Some Thoughts on “Peak” Foliage

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Presque Isle River
Porcupine Mountains
Michigan Upper Peninsula
Copyright Andy Richards 1997

Nearly every year, about this time of year, I have posted something about the coming fall foliage season. It is no secret that I am a bit of a foliage “geek.” The majority of my dedicated photography trips over the years have sought a location to shoot fall foliage, and have generally been from late September through October. My ebook, Photographing Vermont’s Fall Foliage; Where to Find the Iconic Shots is clearly all about foliage photography. The majority of the illustrations in my Michigan ebook, Photographing The Michigan U.P., while more broadly intended, are of fall foliage scenes. I have traveled multiples time to Vermont and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, as well as Maine, , West Virginia, Virginia, and New Mexico for the specific purpose of shooting fall foliage.

One popular on-line dictionary has several different definitions of the word, “peak.”

A recent post on a media page I visit regularly, included a photograph, illustrating “peak” foliage. It was a nice, colorful image, but I would not have described it as peak – or even near-peak. The post got me thinking about the concept of “peak” foliage. Every year, this term is tossed around on internet sites, including photography sites and “foliage progession map” sites. Having spent much time planning and thought about “foliage” photography, and, having written and commented on it on many ocassions over the past 15 years, I get a number of questions about “peak” foliage conditions. The most common, of course, go something like this: I am planning to be in Vermont/Michigan for a week during (date). Will the foliage be at, or near peak at that time? My answer is nearly always equivocal: “it depends on what you mean by ‘peak’.”

Hiawatha NF Color Sections
Michigan U.P.
Copyright 2012 Andy Richards

One popular on-line dictionary has several different definitions of the word, “peak.” One of them is: “a point in a curve or on a graph, or a value of a physical quantity, higher than those around it.” This may be a more objective, measurable definition than we may want in an artistic setting such as photography. I read this to mean that point where everything leading up to it, and everything following it, is not peak. By my thinking, this definition would apply to foliage immediately before it begins to turn brown, dry up and fall. That probably fits my own definition of “peak” best. I recall scenes – especially growing up as a young man in Vermont where I was in it every day for a number of seasons, where the leaves were almost all spectacularly colored, with no remaining green leaves, and nearly 100% still on the trees. In reality, this is impossible. There will always be stages and most always, leaves on the ground, which in most cases, I think is a positive anyway. But my point is that “peak,” under this definition, is that instant immediately before things turn and go downhill. It is the way I have always viewed “peak.” And I think most progression maps and official foliage “predictors” would agree with that definition. My own “peak” definition is perhaps better illustrated by the 2012 Hiawatha National Forest image, again made in the Michigan Upper Peninsula.

“Backyard” Foliage
Saginaw, MI
Copyright 2014 Andy Richards

But a second definition, may really describe “peak” more accurately: “the point of highest activity, quality, or achievement.” This is a more subjective definition. And for our purposes, it is probably the sounder one. I read this to mean that “peak” is what I think “peak” is. When I look at a scene, I look for the most “productive” iteration of that scene. When I have the luxury of re-visiting a foliage location multiple times in the same season, it means I can make a judgment about what is the most visually pleasing blend of color and undeveloped foliage. Most times, though, I have had to make a judgment at the time I arrived at the scene.

Our search for “peak” may blind us to the image that is right there in front of us

The opening image was taken at “Lake of the Clouds,” in the far western end of the Michigan Upper Peninsula. I was there in early October, hoping to find “peak” foliage conditions under my own (admittedly nebulous) definition. I had seen numerous examples of  the lake, which can appear to be floating up in the clouds under certain conditions, in full color foliage. That is what I envisioned. But this year, color development was obviously in its very early stages. There was very little color around the lake. Had I left it at that, I would have missed one of my favorite fall images (and one which has been my most successful over the years in terms of sales). I doubt it would have the same impact if all the leaves were fully turned (or at “peak” by my own definition). But in this case the image better fits the second definition. I think it was absolutely the point of highest activity, quality, or achievement.

Vermont Covered Bridge
A preview of the fall foliage show to come
Copyright Andy Richards 2005

Does any of this really matter? Probably not (which is why my blog description includes “musings” by me). In the end, what really matters is if the image is pleasing to me. But it may be instructive in answering the question posed by travelers about where and when the “peak” foliage is. We will always continue to see the term “peak” being used to describe fall foliage. But as photographers, we really shouldn’t get all hung up on a term. We should try to “see” images that are out there.  And our search for “peak” may blind us to images that are right there in front of us.

Falling leaves signal that the end of the season is very near.
Copyright Andy Richards 2007