Just in time, the coming fall prompted the trees and shrubs of the high country to host their annual “I Can Showcase a Better Color Than You” contest. It is a long and widespread competition with millions of participants. We’ll probably never know who won but, if you’re like me, you don’t care. This is the time of year when many contest judges like me will hop into our cars, SUVs and trucks to do our annual hike to places we haven’t seen since this time last year. We secretly hope to find this contest winner through the windows of our cars and through the lens of our cameras, cell phones, binoculars and spotting scopes.
Hundreds of spectacular colorful landscapes await those who wish to drive a bit, and hundreds more await those who wish to venture off the beaten track to seek out these less visible but equally beautiful places. And we all want to take home at least one great photo. I once attended a seminar hosted by the amazing John Fielder who taught me many principles for capturing great images. I will share a few of these basics in the hope that we all have a more enjoyable leaf viewing and photo capture experience.
One of the first concepts Mr. Fielder taught us was that light is everything. The harsh midday sunlight will tend to wash out what are normally very vivid colors. The recommendation is to make your trip early or late in the day to take advantage of the softer light. Some of my best color photos were when I was out hunting in the wee hours of the morning and found myself in the middle of a brilliant display of potential fall color contest winners. As the early morning lights increase, you find that every minute is a potential new photo, with each direction adding more choices to the mix. Then the first rays of the sun break the horizon and illuminate your world with a bright but soft light to further stimulate your senses and goals. Even more contest winners emerge.
A second concept is the rule of thirds in the frame. For landscape images, I like to try to provide the viewer with an almost even scale of sky, trees, and foreground. Most of us tend to center our main feature in the image. Come out of this mold and sometimes capture the feature on the sides. The support landscape can actually enhance your functionality and capture it as you see it physically. Always keep in mind the concept of the structure of thirds. Once you have mastered the concept of thirds, experiment with it a bit by reducing one side and increasing the opposite. An example would be to increase the part of the sky and reduce the foreground, especially if there are puffy white clouds providing great contrast in the sky.
Another concept to remember is that not all photos have to be at landscape scale. Remember that our eyes also see the little things. There may be a beautiful shrub that displays the winning colors of the competition but is surrounded by a very bland environment. Mike Blakeman calls this the “intimate landscape”. Get closer to this feature and let it shine on its own, letting its surroundings provide a muted contrast with the stunning colors it offers. You might be surprised when you come home and see this photo on a bigger screen and wonder who took it!
Finally, use clouds, shadows, cliffs, and even man-made elements to your advantage. A beautiful cluster of trees right next to an ugly pole barn is as beautiful as ever. Place your item in the frame with the frame just a millimeter outside the frame. No one will know but you. In a few years, you might even find this image without knowing where you took it!
No matter where you go and what time of day, there are always opportunities to capture stunning images of Colorado’s beautiful fall scenery. Competitors of trees and shrubs call all judges. Go ahead, vote and take lots of photos of their best efforts to win the annual fall color contest.
Gregg Goodland is the Public Affairs Officer for the Rio Grande National Forest. Passionate about the outdoors, you will find him on all public grounds as often as possible.