Fall is my favorite time of year – the temperature is pleasant and the air is refreshing. The sun is lower on the horizon during the day, leading to more opportunities to shoot in dramatic light, and the leaves turn to brilliant hues of red and gold. Fall is also a great time to travel as summer tourism drops off and destinations are uncrowded. Some of the best deals I’ve found abroad have been in the fall.
In search of color
Finding forests full of red and yellow trees is surprisingly difficult, so much so that I’d hesitate to plan a trip solely around seeing fall colors. Changing leaves are fickle and the timing varies year to year depending on temperature, sunlight, and weather. For this reason, color has always been incidental to my own travels. But when the color is there, I love to photograph it.
Taking pictures of color is much different from photographing something finite like a person or a building. I enjoy photographing abstract things because it allows my imagination to run free. Nearly any style of photography works when taking pictures of color, so don’t be afraid to experiment a bit.
The shot below was an experiment that actually worked quite well. I saw an animal running across a road in Yosemite National Park and I didn’t have time to switch the ISO on my digital camera (this was 2008 and Auto ISO did not exist.) I panned with the animal and hoped for the best. The shutter speed was absurdly long, creating streaks of color and light in the image.
I’ve found that even when photographing abstract things, it’s still important to give viewers something specific to look at. The form of the running animal gives viewers something to focus on in the picture.
I also like to use a fast lens and a low aperture like f/2.8 or less to really focus on the details. This runs contrary to traditional landscape photography, where the goal is usually to keep everything in focus. The shot below was captured with a Canon 28mm f1.8 lens, shot wide open to narrow the focus to the most colorful part of the frame.
You might also want to experiment with underexposing your photos by about 1/3 a stop. Your camera should be able to make this adjustment. Underexposing your pictures slightly will help you capture every ounce of color detail available. Bright colors are often lost when shooting digital, but you can prevent this by taking control of your exposures.
Editing for color
Fair warning: This is the last part of the post, and it’s admittedly a bit photo-geeky for many.
I edit colorful pictures differently, and I’d like to quickly run though a sample workflow I use when editing for the season. Although I’m using Photoshop, you can use any image editor to accomplish most of the following steps. Here’s the original:
I like to have some sort of goal in mind before starting an edit. With this shot, I want to end up with a deep, contrasty image where the colors really pop. I want the final picture to look colorful but natural – at the upper edge of the spectrum of what a viewer might consider “real”. I also want to avoid any sort of digital uglies like noise and color banding as I edit.
The three most important tools for color pictures are Levels, Curves, and Color Balance. After I go through each of these (sometimes more than once), I’ll put the finishing touches on my pictures with Vibrance/Saturation and Brightness/Contrast.
For the longest time I shied away from using Levels, but there’s no hidden magic or science behind it. You simply play with the sliders until your image looks better. The slider on the left adjusts dark tones, the middle slider is for midtones, and the right hand slider is for bright tones. In the screenshot above, I’ve made the darks darker, the brights brighter, and I’ve made the midtones a bit darker.
I’ll then move on to Curves to fine tune my Levels adjustment.
I stayed away from Curves for a long time too, but it’s pretty easy. Move the line until your picture looks better. The left hand side of the line is for the darker parts of your picture, the right hand side of the line adjusts the brighter part of your picture. In the example, I’ve made the darkest parts of the image even darker. This helps me achieve the deep, contrasty look I wanted.
If you want to learn more about Curves including how to adjust each of the red, green, and blue channels for maximum control, see Useful Photoshop Hints.
The next step is the most technical part of the whole process. It only takes about 20 min to dial your settings in, and you can use it indefinitely thereafter with just the click of a button. Create an action using the steps described here: A New Way to Saturate Colors. The link describes how you can strongly saturate colors in Photoshop while avoiding ugly banding problems common to digital editing. The finished action is far better than the weak Vibrance/Saturation tool for fall color photographs.
I then added a light Sepia filter, and I fine tuned the colors with the Color Balance tool. I finished the edit by darkening the image slightly with Brightness/Contrast. The whole edit took about 5 minutes, and this is the result: