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Fall Foliage: The “Best” Time?

Red Jack Lake; Hiawatha NF; Michigan U.P.
Copyright 2012 Andy Richards

This time of year, some of us get “antsy” about the progress and success of leaf turning, weather, and in general, the logistics of getting on to great fall imagery.  A number of basically dormant internet sites during the remainder of the year suddenly heat up.  Some “old friends” show up.

Every year, there are a number of new joiners to some of the sites.  Some are looking just for “leaf peeping” and travel advice.  Others are seeking information about photography.  Where to goWhen to go. What to expectLodging. TrafficWeather.  There are so many questions.  And predictably, they are generally the same questions from year to year.

Whitefish FallsMichigan U.P.
Copyright Andy Richards 2007

I often jump in and answer the questions.   But I am “that guy.”  No short, definitive answers here. 🙂 A question on a Facebook page earlier this week prompted me to think about this blog.  So I thought I would do some “Q&A.”

Predictably, they are generally the same questions from year to year.

The question I see most often asked is:  When is the best time to go to a destination for “peak” foliage?  The short answer is:  when the foliage is at its peak 🙂 .  Right.  Thanks for the help. 🙂

The thing is, there is no really good, concise answer to this question.  There are many variables. Perhaps the first is: what do you mean by “peak”?  There are different views about that.  One of my favorite (and best-selling images) was made in the Michigan Upper Peninsula years back on a pretty disappointing trip in terms of the “wash” of color we expect to see this time of year.  While the image below, of the Presque Isle River, as it leaves the iconic “Lake of the Clouds,” is arguably not even close to “peak” fall color, the contrast the early color present is pretty dramatic and pleasing.  Likewise, the Whitefish Falls image was shot during a period well past peak.  I excluded foliage that showed evidence of significant leaf drop.  But the colored leaves in the water made for pleasing color, and suggested “fall.”

Presque Isle River, Porcupine Mountain State Park; Michigan U.P.
Copyright 1997 Andy Richards

Perhaps the real point is that you can find some pretty nice opportunities and views without being on destination at exactly the “right” time.  I spent a number of years of my youth in Vermont, working and later attending college.  I remember some pretty spectacular color shows.  Yet when I travel back there, it seems like hard work to find some of those scenes.  When I lived there, I was (obviously) there every day and could see things develop and take advantage of the “peak” times – when they occurred.  In 2012, I guided a photo-workshop in the Michigan U.P., for a pro that I got to know from Pennsylvania, and for perhaps the first time in many years, arrived when the “show” was pretty well under way and watched it develop to peak and then a bit past peak.  The opening image of Red Jack Lake is – arguably – at “peak.”  But again, “peak” will be different things to different observers.

The question I see most often asked is:  When is the best time to go to a destination for “peak” foliage?  The short answer is:  when the foliage is at its peak 🙂 .  Right.  Thanks for the help. 🙂

The best time for fall foliage is very much environmentally driven.  Weather is the biggest factor.  And weather – despite the irony that there are people who make their living “predicting” it – is nothing if not unpredictable.  There needs to be enough moisture through the late months of summer and early autumn to keep the leaves green and healthy.  A very dry “runup” period is a recipe for dull color and early leaf drop.  Then, the conditions during the generally brief window of time when they begin to change to the point where they drop is equally critical.  Cooler temperatures, particularly at night (think frost), is what will kickstart the color change.  Wind and heavy rain can also be the death knell for fall foliage viewing and photography.  Obviously, the timing of this can be only very generally predicted.

Transient Light Photography Workshop; October, 2012
Copyright 2012 Andy Richards

There are numerous other factors to consider.  Disease and predators can create negative conditions.  Over the years, I have noted a shift from the very bright reds produced predominately by Maple trees in Vermont, to more of an orange, yellow and brown mix.  Part of this is because of some blight and leaf cutters that have attacked mainly Maple trees, and caused damage and early drop of those species.

Geography and topography can also make their mark.  Generally, higher elevations experience “turn” sooner than lower elevations.  Areas that are in the lee of significant bodies of water will generally experience later color change than areas more inland.  This is almost always evident in the area of Vermont on the eastern shore of Lake Champlain, and on the west coast of Michigan, and on the peninsulas that cover the Great Lakes.  Some of the northernmost parts of the U.P. often turn weeks later than other areas further south and inland.

So, while we can try to plan for the “best” time for our visit, there is going to be a significant element of chance.

Photographing Vermont’s Fall Foliage; 2nd Ed.
Copyright 2017; Andy Richards and Carol Smith

Planning is still important and getting as much useful information about a planned destination as possible will help manage expectations.  There are a number of resources, mostly on-line, that are useful, including local weather pages, and foliage progression charts.

