Story and photos by Derek Doeffinger
I confess: I have a love/hate relationship with autumn.
In fact, I hate autumn because I love it. The beauty of autumn makes it irresistible. Almost addictive.
And I hate that. Like a box of Ho-Hos, I can’t resist it. The beauty of autumn infuses you with a pleasant, almost euphoric, feeling. How? By making it seem incredibly easy to get good pictures. It fills you with the satisfaction of success. Everywhere you look, a masterpiece scene seems to leap into your arms and camera. But is it photographically nutritious? Or is autumn only teasing and taunting your camera’s taste buds with sweet but empty visions? Exotic, exhilarating, but equally elusive and exasperating – that’s autumn.
This year, I suggest we take a new approach. Let’s not chase only the fabulous incandescent colors waving to us from every hillside, gorge and valley, but rather find the individual subjects that symbolize autumn. Let’s track down the icons of autumn and use them to represent the season that so many of us favor.
What subjects could become the icons of autumn? Many can slip into that role. I’ll suggest a few but I expect you’ll come up with even better ideas.
Storm clouds gathering
Cold fronts, cold nights and cold French fries all strike the fear of winter into me. And what better reveals the essence of autumn than its ability to give us the psychological shivers?
So when a cold front blowing out of Canada is forecast, I jump into the car and greet it warmly with my camera. The dark clouds and spotted sunshine that surge across the land, polishing both bright and dull colors, invigorate landscape and scenic photos, and foretell the frigid days to come. If you want to emphasize the clouds and the sun-spattered landscape, drive to open spaces and vistas that expand the sky and the land beneath it.
Frost is your friend
And when the cold front passes through, the following day is often calm and clear, signaling that the first frost may well appear the next morning. Be ready. Early in the morning, step into the backyard or a nearby meadow and start photographing before the rising sun melts the frost. If you’re using a DSLR, consider a tripod for sharp pictures while using slow shutter speeds (or set a high ISO like 800 and a shutter speed of 1/125 second or faster). Try to find a subject and angle that gives you a plain background that doesn’t distract from the frost crystals. Frost sparkles most when it’s backlit (sun shining in your face when you’re taking the picture). Leaves, milkweed pods, timothy stems and sometimes even a spider web dazzle with teeth of frost rimming their borders.
Fruits of the harvest
Seek out the last bounty of summer. Early autumn abounds with the last fruits while the heart of autumn features root vegetables. Emotionally, autumn arouses anxiety. It’s the last chance to gather and store food for the long winter ahead. That urge to pick and store may have lessened thanks to the long line of trailer trucks unloading at supermarkets every week, but its ancestral tug still surfaces in those of us who hope the next frost won’t kill off the last of our tomato plants. Roadside stands, farmers’ markets, farm fields and vineyards all abound with activity. And, of course, no subject calls forth autumn better than the pumpkin, be it in a field, at a stand, on a doorstep, or in the tight embrace of a four-year-old.
Study the meadows and fields
The color change in meadows and fields surprises with subtle sophistication. Don’t expect to find garish reds and oranges. Instead, seek out the subtle yellowish brown of aging golden rod, the tawny tones of timothy and milkweed, and the royal accents of asters. Cloudy days best reveal subtle tones, and you should try to anchor the picture with a fence post, small boulder, a log or abandoned tractor.
Color in the air, color everywhere
There are always a few days in mid-October so glorious that they inspire and infuse you with the joy of being in the flow of the universe. These are the days to soak in the saturated colors and to yield to the clichés of autumn by finding the brightest colors glowing beside a small stream, next to a church steeple or rustic barn and photograph to your heart’s content. If you have a polarizing filter, attach it and rotate it to darken blue skies and further intensify the already bright colors. However the pictures turn out, the moments of taking them will assure your return the same time next year.
Leaf piles aren’t just for kids
The most fun icon may be the leaf pile, autumn’s version of being buried in sand at the beach. It’s most likely your own kids or your neighbor’s will jump at the chance to jump into one. But if kids aren’t around, draft a spouse or friend into a little leaf frolicking. You may want to stoop down a bit for a lower angle when antics of leaf jumping and leaf tossing ensue. And it’s a good time to play with both fast and slow shutter speeds. A slow shutter speed of 1/8 to 1/15 second (hold that camera extra steady) will blur the motion, making it work well when the person is relatively still but leaves are moving (maybe an accomplice pouring a basket full of leaves onto somebody’s head). Fast shutter speeds, such as 1/500 or 1/1000 second, can freeze flying bodies just before they splash into the pile of leaves.
But don’t limit yourself to my suggestions. Instead, photograph the things that mean autumn to you.