How to Shoot the Fall

Scenery in the Finger Lakes can be overwhelmingly beautiful in autumn, “overwhelmingly” being the operative word here, especially if you’re a photographer. Everything looks so good, thanks to the crisp, cool air and vibrant colors, that it’s often difficult to choose subjects and scenes that, when translated photographically, impact viewers the most. The impulse is to simply capture whole panoramas on film. While that’s okay – big broad landscapes can be wonderful – expert photographers recommend finding a focal point.

“Actually, taking shots like that is almost always not okay,” cautions Monroe Payne, a professional photographer based in Ithaca. “Yes, you’ll get a pretty picture of leaves, but the eye needs a path to follow to the subject. The geometric shapes in your composition – the diagonals, obliques and circles – serve as that path. Focus on one thing and bring it into the composition. The rule of thumb is ‘simplify, simplify, simplify.’

You can choose a subject based on its texture, colors, unique shape and/or notable size. If you put it in the foreground, a little off-center, you can use foliage as your backdrop. Doing so adds depth to your composition and provides “the story” of your picture. “The leaves in the Finger Lakes are beautiful in the fall, but they have to be put in context,” says Payne, “They’re not as interesting or exciting on their own compared to, say, leaves in a puddle and the geometric shapes they form.”

Featuring distinct contrasts in both color and in brightness should also be your goal. As an example, Payne mentioned the vivid colors of autumn leaves set against the deep blue of Keuka Lake. “If you don’t have contrast, your picture will look muddy,” he said. “The only time in which low contrast is good is when you want a picture of a foggy morning.”

In addition to taking photographs set against the lakes, Payne recommends taking advantage of the area’s lesser-known parks. He listed Connecticut Hill Wildlife Management Area in Newfield, Hector Land Use Area, Havana Glen Park in Montour Falls, and Myers Point Park in Lansing, “a Mecca for sunset photographers.”

Canandaigua photographer Steve Chesler looks forward to using fall scenes as backdrops for his unique portraits and wedding photographs. The change of seasons gives him a second wind. “First of all, it’s simply more comfortable to work outside, compared to the heat and humidity of summer,” he noted. “Toward the end of August, colors are lovely. Grass has gotten progressively darker green since spring, and the blue of the sky is so much more noticeable. In the summer, it’s too hazy to shoot the sky – it just looks white in photographs. In the fall, I extend the scenery to include the sky because we can get deep blues contrasted with fluffy white clouds.”

On the downside, fall weather in the Finger Lakes can make outdoor shoots unpredictable, and an overcast day can flatten a picture right out. “In the summer, direct sun creates weird shadows and makes people squint, among other things. We can work with a cloudy day in the summer, but in the fall we want the sun to light the leaves nicely,” said Steve.

Bad weather can actually work in your favor during what photographers refer to as “the magic hours,” the time before sunrise and again before sunset when the sun is within a few degrees above or below the horizon. A magic hour/storm combination can result in a strong and dramatic once-in-a-lifetime shot.

Because the days are shorter in the fall, the ideal lighting of the magic hours occurs later in the morning and earlier in the evening. Also, depending on your location, they may become longer or shorter. When the sun sets, don’t be too quick to put away your camera. The best light of the day sometimes happens shortly thereafter.


by Tina Manzer