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My favorite fall color is before the trees have changed completely. Why? Because the color is transitional, there is still green for contrast, and the overall color situation is subtle and nuanced. This forces a photographer to stretch and not rely just on color to carry a photo.
I admit to being a nut about photographic composition. In my mind, nothing matters more than the nature of the light in a picture. Most fall leaf pictures are based on top lit leaves, and huge scale landscapes. I believe there are many more choices for expression. This entry is about those choices.
Explore Transmitted Light
I love the light that shines through fall leaves. To me this is often far more dramatic than the light that reflects off the top of more standard photos. Of course, with a little care it is possible to capture both types of light.
Early Fall Color Photography
On its face this picture looks like your standard color landscape photo, but a close look reveals the complexity of the light. It is cutting from the side, transmitting through the tops of leaves, and there are lots of shadows that animate all elements of the photo. It is about light -- it is all we have.
Get Up Close
The photo on the right is a perfect example of top lit leaves transmitting red light through them. With a little care, you can line up transmitted light with a very dark background for great contrast. This photo is not a wall hanger, but it is a pleasing colorist sort of picture. I think the very dark backdrop is essential to make the photo more expressive. Up close, the leaves become shapes as well as color.
I have not photoshopped this composition, but when I do, I would burn in (darken) the upper left corner of the photo to make the contrast more uniform.
I carefully composed the limbs as lines with sweetgum leaves lit all sorts of ways. It not only has complex color, it has a kind of elegant form. The main limb was carefully placed in the lower right corner and extending to the top left, and the branch was curving to the right was centered on the top third line.
Create Drama With Canopy Light
The picture on the left is another approach to early fall color. I shot this in the "sweet light" of evening. I found this half-turned tree illuminated and isolated from the surrounding woods. I like the way the dark, pops the light leaves out, and how the color gives it a nice kicker.
What I learn from a picture like this is to use early fall color to act as a kind of visual garnish. This photo would be pretty good without the color. The early fall color increases the interest. This is also a very long tonal scale photo. It would probably look pretty good as a black and white.
On the right is another back lit sweetgum. In photoshop I would darken down the lower right corner for more contrast. I think this picture has interest because of the many different colors from transmitted light. A single leaf is very brightly lit.
With a little work this photo could look pretty good, but personally I don't like this one as well as the photo above.
Use All The Tools
Just because its fall color doesn't mean we give up core compositional strategies. The picture on the right is a zoom back from the one above, with all the drama and color of filtered light.
Off hand I think this is a better composition than the picture above, but both are pretty good. The dark trunks of the trees provide powerful lines and a natural frame for the early fall color. To me at least, this is a photo that invites you in.
The Bottom Line
Fall color is wonderful, but as a photographer we can move beyond relying on the color alone to carry a photo. I would say as photographers we need to "kick it up a notch" and use all the tools we have at our disposal. Maybe I love early color because it forces the issue, and I still have use all the tools of line, light, form, long tonal scales and contrast to create a good photo.
The big point is that there is nothing to wait for. Great fall color photos can be taken now. I think early color photos hold their own with more conventional peak color photos. They offer unique challenges and opportunities stretch creatively and become a better photographer. Good shooting.
Early color with dramatic light, and strong lines via tree trunks. Use all the tools.
Canopy light with early fall color.
Lots of color, but compositionally weak. I would burn down the lower right corner
Early color and pretty good lines.