How to Get Your Fall Color Images to Look Like the Fall Colors You See
The leaves are changing once again. It can be hard to capture the experience of being there, but if you want to get shots of them, they are unlikely to wait for you. Now is the time. Here are some tricks to help you get the best images you can.
At least in the Pacific Northwest, the weather tends to be unpredictable this time of year. It is often overcast. The only question is, is it actually raining, or just threatening too. When we actually have a stretch of sunny weather, people rush out to enjoy it. Some of them take cameras to photograph the fall colors, but this can actually be a far worse time to do than shooting when it looks like it might rain any minute. Overcast, even lighting is much more flattering to fall leaves than is direct sunlight. Harsh lighting creates a jumble of confusion. It also causes you to lose some of the impact you are after when colored leaves end up rendered as pure black shadow or burned out white reflections. If color is what you are after, start with lighting conditions that make your job easier.
Use a Polarizer
Most photographers know that shooting with a polarizer can help improve color saturation, but few really understand why that is so. Everything we see reflects light. Indeed, that's precisely why we can see things at all. Objects that reflect no light appear black. Some objects have irregular surfaces and reflect light randomly, in all directions, while others act more like mirrors and reflect light predominately in just a single direction. The relatively flat surfaces of leaves act somewhat like mirrors, especially when wet with rain or morning dew. Leaves rarely reflect light in a coordinated, cooperative manner with each other but instead face every which way, causing reflected light to cut contrast throughout the scene. Since a polarizer works to block light that isn't aligned with its axis of polarization, it allows you to cut out the majority of these stray reflections, making the light that does reach your camera sensor appear purer in color and thus more saturated. By blocking some light it does cost you up to two stops but thankfully modern cameras do reasonably well at higher ISO settings. The days when those two stops of light could cost you the shot if the wind blew are thankfully behind us.
Just as a polarizer over your lens can help you get the color you are after, wearing polarized sunglasses can help you spot the best shots more quickly. The same principles that let your camera see more saturated colors also apply to let you see more saturated color. And if you see more color, you will be able to find good shots when others might just walk right on by, unaware of what they are missing.
If you shoot raw, you can generally skip worrying about in camera white balance since you can adjust it easily later. If you work in jpeg though, white balance can have more of an impact on what you end up with. Many photographers set their cameras on automatic white balance and let the camera deal with all the resulting issues. With fall colors though, or with any subject with a prominent color you want to capture rather than neutralize, automatic white balance is best avoided. In fact, if you want to enhance the warmer hues naturally found in fall colors, set your white balance to "overcast" or some similar "cooler" setting.
Skip the Enhancing Filter
For some situations, didymium glass and other exotic element camera "enhancing" filters can be very useful in much the same way as polarized sunglasses just described, but I'd suggest resisting the temptation to shoot fall leaves with one. Such filters typically boost red colors more than other hues, and unless you have a lot of experience using these filters, it is all too easy to push things too far. Walk around looking for shots with one if you must, but don't put it in front of your lens. A polarizer helps capture color you would miss without one, but an enhancing filter merely exaggerates color you can capture without. You can get much more pleasing results if you do this sort of image optimization in the digital darkroom on your computer rather than trying to do so in the field.
Vibrance, Not Saturation
Now that you've hopefully captured what you were after in the field, it's time to make it look like you remember it when you were there. But the wide open spaces sometimes don't lend themselves to being confined to a photographic frame, and the mind sometimes exaggerates in how it remembers scenes that have an impact on us. A bit of optimization in Photoshop can help make what might be a strictly literal interpretation of a scene look like we think it should, based on what we remember. This sort of optimization isn't really lying to the viewer, if done properly it's merely an effort to convey the full emotional impact of what it was like to be surrounded by the glory that nature can create. We experience the world as a composite of all our senses, assembled into a whole by our brains. A photograph though has to rely on sight only to impart its message to a viewer, and just as someone who has lost other senses naturally has a heightened sense of those that remain, a tad of image optimization can serve to offset the loss of those other senses in the mind of the viewer.
But how you do that can make the difference between whether the result seems natural and pleasing or surreal and exaggerated. Traditionally, Photoshop users would boost saturation much as film photographers used to by the use of Velvia and other super saturated films. But using Vibrance instead of Saturation allows you to avoid boosting colors that are already doing fine on their own. Vibrance proportionally affects colors to the degree that they need help. Less saturated colors get boosted more than ones already saturated. You can avoid going over the top when using a Vibrance adjustment much more easily than you can with the Saturation slider.
Levels and Other Basic Edits
Just as you should for other types of shots, don't forget to employ good techniques when working on images of fall color. Vibrance doesn't take the place of Levels, curves and other basic editing techniques.