While I am admittedly biased 🙂 , I think that perhaps the single best resources for fall photography are my own eBooks. Photographing Vermont’s Fall Foliage; now in its second edition, and co-written by my good friend and talented photographer, Carol Smith.  We have illustrative photographs and detailed directions and relevant information about many great foliage-viewing and photographic spots throughout the state of Vermont.

Photographing Michigan’s U.P., co-written by another friend and talented photographer and writer, Kerry Leibowitz, does pretty much the same thing for Michigan’s vaunted “Upper Peninsula” (which I will argue, rivals New England for fall foliage viewing and photography).

Photographing the U.P. eBook
Copyright 2016 Andy Richards and Kerry Leibowitz

THE Photographer’s Guide To Minnesota’s North Shore, written by another very good friend, Al Utzig, another talented photographer, writer and teacher (who I also met on the SOV forum originally), gives a pretty thorough account of photographic opportunities on Minnesota’s North Shore, along the Lake Superior shoreline.  This area is also not lacking in great fall foliage opportunities.

Some years back, while researching a fall trip to Vermont, I stumbled on the Scenes of Vermont Forums.  This site is a wonderful resource for visitors to Vermont, and to some extent, all of New England; particularly in the fall.  I soon became friends with the proprietor of the site, became a moderator, and even talked him into adding a photo forum.  Unfortunately, these stand-along forums have become less popular due to the dominance of social media sites like Facebook.  But one of the things it does better than any other is to provide “boots-on-the-ground” information during the short and unpredictable foliage season.  I highly recommend a trip there.

A good friend (we met on the Scenes of Vermont forums), Margy Meath, yet another talented photographer, also has a very good Facebook Page; Vermont Foliage Fanatics, which has a number of “cross-over” members from SOV.  If you are a Facebooker, I recommend checking that out.


Big News in Mirrorless

During the past 30 days or so, both of the big camera companies, Nikon and Canon have announced their entry into the full frame, mirrorless interchangeable lens camera (MIL) market.  I wondered it this was ever going to happen!  Without getting into the “white hat vs. black hat,” “Ford vs. Chevy” discussion, suffice it to say that there are a number of other players in the market, all of whom make some very estimable camera gear.  But it is difficult to argue that, over the past 30-40 years, Canon and Nikon have been the market leaders.  Consequently, when they do something, it usually get noticed.

I intuitively knew that the industry would eventually move away from the popular and ubiquitous DSLR, to the smaller MIL

I got “married” to Nikon in 1980, and we had a happy relationship until sometime in 2013.  I think by then, that I intuitively knew that the industry would eventually move away from the popular and ubiquitous Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR), to the smaller MIL.  In 2013, after hanging around and watching Nikon, it became apparent that they had no intention of making a serious entry into the MIL marketplace.  Their eventual contestant, the Nikon 1,  offered no compatibility with the existing Nikkor lens line, and a sensor significantly smaller than the competitors and only slighly larger than the typical “point & shoot” (P&S) equipped sensor.  Disappointing for Nikon loyalists.

The NEX series by Sony, first introduced in 2010, signaled a commitment on their part to the MIL camera market.  The earliest DSLR consumer and “prosumer” cameras were equipped with a sensor smaller than the 35mm film cross-section which was the benchmark of Single Lens Reflex (SLR) cameras that were the most popular film cameras in use at the time, popularly known as “APS” sensors (eventually, technology allowed for affordable and useable sensors equivalent to the 35mm film cross-section.  These became know as “full frame.”  Cost and technology were factors.  The NEX line was one of only a couple mirrorless cameras that offered the APS sensor.  It was still a bit of an unknown at the time and what attracted me to Sony was the sensor that was the same as the one in my Nikon APS backup camera, along with Sony’s partnership with Zeiss lenses.

The “mirrorless” camera, of course, is not a new phenomena.  Rangefinder cameras were widely used by film shooters, even in the light of the popularity the SLR (single lens reflex) camera gained when it later hit the scene.  I was an SLR user.  Like the many other users, I liked the “what you see is what you get” view through the viewfinder (even though in most cases, it wasn’t 100 percent of what the lens actually captured).  But what really made/makes the new digital “rangefinder” cameras stand out, is the new electronic viewfinder (EVF).  Early copies were just not very good.  Today, I actually prefer the EVF.  One of the things I like is its ability to mimic the look through the lens as you stop down or open up, making your view brighter or dimmer (my Sony can override that if you find it disconcerting, but I have grown to really like it).

