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Location Temptation
Fall Color
by Bob Dean

As the dog days of summer approach, can the beauty of fall be far behind? It's never to early to start preparation for your fall color shooting. The great color of foliage in the fall makes it difficult to take a bad photo, but with some forethought and planning you can spend the winter enjoying some spectacular images.

What exactly causes the leaf color to change from the deep green of summer to the autumn hues? The yellows and orange tints come from carotenoid pigments that are always present in leaves. The reds and purples are caused by anthocyanins that develop on sunny days during the growing season. These colors are present long before the fall color season but are masked by green chlorophyll. In the fall the green fades as the trees and shrubs prepare for their winter dormant phase. As the chlorophyll drains from the leaf, the color pigments become visible. The intensity of color depends very much on local weather conditions. Normal rainfall during spring and summer normally produces the best color. Warm, sunny days and cool nights, as fall approaches, also yields better color. The peak color normally lasts about one week and this peak slowly moves south.

When you plan your fall outings, there are many destinations you can choose. The classic place for fall color is the northeastern U.S. Consider a trip to New England in late September or early October. Great photo opportunities abound from Vermont's White Mountains (especially the mid third of the state around Burlington and St. Johnsburg) to the Connecticut River Valley (between Hartford and Old Saybrook, Connecticut). The other New England states offer great color as well. When in the northeast, make sure that you spend a good portion of your time traveling the backroads and country lanes. Not only are the color shots great, but you can include quaint farm buildings, covered bridges, and villages in your photos. Peak color in New England usually occurs in the first ten days of October plus or minus a week.

The eastern half of the country has many other fall color opportunities. In the Great Lakes region there are many fine destinations. If you find yourself in Michigan in the later part of September, consider traveling to the area around the Pere Marquette and Mackinaw State Forests in the northern part of the Lower Peninsula. A trip farther north into Ontario, Canada can provide excellent fall color with water features as a bonus. The peak time here is the same as the northeast.

Other eastern locations offering excellent color are The Great Smoky Mountains NP in Tennessee, Acadia NP in Maine, West Virginia's Canaan Valley and the Adirondack Mountains in New York.

The west provides a much different type of fall color photo opportunity. While the east has large expanses of many color variations, the west offers almost exclusively golden aspen and cottonwood with an occasional red highlight. These trees are mixed with dark green conifers and the majestic background of the Rocky, Sierra and Cascade Mountains. The color in the west moves with elevation, not just latitude as in the east.

Some of the best color in the Rockies is in southern Colorado's San Juan Mountains. The areas around Silverton, Ouray, and Telluride have been the fall destination of many photographers over the years. Further north in Wyoming, the Yellowstone and Grand Teton areas are alive with fall color in late September. Other western opportunities include the Cascade Mountains of Washington, the Columbia River Gorge of Oregon and Yosemite NP in central California.

There is a third area of color opportunity you may want to consider. The tundra and taiga forests of Alaska and northern Canada change color much earlier than the lower 48 and southern Canada. These lower lying plants and shrubs change to magnificent colors that can be great for tight shots and medium format work. Travel destinations of White Mountains NRA, Arctic NP and the Chatanika River are popular with fall photographers.

When planning your photography there are some geographic considerations you many want to think about. The east has large expanses of color but many overcast or hazy days. These atmospheric conditions provide better opportunities for close up, pattern or tight compositions. The west typically has more sunny days and higher contrast situations. These conditions often allow for "big" scenic photographs. These are just ideas and local conditions really determine best subject matter. The equipment needed for fall photography is fairly simple compared to some other types of outdoor and wildlife work. Your 35mm SLR with a 28mm wide-angle, a 50mm macro and a short to medium zoom telephoto should cover just about any situation. A tripod is a must because of the chances for low light and small aperture shots. Three other requirements are an 81A, an 81B and a polarizing filter. The 81 series filters can be used to add extra warmth to your photos when the available light is cold and flat. On sunny days the shadows are rich in blue light, so use the 81 series filters to add warmth to the reds in your subject. Polarizers are helpful for increasing the saturation of leaf colors and for darkening blue skies. Polarizers limit reflection from leaf surfaces. Believe it or not, leaves in the fall can be very shiny and the need to limit reflections is very real. Polarizers are more effective for sidelit subjects. Don't use 81 series and polarizers together as the added light/glass interfaces may degrade your images. Subjects for fall pictures are as varied as any photo endeavor. This is a double-edged sword. When venturing into the field in the fall, you must be careful in composing your shots so you don't have boxes of pretty pictures with no real "zip". As with any set of composition rules, the following ideas are for the "guidance of the wise."

One of the composition rules should never be violated; make sure that you have a central theme and a simple composition. In fall color work it is very tempting to include everything you see in one shot. The result is normally a very busy but dull photo. When looking for subjects, watch both the big picture and the small scene. Look at the forest floor as you walk. Think about such things as reflections, motion (long shutter speeds on windy days), small groups of leaves (odd numbers are better), close up of leaf details, wet leaves, straight up or down shots, back lit subjects and panoramas. If you find a road winding into the forest, try for an S curve originating at the lower left of the frame. Try shooting just after a storm clears or perhaps during the storm to catch snowflakes as streaks on your film (shutter speeds of 1/15 to 1/30 of a second give the most pleasing streaks).

As you plan your composition, keep in mind that the color catches your interest but the composition holds it! The artistic part of composition is really what moves you. The composition and exposure need to convey the feeling you have when you trip the shutter. Elements such as lines, shapes and forms should be strong. Take care with the separation or merging of objects. Watch the edges of the frame to ensure branches and tree trunks are not crowded or cut off. The use of selective focus can be strong or can create distracting out of focus foregrounds or backgrounds.

The logistics of a fall color photo trip can be as varied as the subject matter. Most states where fall color is worth the trip have a hot line phone number, a web page or both. Contact the tourist department of the states that interest you for details and numbers. As you prepare to head out, pack your camera equipment and include clothing for any weather. Fall has as much variability in weather as it does in foliage.