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.
Welcome to October and to (we hope) the brilliant colors of fall foliage. If you’re like many photographers, this is a favorite time of year. The vibrant hues of the leaves make for beautiful landscapes, intimate scenes, still lives and macros. If you live in Vermont or Jackson Hole, maybe you can just look out the window to predict color but, for the rest of us who have to travel to find it, how can we plan our photo outings to capture peak color?
As outdoor photographers, we work in conditions beyond our control. Fortunately the unpredictable, whimsical and surprising elements of weather and landscape are also what can make it so engaging and fulfilling. Attempting to photograph the landscape in its defining moments has lead me to some formative life experiences, experiences that have taught me to look closely, wait patiently, see deeply and appreciate fully.
Consider an autumn photography trip I took several years ago. Excited by the promise of fall color and dramatic skies, I crossed Oregon, bound for Montana and Idaho. 1,200 miles later I arrived at Glacier National Park on the edge of an approaching storm. Hunkered in my van, I was buffeted by high winds and rain for four days, during which I was able to take photos for perhaps an hour or two. I never did see any of the famous peaks or glaciers on that visit.
Undeterred, I headed south in hopes of better weather. In the Sawtooth Range of Idaho, low cloud cover and snow kept the mountains hidden for all but a few minutes of the next four days. Windblown rain spotted my lens and blurred the aspen leaves in my low light exposures. During the long stretches of time alone in my van, I read, scouted locations, and studied the landscape and weather. I got up before dawn in order to be ready if the sun broke through. It didn’t.
The mountains were still shrouded when my time came to an end. As I drove back across the high desert of eastern Oregon, the skies opened for a brief moment, but by morning the clouds were back and it was snowing.
Despite the lack of photographs I had to show for my effort, I returned feeling invigorated and inspired. I was not ready to be indoors quite yet. The day after arriving home, I decided, on a whim, to make a quick visit to the upper Rogue River (just an hour’s drive away). After days of being immersed in gray, I was caught off guard when one of the most brilliant sunrises I’ve experienced illuminated the sky. For the rest of the day I hiked and I photographed bright fall foliage along the river in perfect soft light. On that single day I took more images than the previous nine combined, including one of my all time favorites. Those ten days will be with me forever: the cold, the gray, the quiet, the slow, the subtle, and finally the brilliant and unexpected.
Contrast that experience with the autumn photography trip I took to Colorado recently with my friend, Zack Schnepf.
The fates of weather aligned very differently for us. In two weeks we saw everything from cloudless, 80-degree days to thunderstorms, snow and 20-degree mornings. With some careful planning and a lot of luck we managed to consistently be in the right place at the right time. With such a string of ideal conditions we were working at a hurried pace and shooting continuously. We were even happy to see low clouds, drizzle and flat light one afternoon so we could justify a few hours off to take a shower and get to bed early. The photographs we took tell the story of the trip better than anything I can write.
These two autumn photography experiences will always provide welcome memories. One was solitary, slow paced, introspective and moody, building to a grand finale. The other was very social and frenetic, with little time to reflect as the light and landscape of each new scene somehow eclipsed the one before. Most photography trips fall somewhere between these two extremes. Given the choice I would no doubt opt for perfect conditions every time. But, fortunately, we don’t get to choose the conditions. When the photography is less than optimal we have an opportunity to slow down, put the camera away for a while and just watch and listen. Even though we don’t know when or how, if we are patient and present, nature will eventually show us something wonderful. This excellent unknown is why I will always go outside and take photographs.
Sean Bagshaw is an outdoor photographer and photography educator based in Ashland, Oregon. He spends as much time as he can in the field on a quest for magical light. He can be found sleeping in his truck or on the ground, stumbling around in the dark, eating bad food and avoiding showers. He is one of six members of the Northwest based PhotoCascadia team. You can see more of his photography and find out about workshops and video tutorials at www.OutdoorExposurePhoto.com and www.PhotoCascadia.com.