Fall is starting to find its way to the railbelt. The leaves on the hardwood trees are turning yellow and orange (and turning loose), the cranberry bushes are turning deep red, setting the Chugach Mountains on fire with their crimson glow, and the peaks are starting show the first signs of powdery white termination dust.
As a photographer, fall is one of my favorite times of year to grab my slingpack and hit the woods. I’ve made two such outings in the last week, one around Cheney Lake and another to the south end of Russian Jack Springs Park. There’s so much to photograph, great colors and textures and lots of living creatures making last minute preparations for the long winter.
Capturing good images this time of year can be a challenge however. There are a couple of essential pieces of equipment that I pack around with me to make the task easier. While I believe that a camera, like any tool, is only as good as the skilled hands that hold it, these additions will give you more control over your end product. They include a graduated neutral density filter, a circular polarized light filter, and a monopod.
First, I’ll talk about the graduated neutral density (or “grad”) filter. A grad filter has two sides, a dark, tinted side and a clear side. The filter gradually changes from dark to light as you move from one end of the filter to the other. They come in a wide variety of types; some are darker than others, some screw directly on the lens, while others are glass plates the slide into a special holder, and some substitute the “neutral gray” for a variety of colors.
For the work that I do, I find that a simple Tiffen ND 0.6 screw on filter suffices pretty well. The purpose of this grad filter is to darken areas of the image so that the light is balanced out better across the whole image. This comes in real handy when shooting wide angle landscapes on a sunny day.
By lining up the dark half of the filter across the top of the lens, you reduce the amount of light coming into contact with the sensor. This allows you to take a longer exposure, bringing out more light in the foreground. It’s not just useful for sunny skies however. It can also be flipped upside down.
In the images below, the trees in the background are darker than the grass and water in the foreground. Rotating the filter 180 degrees balances out the lighting.
Getting the lighting right as it hits the sensor takes a lot of work out of the editing process later. I like to use this filter anytime I’m fighting against a bright light source, rotating the dark portion of the filter towards the source of light. It can add an interesting dynamic to the image, having that shade taper in from the same angle as the light.
Another handy filter for shooting outdoors this time of year is a circular polarizing light (CPL) filter. This filter is like sunglasses for your camera. It reduces glare and filters down the spectrum of light. CPL filters take some experimenting to master, and will work differently depending on the amount of light, the direction it’s coming from, and the sources of glare. In playing with mine I’ve developed a few tricks. Screw the CPL on to the lens body then put on a pair of polarized sunglasses.
Staring down the front of the lens body, rotate the filter slowly until the lens turns black. Scratch a mark (I use a pen knife) on the ring of the filter at the top, then turn the filter 90 degrees and make a different scratch mark. The second mark is the optimal location for blocking out light reflecting off water directly in front of you. The first mark is better for side glare.
The reason this works is pretty simple. Polarized light is basically light that has been passed through a series of slats, like light passing through window blinds on an atomic level. When you place two polarized filters at 90 degrees to each other, all light is effectively filtered out. When you’re taking pictures, you can rotate between the two marks to find the Goldilocks spot that lets in just the right amount of light. The result is being able to see through water or glass glare in ways that would otherwise be impossible.
Like anything, experimentation is key. Below is a series of images taken with all camera settings held constant, but I rotated through different combinations of the two filters for each shot. These images are otherwise unedited.
Last of all I like to have a monopod with me. Monopods are lighter and easier to carry than a full tripod and double as a convenient walking stick. The monopod gives stability so that I can take longer exposures while minimizing blur from cold shaky hands. When shooting images low to the ground or on slopes, angle the monopod away from you for extra stability. Just be careful to keep it out of the field of view!
And those are my best tips for fall photography. Be sure to get out and enjoy the colors while they last, because in Alaska they won’t last long!!