International Garden Photographer of the Year's Philip Smith considers why autumn is such a good time to photograph gardens, plants and trees - and how to get the best out of the season's atmosphere.
Early this morning a Dipper was singing on the stream below our garden – they usually appear here much later in the winter - so this was a very prompt announcement that autumn is well on its way. And yes, the Liquidambar tree has just started to get its orange tinges.
One of my first professional assignments included photographing a beautiful Liquidambar tree in October on a sunny morning – I remember vividly the thrilling contrast between the bright blue sky and russet leaves.
Autumn in our northern latitudes is a wonderful time for photography. For one thing, you don’t have to get up so early in the morning to take advantage of early morning light. And what a light it is, with a crispness that is really exhilarating, especially when glinting on dew-laden flowers.
You can look for opportunities to back-light your subject – where the sun is in front of the camera - and create wonderfully atmospheric shots.
Chatsworth House (Image: Matthew Bullen - finalist IGPOTY 2008)
When you are out photographing – always look for where the sun is. I often stand still and just turn a complete circle – observing how the light is affecting the scene from different angles.
When a subject is lit from behind, the camera probably cannot cope with the wide range of contrast, and so it will make the front of the subject - the surface with no direct sun on it – much darker and more shadowy than it appears in real life. You can use a white reflector to bounce light back into the subject and this will ‘lift’ the shadows and give you more detail. Some people use flash to do this job – but I always find this too harsh even on the low settings, and I prefer the control and subtlety of reflectors.
Schizostylis (Image: Philip Smith)
This plant was photographed with the sun in front of the camera and against a dark background (pond water). It needed a white reflector to get detail back into the blooms. Without a reflector, the shadows on the petals would have become hard and 'blocky' - losing the delicacy of the shot.
But in the autumn, it’s really colour we are after. And not just tree foliage – at this time of year the garden is full of reds, oranges and yellows, with Crocosmia, Heleniums, and Schizostylis. This colour range always looks great when contrasted with the deep greens of late summer foliage.
Bee on Helenium; don't forget insects are busy on warm autumn days - and often a little 'sleepy' -so easier to snap! (Image: Philip Smith)
Other top tips
Keep an eye on the weather forecasts, and be ready to go out when conditions are right. Mist and even fog can give you some great shots. When it’s misty, be careful of your exposures as underexposure is quite common - as mist is so reflective it can trick your metering – just like with snow scenes. I use the histogram on my camera to check exposure, exposing to the right as far as possible without blowing highlights.
When you are photographing trees it’s often difficult to know how to frame the composition. Look for strong branch shapes and build the composition around that. Don’t be tempted to ‘squeeze’ the whole tree in unless it is part of a broad landscape. Pick out a part of the tree and work with that – or even a single leaf or twig.
Autumn Leaf (Image: Olegas Kurasovas - IGPOTY winner 4Seasons autumn category)
Remember that the effect of strong colours is to dominate the image - so handle with care. If your subject is – say, a sculpture with subtle greys and browns, don’t compose it next to a blazing autumnal tree – it will get visually lost.
I am leading a one day workshop at Wakehurst Place on 20 October where we will be looking further into autumn photography - especially trees and colour. Full details can be found here on the website.
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