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Fall Foliage Photography “Checklist”

Grand View Farm, Stowe, Vermont
Copyright 2010 Andy Richards

I did a Fall Foliage shooting checklist in September 2009 and that blog is worth revisiting. With Fall coming on quickly it is timely to think about what you might “carry” into the field as you shoot foliage this Fall. As I did in 2009, I want to make the point that being properly equipped for a successful and enjoyable outing means more than just a checklist of your photography gear. It also means consideration of essential items for comfort, convenience (and perhaps even survival).

I have been guilty of carrying a narrow notion of pre-conceived images into the field

Mental Preparation

But perhaps most importantly, it also means consideration of what you “carry” in your head. What mental preparation have you made for your outing? Are you prepared to see? I have often been guilty of carrying a narrow notion of pre-conceived images into the field. In 2010, after some conversation with a couple professional photographers and some serious thought about what I wanted to “bring home,” I believe I had one of my most successful outings, with some unique approaches to images that had already been shot, as well as some completely new images.

One thing about that outing surprised me. Mental preparation takes work just as the other preparation does. It is important to know your equipment, your theories, and your craft. Indeed, the best pros will tell you they know them so well, they never consciously think about it. It is internalized in their shooting and they are free to be creative. But the creativity (for many of us, at least) take work. It takes proverbially “thinking outside the box.” My friend and ultra-talented pro, Ray Laskowitz, has suggested a very useful approach to shooting.  Ask, “what is it like to be . . . . . . ?” If you were shooting travel photography, what would it be like to be the tourist, the local citizen, the captain of the boat, the fisherman, the shopkeeper, or the shopper? From a nature perspective, what would it look like from the point of view of the bird, or beetle; or, from the point of view of the hiker, hunter, or biker?

Focus on the elements that make a great image rather than the subject matter

I also found that when I started to focus on the elements that nature brings to us that make a great image, rather than the subject matter, things opened up differently to me. In that outing I concentrated on light, atmospherics, and form. Sure, when I go to a place I haven’t been before, I want to photograph those iconic scenes. I did it then, and I’ll do it in the future. But doing it with an eye toward these elements is bound to yield more pleasing and possibly unique results. Of course, it helps when Mother Nature cooperates, and she did, providing fog, mist, and cloud formations for much of the early part of the week.

In one of my earliest blogs, I talked about the intimate perspective. There is much to be gained by getting a different perspective, up closer or down lower. I know from experience, that it’s tough to pull off the “Grand Landscape” successfully. More often than not, I am underwhelmed and even disappointed with my result. It’s much easier to take a small slice of a visually interesting part of that grand landscape and work with it. This is particularly the case when the atmospheric conditions do not create the drama necessary to make the landscape image unique and interesting. Plain, cobalt blue skies and dull grey skies actually have a lot in common; they are both kind of plain, and therefore often boring. Clouds and color, in the right combination, provide drama and interest. If they don’t, consider a different perspective, either getting much closer to the image (or a part of it), or trying to find a way to have the light strike it in a more dramatic way, while excluding the sky.

The reason, in my view, that the “classic” barn scene in Stowe, Vermont “works” is because all the elements came together; a picturesque subject in the red barn, the perspective created by the road going into the center of the image, punctuated with the repeating utility poles, the magnificent mountain backdrop in fall foliage splendor, but most importantly, the cloud formations adding color and interest to the blue sky.

Clouds and color, in the right combination, provide drama and interest

Cool early morning temperatures following a heavy rainfall created magical atmospheric conditions for this image
Copyright 2010 Andy Richards

Likewise, the “atmospherics” for the Burton Road Farm shot came together perfectly. The clear, very cold morning, followed a weekend with 5 inches of rain in Vermont. Everything was saturated and the very cold temperatures created wonderful fog and cloud banks which created the layering effect seen in the sky. Without the cloud bank, I would probably not have included much of the sky in this image at all.

Lower Pleasant Valley Road, Cambridge, VT
Copyright 2010 Andy Richards

For the Barn on Pleasant Valley Road, the sky was mostly gray, but that small break of blue letting the sun through created just the drama I was looking for (sometimes you get lucky, but there is an old saying about “being there”).  The late afternoon lighting on the mountainside was nice. I got in as close as I could to the barn while still having some of the lighted mountainside showing. In all of these images, the subject was—of course—the barn. But my point is I used the compositional and natural elements around each subject to make it interesting.

Poplars in Fall Foliage; Santa Fe National Forest, NM
Copyright 2008 Andy Richards

The image made in the Santa Fe National Forest of the Western Fall Foliage in New Mexico was challenged by a mostly gray sky and a mix of sun; what I refer to as a “bright overcast.”  The light falling on the foliage was nice, but the sky, blah. So I composed without the sky, trying to emphasis the golden yellow and oranges of the Western foliage.

Essential Gear Update

I cannot really add much to the gear list on the 2009 Blog. There is one important item I can add to that list, though. If you are going to be anywhere in the woods or wilderness where there is even a chance of an encounter with a bear, do yourself a favor and get yourself some bear spray. After my trip to the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone, I am convinced of the utility of that move. As we sat in a restaurant on the last day of that trip, I struck up a conversation with a “local” who told me stories of his two bear encounters. One, a lone grizzly, he was able to avoid without confrontation. But it was a nervous experience and he did have his spray with him and ready for use. The second was with a Black Bear. We have Black Bear in Michigan (indeed they have become more prevalent in recent years). In this case, a mother who thought he was a threat to her cubs, charged him. He used the bear spray and it worked.

I would also recommend, to go along with the map(s) of the area, that you carry a good old fashioned compass (when the gps batteries run out, it might just be a lifesaver), and be familiar with how to use it.

Photographic Gear Update

Again, this list hasn’t changed much. In addition to your camera, I re-emphasize a tripod, polarizer (especially useful for foliage) and cable release. I have recently added to my own gear, a backup camera and a backup tripod.

I will be out of the so-called “blogosphere” the next couple weekends, shooting in Michigan’s UP.  I’ll try to follow some of my own advice here.  I hope you have great success this year in your Fall Foliage outing(s), whenever and wherever you go!  See you soon, and thanks for reading!

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