without Gaussian Blur technique.
Gaussian Blur technique applied.
Gaussian Blur technique applied.

Gaussian Blur technique doesn’t just come in handy during the off-peak periods.
Last year, I photographed the fall colors at their peak in Wolfe’s Pond Park, in
Staten Island, NY. The image above on the left is the finished, original photo.
On the right, is the photo with the technique applied. Since the colors didn’t
really need that much enhancing, I spent most of my time desaturating them
afterwards. But the technique still produced a much richer-looking image

shooting in that same park, I came across a more wooded area where the colors
were a bit past-peak. I could have used the Gaussian Blur technique here as
well, but in this case, it wouldn’t have produced the effect I wanted. What
initially attracted me to the scene was the abundance of tall trees receding
into the background. Staten Island, the most rural of the five boroughs, is one
of the few places within the confines of New York City where you can see scenes
like this. I wanted to emphasize, not only the trees, but also the dwindling
amount of foliage remaining. The photo below conveys what I saw, but not
necessarily what I envisioned.

Past-peak conditions (original photo).
Past-peak conditions (original photo).

order to emphasize the trees, I turned to another one of Photoshop’s blur
filters, called the Motion Blur: Filter>Blur>Motion blur. Before applying
it I, once again, duplicated the layer. The Motion Blur is defaulted to apply
the blur at a 90-degree angle, which is exactly what I wanted for this image.
If that doesn’t suit your needs, you can change the angle to whatever you want.
I then selected the “Distance,” which determines the amount of blur. My image was
now completely blurred with a vertical streak. This emphasized the trees, but did
nothing for the foliage. But, because I duplicated the layer, I could now
remove the effect from select portions of the image. I applied a layer mask to
the background copy and selected the brush tool. With the foreground color set
to black, I could now “paint” back in the foliage in selected locations. (If I
go too far and remove too much blur, I can paint it back in by setting the
foreground color to white.) All of this is completely customizable by adjusting
the Opacity and Flow amounts. The photo below represents my vision of the

Past-peak conditions with Motion Blur filter.
Past-peak conditions with Motion Blur filter.

you might be faced with a situation of great color in one area, but hardly any
other significant color around it. You could, of course, just zoom in on it and
call it a day. However, tight closeups can’t convey a “sense of place.” If the
place is especially grand, you might want to show more of it than just a little
snippet – which could have been shot anywhere. 

A patch of color along the Saco River in the White Mountains National Forest.
A patch of color along the Saco River in the White Mountains National Forest.

image above is another scene from the White Mountains National Forest. Unlike
the opening photo, a significant amount of color is localized right in the
center of the frame. Rather than trying to enhance what little color there was surrounding
it, I decided to go in a totally different direction.

Patch of color enhanced by a greyscale rendition.
Patch of color enhanced by a greyscale rendition.

everything else as a greyscale really made the color stand out – sort of
like when a bride deliberately chooses the most hideous bridesmaids dresses in
creation in order to make herself look better by comparison. But, unlike an
insecure bride’s intentions, this method produces an almost fine-art version of
the scene. It also gives the illusion that the entire area was awash with color.
That can just be your little secret!

effect is very easy to do. I just made a selection of the patch of color
(including the reflection in the river) and inversed the selection. This
selects everything but the color patch. I then converted the image to
greyscale: Image>Adjustments>Black & White. Lastly, I inversed the
selection again to reselect the patch, then slightly increased the overall
color saturation. Also, when making a selection like this, when the intended
effect will be drastic, it’s important to feather the selection with the Refine
Edge tool. This will prevent a visible transition edge.

if you’re faced with less than stellar color this autumn… don’t despair. Using
techniques like these just might produce images preferable to the standard

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