The Autumn Show: Beyond “Trees & Leaves”

Fall foliage reflecting in lake, Twin Lakes area, New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, NY. f/9.5 @ 70mm, 5-image HDR compilation.

Fall foliage reflecting in lake, Twin Lakes area, New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, NY. f/9.5 @ 70mm, 5-image HDR compilation.

Story & Photography by F.M. Kearney

The final curtain is about to rise. A cast of billions is in place. Throughout their entire performance, they’ve all been restricted to the same regulation green outfits. For their finale, they now have a chance to break free – a chance to dazzle onlookers with stunning new yellow, red and orange wardrobes. A few glory-hounds will attempt to upstage the others with magnificent, multi-colored garb. Sit back and relax… The Autumn Show is about to begin.

I’m sure most nature photographers look forward to this show every year. But, it can be a challenge to come up with something different than the usual “trees and leaves” photo. Try looking for compositions beyond the obvious – compositions where the subject isn’t immediately evident.

Taking a Fresh Look

Reflections of fall foliage in water are common subjects. For best results, seek out reflections of sunlit foliage in shaded bodies of water. Leaves on the surface of the water can add another dimension to the image. If the water is very still, it might cause viewers to momentarily wonder what’s real and what’s the reflection. These types of scenes can offer a multitude of photo ops. Your original idea may give way to something totally different, and it may take some time before you find the best composition.

A couple of years ago, I wrote an article for eNEWS, titled, “Working the Subject.”  Through a series of lily photos, I illustrated my method of trying to get the best possible picture by making slight adjustments in composition. In some ways, it’s sort of like perfecting a recipe – a bit less depth of field here, a little more open space there…

I recently used this technique in the Twin Lakes area of the New York Botanical Garden. The strong reflection in the calm, leaf-covered lake immediately caught my eye. I wanted to capture the leaves on the surface as well as the reflection. I began by shooting some “overview” shots – almost dividing the frame equally between the leaves and the reflection. By closing the aperture down to f/9.5, I was able to obtain maximum sharpness for both. I also used a polarizing filter to remove some of the glare from the water. Rotating it to its fullest power would have removed all or most of the reflection – completely defeating the purpose of the shot.

The photo that opens this article is a literal interpretation of the scene. Although I used the twigs sticking up out of the water as an anchor, it’s still a very busy shot – possibly causing some viewers to momentarily pause to figure out just what it is they’re looking at.

I wanted to emphasize the leaves on the surface, so I framed a slightly tighter shot of them directly over the reflection. The resulting image below was even more chaotic than the first. The problem was far too much depth of field – putting the leaves in direct competition with the reflection. By trying to show everything, nothing was seen very clearly. With no central point of focus, a viewer’s eye is left to frantically wander around looking for a landing spot – like an auto-focus lens trying to get a lock on fog. I suppose the photo might work as some form of abstract art, but that wasn’t my original intention.

Fall foliage reflecting in leaf-covered lake Twin Lakes area, New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, NY. f/16 @ 102mm.

Getting Down and Dirty

Frustration was starting to set in. Nothing I had tried was giving me the image I initially envisioned. Up until this point, I had been taking the easy way out. I was shooting from an eye-level perspective – a comfortable and convenient way to shoot, but not always the best way to get the perfect angle. I knew what I had to do. It was time to get messy and get down to the level of the leaves. I lowered my tripod to ground level and got on my knees in the wet mud next to the shoreline. That small change in perspective made all the difference in the world. Many of the leaves were lying flat, but a few were sticking halfway up out of the water at odd angles. This was what I had been searching for. I zoomed in to 200mm on a trio of leaves all pointing in the same general direction. In order to make this shot work, I had to switch gears as far as the reflection was concerned. Keeping it and the leaves sharp just wasn’t working. I opened up to f/3.3, which not only highlighted the three leaves, but rendered the once distracting reflection as a pleasant, warm-tone color wash.

Fall foliage reflecting in leaf-covered lake Twin Lakes area New York Botanical Garden Bronx, NY. f/3.3 200mm.

Fall foliage reflecting in leaf-covered lake, Twin Lakes area, New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, NY. f/3.3 200mm.

Getting a pretty photo isn’t always pretty. My pants were ready for a trip to the laundromat, but I finally got the shot I was after. Oftentimes, the most literal rendition of a scene is usually the least creative.