I know there are a lot of challenges to adding a new technology to very successful existing lines.  Lens mounts, lenses, and focusing technology are among them.  But given the inexorable growth of this camera platform, I have been surprised at the apparently sluggish progress both of the big guys have taken to this.  The recently announced entries by both of them come nearly 10 years later than the first popularly used MIL cameras!  I have thoroughly enjoyed the past 8 years of carrying much smaller, lighter gear in the meantime.

For those who waited patiently for Nikon or Canon, there may be a reward

For those who waited patiently for Nikon or Canon, there may be a reward.  Both of these bodies spec out pretty impressively.  For Nikon, this is only the second physically “new” mount they have designed for any of their interchangeable lenses (the only other one being the Nikon 1 mount).  By that, I mean that even though there have been changes over the years, every Nikkor lens is capable of being physically mounted on every Nikon interchangeable lens body (except for the Nikon 1).  Nikon has already also announce several new lenses (three of which, I believe, will be available yet in 2019) for its Entry, the Nikon Z series (currently, 6 and 7).

I am not sure what offerings Canon has – or will have for their new EOS R.  But both companies have adapters for their “legacy” SLR/DSLR lenses.  Again, in the case of Nikon, that should mean virtually any Nikon mount lens should mount on the Z series with this adaptor.  Of course, there is certain to be limits on functionality, depending on the age of the lens.  Not being familiar with Canon, I am not certain, but I am guessing there will be more limitations on which lenses will mount and which won’t.  But you should be able to use your professional glass on either of these models.

It remains to be seen whether this will be a workable thing.  I could see having one or more of the new lenses for a “travel” outfit, but still being able to use the pro glass for situations where you would be carrying the bigger equipment anyway.  For me, its too late.  I am perfectly happy in my new relationship with Sony.  For now.  🙂

Here We Go Again

I want to start with a blatant “plug” for both of my eBooks. The books (both written with the help of co-authors with their own impressive experience in the locations) are excellent resources for photographers planning to shoot these destinations. Please take a look at these books. They are available on the major sites, including Amazon and Apple iBooks. Go to the link page

Photographing the U.P.
Copyright 2016 Andy Richards and Kerry Leibowitz

Second Edition!

It’s that time.  Fall.  My favorite time of the year.  Like a cute puppy, I wish it could stay fall forever (maybe I wouldn’t like it so much if it happened – and most cute puppies grow up to be pretty nice dogs anyway).

Stowe, Vermont
Copyright Andy Richards 2005

Fall brings fresh, cool air, football, the harvest, and for most of my adult life, the most important “fall thing” of all: fall foliage.

Tahquamenon River
Copyright Andy Richards 2004

While I enjoy photography most times of the year, the fall season presents – for me – the greatest opportunity to make the images I like.  The days are shorter, which means I don’t have to get up so early, or stay out so late, to get the nice light mornings and evenings bring.  The air is clear and fresh.  The sun is lower on the horizon, widening the photographic time window.  It always gets me recharged and excited about getting back out and shooting.

Burton Hill Road
Barton, Vermont
Copyright 2010 Andy Richards

Most years, I have a travel plan to someplace spectacular.  My favorite place over the years, of course, has been Vermont.  I like fall foliage and Vermont so much, I wrote an eBook (now in its Second Edition, which features my co-author, Carol Smith’s insights and photography along with my own).

Glade Creek Gristmill
Babcock State Park, WV
Copyright 2011 Andy Richards

No specific plans this year.  I may make a weekend trip or two up to Northern Michigan or the Upper Peninsula, but that will be spur of the moment.  But even in such “off” years, I always seem to find something “fall” to shoot.

Babcock State Park
West Virginia
Copyright 2011 Andy Richards

Please consider purchasing both of my eBooks.  Both were started as logs of my shooting experiences in two of my favorite places in the world:  Vermont and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  Both are wonderful outdoor shooting destinations – and both are especially magnificent in the fall.  The books (both written with the help of co-authors with their own impressive experience in the locations) are excellent resources for photographers planning to shoot these destinations. And if you are an outdoor photographer and have not traveled to either of these locations you should – best in the fall.  The books have directions and observations about the best times to shoot, difficulty of getting to them, and other items of information that we have found useful.  In many cases we have even included approximate gps coordinates.  Please take a look at these books.  They are available on the major sites, including Amazon and Apple iBooks.

Somesville Bridge
Town Hall, Somesville, ME
Copyright 2009 Andy Richards

I hope all have good fall shooting and safe travels.

Photogaphers At Red Jack Lake
Copyright 2012 Andy Richards