The Colors of Autumn
A hike in the woods on an autumn day with your camera is one of the great pleasures of living Up North. Autumn photography, the highlight of the year for the majority of photographers, is when you can take some of the most beautiful pictures of the entire year in this two-week display of natural beauty.
More than two months have passed since June 21st, the longest day of the year, and as much as one tries to hold onto the warm days of summer, by late August, we’ve lost more than 2½ hours of daylight.
When you first notice the changing leaves, you try to deny the march of time, as in “That tree must be weak or dying to change so early.” But the next week you see change in another and another. Other cues – the start of school and busy sport fields – alerts you that autumn is quickly approaching.
In a two-week period of peak colors, God uses the rotational forces of the universe to spin together a mixture of atmospheric weather, color and light to create a final tapestry that sweeps across the landscape from north to south in a bold flood of colors before it is hidden by snowfall and covered for another winter's rest.
Why the color change?
In the Northland, the color starts with the aspens and birches, then spreads to the maples. Finally, the oaks turn and the last are the swamp tamaracks when their needles turn bright golden as they decorate the northern swamps.
The longer cool nights of late August and early September are the trigger for the landscapes to turn on the brilliant colors. All summer, the leaves have been making food via photosynthesis. Chlorophyll is the green chemical in leaves that the tree uses to make energy. When fall arrives, chlorophyll breaks down, revealing the other colors that have been in the leaf all along. Various pigments – carotene (orange), xanthophyll (yellow), and anthocyanin (red and purple) are all common pigments.
Ten Tips for Great Fall Colors
1. Fall is all about weather
While everyone enjoys the scenery of fall, it is not unusual to go a week without sunshine and an incoming cold front with high winds and rain can wipe the colors off a hillside in a matter of hours. Keeping a watchful eye on the weather is important if you are going to plan to have the best chance to capture that one great picture.
It isn’t always the beautiful blue sky and red and golden ridges that are unique – a water droplet tumbling off a colored leaf or heavy frost outlining fallen leaves can make for wonderful images. Frost, snow, fog, drizzle and rainbows all make dramatic fall scenery. Exceptional autumnal images can be found right after a rainstorm: sunlight on wet leaves make colors vivid and the atmosphere is also more clear.
If fog rolls in and drizzle begins, head down to the creeks for some of the most saturated colors you will see. (See “Early Snow”).
2. Time is short – you can count peak color days on one hand
So many places, so little time. Shortness of the season, shortness of daylight – so remember, you’ll have less time than you think for those fall colors that you’ve been imagining in your mind’s eye all year.
It’s a good idea to start taking pictures as soon as the leaves start to turn. If a heavy frost comes along, or a big windy rainstorm, color can wane quickly and it will be another year before you get another chance. The first trip to a location might end up being a scouting trip, but no trip is a waste of time. There is always something to enjoy along the way and do take photos, even if you’re coming back later.
3. The right location is everywhere – look in your own back yard
You don’t need to go far to find great colors. In fact, the best place to photograph fall color is probably the place most accessible to you. It works great to be able to return to a scene often throughout the season so you can take pictures while the color emerges, and take advantage of different times of day and lighting conditions. A nearby pond or creek can produce just as stunning images as the most traveled tourist spot.
4. Use a polarizer filter – cut out the distractions
If there is one piece of essential equipment that is helpful for fall colors, it’s a polarizer filter. Remember, a polarizer is most effective when it is used at a 90 degree angle to the sun, so, you need to plan accordingly. Polarizers are used for two principal reasons – to darken and enrich the blue of the sky, and to cut the glare on water. The latter can be particularly helpful if you’re trying to show the reflection of autumn color in the water.
5. Water reflections double the visual impact
Include reflections in your autumn pictures. Look for ponds, lakes or any body of water to mirror the impact of color, doubling the beauty. Water adds a sense of dimension and motion that adds to the depth and substance of the image. Small waterfalls in nearby creeks can be particularly beautiful. (See “Autumn Reflection at Nine Mile Lake”)
6. Go undercover and find the hidden treasure