Fall color: how to photograph autumn leaves and other seasonal images

How to shoot frosty leaf close-ups

How do you make the most of seasonal textures and tones? In this tutorial we answer some of the common questions on autumn photography and how to capture Fall color, as well as photograph some of the popular subjects like autumn leaves, wildlife and working with seasonal light.

Fall color: how to photograph autumn leaves and other seasonal images

Image by Howard Rice

Fallen leaves, frost, ice… it’s the season where close-up photo opportunities are abundant. Do I need a macro lens to do them justice?

Not always, no. Many lenses allow you to get close enough to small subjects in order to fill the frame.

But only true macro lenses will enable you to get 1:1 reproduction; that is, the subject can be captured at the same size by the camera sensor as it is in real life.

A subject that’s 2cm long will be reproduced at 2cm on the sensor when a macro lens is used at its closest focusing distance.

An APS-C sensor is just over 2cm wide, so you can see the potential for capturing richly detailed close-ups that ‘true’ macro lenses provide.

OK, I’m convinced. Is there anything I need to watch out for when shooting autumn close-ups?

When you’re shooting at the large magnification offered by a macro lens, the choice of aperture and shutter speed becomes crucial.

Switching to Aperture Priority or Manual mode and dialling in a small aperture (represented by a large f-number, such as f/16 or f/22) increases the depth of field. This means that more of the picture will appear sharp.

Small apertures let less light into the camera, and as a result the exposure time becomes extended.

If the shutter speed becomes too slow to hold the camera steady, then you’ll end up with a blurred photo.

The solution is to use a sturdy tripod, and this will ensure that you retain the sharpness that you’ve worked hard to achieve through careful focusing and choice of aperture.

Of course, a tripod won’t help if the subject’s moving around all over the place. The gentlest of breezes might as well be a hurricane when it comes to close-up photography – it doesn’t take much to make a dew-covered web shake, for instance.

The answer here is to use as fast a shutter speed as possible for the aperture you’ve set. In order to do this, you’ll need plenty of light, and you might need to consider using a higher ISO setting.

Our tip is to photograph delicate subjects early in the morning, when the air is generally more still.

This time of day usually coincides with the best light too, which is a bonus. It isn’t just landscape photographers who need to set their alarm clocks…

How to shoot Fall colors

You mentioned accurate focusing. Do you have any tips for using autofocus with close-up subjects?

Yes: try switching it off. When you’re dealing with macro photography, it’s best to use manual focus.
You may only be dealing with a depth of field – the area behind and in front of the point of focus that looks sharp – that extends for just a few millimetres.

If the autofocus system latches onto the tip of a leaf, for example, then this could result in the rest of the leaf being thrown completely out of focus.

There’s a technique you can use to ensure you get the sharpest focus possible with close-ups.

First, switch the lens or camera focus control to M or MF for manual, and twist the focus ring.

You’ll notice that the subject changes in size in the viewfinder as you do so. Once you’re happy with the magnification, gently rock the camera backwards and forwards to fine-tune the focus point.

Live View is another useful option that takes the stress out of macro manual focus (see above).

This is because it enables you to zoom in on a specific area of the subject to make sure that it’s pin-sharp as you manually focus.

You’ll find it easier to use this technique with the camera fixed to a tripod or monopod.

This shallow depth of field business sounds tough. Should I just set the narrowest aperture my lens offers to keep everything sharp?

Actually, you should avoid the narrowest aperture on your lens. Due to something called ‘diffraction’ (caused by the light passing through such a small hole), you’ll actually end up with soft pictures.

The ‘sweet spot’ of a macro lens’s aperture range is normally around f/16.

To maximise the depth of field and prevent parts of your subject appearing blurred, keep the back of the camera parallel with the subject.

It can be hard to judge what will appear sharp and what will appear blurred at the aperture you’ve set, because the image you see through the viewfinder is always displayed at the lens’s widest aperture.

So, press your camera’s Depth of Field Preview button to close down the aperture to the one you’ve dialled in. The image will be much darker, so your eyes will need a little time to adjust.

Using the Depth of Field Preview in this way can also help you to spot any distractions that you might have missed in the background of a shot.

Bright patches of sky, branches and other clutter can be brought into sharp focus with a small aperture, and can ultimately ruin a shot.

By turning the camera dial to select a wider aperture as you keep the Depth of Field Preview button held down, you’ll be able to judge the point at which these distractions become soft enough to be insignificant, while the subject stays sharp.

If I buy a macro lens, can I only use it for taking close-up pictures?

Dedicated macro lenses aren’t just for close-ups. They focus right through to infinity like any other lens, and their razor-sharp optics can deliver brilliant results with countless subjects.

For instance, a 100mm macro makes an ideal short telephoto lens on a full-frame camera body, and can be used for photographing everything from landscapes to portraits.

Fit the same lens on an APS-C SLR and you get the equivalent field of view of a 150mm lens.

Throw in the wide maximum aperture, and you’ve got a useful, fast telephoto that can be used for approachable wildlife and low-light action photography.

Autofocus performance can be slower at these greater distances, but macro lenses often feature a Focus Limiter switch so you can reduce the distance (and time) that the lens needs to focus.

PAGE 1: Common questions about how to shoot Fall color
PAGE 2: How to check focus with Live View
PAGE 3: How to shoot frosty leaf close-ups
PAGE 4: Necessary accessories for shooting Fall color
PAGE 5: Other ideas for shooting Fall color


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