Words by Clive Nichols
If you only go on one picture-taking trip this month, use it to shoot trees. After a busy spring and summer, trees are turning their attention towards a long winter’s kip and, in doing so, go through a transformation that’s as photogenic as it is dramatic. Just about everyone with a camera will dust it off to capture the golden hues of autumnal trees so it’s up to you to go that extra mile to make your shots stand out. Here’s how.
Let’s start with some good news; we’re on target for having a cracking autumn display this year. The summer may have been wet and generally miserable, but all the rainfall is good news if you’re a tree. In an average year, fact fans, a tree drinks around 2000 litres of water, but this year the UK’s bark-wearing population have effectively been on a summer-long drinking session. The result? More growth, more leaves and a more eye-catching display.
PACKING THE ESSENTIALS
When it comes to shooting autumnal images, the good news is that you don’t need any specialised kit. An SLR with lenses covering focal ranges from wide-angle to short telephoto will suffice – you could even use a zoom compact if you felt so inclined. A macro lens will come in handy if you want to get some real details of leaves or bark, however.
A polarizing filter will come in handy to boost colours in blue skies and reduce reflections in any scenes containing water, while a warm-up filter could also be used to enhance the already orangey colours. These filters are available in both screw-in and system (square) varieties. Finally, make sure you have a sturdy tripod as light may be low.
In short, we may not have another year this good for a long time; make sure you maximise your opportunities. Of course, no one is too far away from a tree, so autumn colour will, quite literally, be on your doorstep. That said, while the trees in your local high street or park represent good subject matter for you to cut your teeth on, if you want to get some really cracking autumnal shots, you need to make the effort to travel to a worthwhile location.
There are plenty of botanical gardens, arboretums and Forestry Commission sites to choose from. Once you’ve found these locations, it’s worth staying in regular contact with them to get updates on how the trees are looking. Many of the larger locations will have a phone number to call so you can time your visit to perfection. When you do call, it’s worthwhile checking on the location’s tripod policy.
Most are photographer friendly, but it’s always worth making sure that you can use your three-legged friend. While it may seem that trees are displaying their autumnal shades for a number of weeks, the window of opportunity to get some good shots is actually surprisingly small. Generally speaking, mid-October to mid-November is the optimum time, but within that period, some species of tree will only look at their best for a matter of days.
You want the glorious colour without the leaves looking tatty or dishevelled, which they inevitably begin to as the season comes to an end. Keep an eye on trees in your locality and hope that when they are looking their best you get some weather to match. Speaking of the elements, you can capture great autumnal shots in almost any weather conditions.
It’s certainly true that for real drama you can’t beat a crisp, sunny morning or late afternoon with a cloudless blue sky, but overcast days can be equally productive for shooting close-ups; more on that later. You don’t have to be up at the crack of dawn or out too late, either. Leave an hour early for work, or plan to get in an hour late and you should hit the golden hours for shooting trees.
The time to avoid is the middle of a sunny day. Despite the fact that the sun is lower in the sky at this time of year, it’s still too harsh to deliver decent results. Your shots will have too much contrast and won’t show those wonderful colours off at their best.
Composition needs to be carefully considered. After all, if Mother Nature’s gone to all that effort to present you with a fantastic show, the least you can do is work hard to make the most of it. For groups of trees, you could go for an overall scene-setting shot or more of an abstract image, cropping in tightly on an area of the scene where there are plenty of variations in colour and tone.
Look out for man-made contrast as well that could be included as part of the composition for added interest. A brightly painted bench, shed or bridge can work particularly well. If you’re visiting an arboretum or garden, you may also find lines of trees that can also make for strong shots.
In short, take your time to look around; it’s very tempting to just snap away the moment you arrive, but exploring the full potential of your location will reap rewards. Single trees can sometimes work well in isolation, but the success of such shots is dependent on what’s around them. A solitary tree on top of a hill or in a field, for example, can look great against a deep blue sky. More often than not, however, you’ll get more success from a single tree if you get closer.
Standing underneath the tree and looking upwards can render some fine results, especially if the leaf colour is a real contrast to the blue sky behind it. Using this approach, you can either go for a general canopy shot, perhaps selecting a slow shutter speed to get some movement in the branches in leaves, or you could try cropping in close on a single leaf to reveal the complex vein structure.
Another popular shot with single trees is to crop in on the trunk, positioning it in the frame using the rule of thirds, then including the bottom third of the tree in the top of the frame. If the weather is bright but overcast, it’s time to shoot some details, either of the tree itself or the leaves on the floor. Tree bark can make a fascinating subject, particularly if you choose a species of tree that’s known for its attractive bark – birches, pine trees, cherry trees and sequoia are all notable in this respect.
The trick with successful bark detail shots is to look for patterns, not just shoot what you see. A macro lens isn’t essential for this type of closeup work – the close focus setting of a standard or telezoom lens will suffice. If you don’t want to shoot the tree itself, turn your attentions to the ground in the immediate vicinity. As leaves fall off the trees, they can create instant stilllife shots that require little or no ‘gardening’ to turn into great pictures.
Make sure you’re shooting good examples of leaves – not ones that have been eaten by insects – and make sure that you use a tripod and a small aperture to ensure front-to-back sharpness in your resulting images. You don’t really need an incentive to go out and shoot trees this autumn, but we’re going to give you one any way.
DO IT DIGITALLY
If you’re shooting digitally, you can boost autumnal colours without using any filters. If you have control over the camera’s colour temperature, set it around 5200K,which adds extra warmth to your shots. The same effect can be achieved by shooting in your camera’s Raw mode, then changing the colour temperature when processing the files. Also consider using Photoshop plug-ins – those that recreate the effect of Fuji Velvia slide film are good for autumn. I use Msoo Velvia; download it from soocool.com
Photographer Natalie Kinnear goes leaf collecting with her macro kit
If ever there was a time of year to get out and take a closer look at creepy-crawlies and blooms with your camera, May is it
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