Chasing Color: How to photograph fall
September 22, 2013
The car is filled with gas, and I have a couple of empty memory cards and a bag filled with lenses for just about every situation.
As I prepare to hit the road and shoot the colorful fall foliage that returns to the Yampa Valley every year, I realize the only thing missing is those gorgeous fall colors.
After spending the past 23 years in Steamboat Springs, I've shot just about everything the Yampa Valley has to offer. I've got a file of breathtaking sunsets, more than a few images of the rolling water of a small creek during spring runoff, and I've shot Sleeping Giant and the Steamboat barn so many times that I joke about owning a particular angle.
One of the more challenging assignments for me, but not every photographer, is making an image that truly captures the colorful fall season we enjoy in the mountains of Northwest Colorado.
Anyone can point a camera at a hillside and record the striking yellows of aspen trees or the delicate oranges that pop out in those really special years. Fall colors are unpredictable, and if you don't make room for them in your schedule, it seems like they arrive one day and are gone the next. The trick is capturing those vibrant colors at their peak and making an image that really stands out. I take thousands of photographs each year, so my standards of what makes a great fall shot are pretty high.
Some photographers are lucky and seem to find that moment easily. I'm not one of them. Although luck sometimes plays into any image, I've learned those who prepare typically are the luckiest. The best images come to those who do the legwork and are willing to make sacrifices.
For me, the key is taking a drive and finding just the right spot long before the autumn colors start to paint the landscape. Discovering the perfect spot before autumn arrives can result in creating that once-in-a-lifetime shot. So take that drive along the Flat Tops Scenic Byway, find that turnout on Rabbit Ears Pass or head for a short hike on Buffalo Pass before the colors peak. Find that spot, photograph that spot and, if you have time, figure out when the light is at its best.
You might have to visit that chosen spot more than once to find the image you are looking for. Shoot it when the colors first start to change. Shoot the spot at its peak, and shoot it after the first snowfall of the season. The little details can take an image from good to truly amazing.
Finally, have fun, break the rules and be willing to take chances. After all, isn't that what the delete button is for on a camera?
Don't be afraid to lie on your back under a tall aspen tree or climb a rock in search of a unique angle. Remember, a telephoto lens can separate the perfect section of a scenic vista while a wide-angle one will capture everything in a snap. But you still have to make sure the focus and exposure are perfect.
Pay attention to the details. Sometimes, I'll throw on a macro lens and focus on a leaf that already has fallen to the ground or into a nearby puddle of water. The textures, lines and mix of colors tell a story in a glance.
Lastly, don't ever get discouraged. The season doesn't last long, and a windy day or the first snowfall of the year will bring the vibrant colors to an end long before we are ready. The great thing about fall colors is that they will be back at the same time, same place next year — only they might look completely different.
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