Perfect Focus

Colorado photographer Rob Decker offers his tips for creating great fall shots.

Bear-Lake

DEEP REFLECTION DECKER’S SHOT OF LAKE LILY, WITH LONGS PEAK IN THE BACKGROUND. Photo by Rob Decker

For those of us who call ourselves photographers, few events in the seasonal cycle stir the impulse to get outside and snap photos like the beginning of fall. The reds, oranges, and ochres of the season—combined with bluebird skies, golden twilights, and the first trimmings of frost—can produce some of the most stunning images you’ll capture all year. The season also poses challenges, though, and truly spectacular fall photography requires a basic knowledge of how to tweak your shooting style for autumnal weather and light. We turned to Colorado photographer Rob Decker, who studied under Ansel Adams and has launched a project shooting all of the national parks, for tips on composition, gear, and more.

How do you choose a location?
There are countless opportunities to photograph the fall colors in Colorado. The biggest challenge is figuring out how to do it with freshness and originality. Once you’ve scouted a location, consider getting inside the forest rather than shooting a colorful hillside, which has been done to death. It’s easy to stand on the edge of the road and take a beautiful shot of the changing colors, but there’s so much more to fall photography than sweeping vistas. Drilling down deeper into your location is going to yield more interesting results.

What about composition?
Composition is everything. Always looks for interesting angles. Remember, you’re making a photograph, not just taking a snapshot. Go low and wide. Find something captivating for the foreground. If you’re in the forest, looking straight up is a popular shot, maybe capturing the underside of an aspen canopy with a blue sky in the background. Or consider looking down. As the leaves start to fall, the forest floor will be covered with bright leaves that really pop.

Any tips on exposure?
Sometimes it’s hard to know exactly what kind of light you’re capturing—especially when you’re looking at a small LCD screen on the back of a camera. One solution is to take three shots with different exposures: one under-exposed, one normally exposed and one over-exposed. This is the concept behind HDR (high dynamic range) photography, where those three images are combined to capture a greater range of light. Some cameras offer a built-in HDR option.

Should I use a polarizing filter?
I often use a polarizer when shooting in the fall in Colorado. It helps cut down reflections on water, or glare on snow. It can even help minimize the glare on wet yellow aspen leaves, which tend to be shiny and harsh in a landscape photograph. A polarizer can also add some pop and warmth to an image. Just remember to keep an eye on your shutter speed and ISO to prevent motion blur, as you’ll lose one to two stops of light when using the filter.

Tripod or no tripod?
The times nearest sunrise and sunset (often referred to as the golden hour) can produce fantastic colors and textures, but always remember that in these low-light situations you’ll want to set your ISO as low as possible and use a longer exposure. A tripod, therefore, is a must-have to prevent blur.

Are there any specific subjects that work well in the fall?
When I go out in autumn, I like to find water wherever possible—rivers, streams, maybe a waterfall if I’m really lucky. In the fall, shots of leaves that have collected in the water can produce some fantastic contrast.

Last thoughts?
Don’t overlook the small stuff. You don’t necessarily need a macro lens to shoot macro photography, but you do need a keen attention to detail. There are fantastic subjects hiding everywhere, often in overlooked places. Train your eye to pick out the minutiae in a scene. Lichen on rocks, moss on trees, fallen leaves on the trail—sometimes those images can be just as powerful as big, bold landscapes.

NATIONAL PARK POSTERS PROJECT
Rob Decker is the creator of the National Park Posters Project, an effort to photograph all 59 of America’s National Parks for a series honoring the famous Work Progress Administration posters of the 1930s.

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