Photographing fall foliage – backlighting

It’s the season when fall colors will soon be in full array, and that brings out the photographer in all of us.

First of all, the most important thing about fall colors (and any outdoor activity, for that matter) is to be present in the moment and enjoy it for what it is.

But if you do want to capture the beauty on your camera, here’s a couple of factors I’ve discovered, particularly when it comes to late-morning or early-evening lighting.

When the sun is low in the sky, you are presented with some opportunities for backlight photography. Backlight is just what it sounds like – the light source is behind, or in back of, the subject.

In the diagram above, I’ve identified three zones at which you can point your camera and achieve different results, all of them good depending on your intentions.

Pointing directly at the light source gives you direct backlight. In this setting, your foreground objects are often blackened out and silhouetted. If that’s your design, well and good. This especially looks great if you have fog among the trees and the sun is creating crepuscular rays. But it’s not the best angle for highlighting the fall colors that we’re after.

Crepuscular rays

At about 45° from the light source, the light is now a source of direct illumination. The sunlight is falling on the surface of the leaves that you see. With the sun low in the sky, colors are at their deepest as compared to midafternoon when the sun is high. At this point you have moved off backlighting. Starting at about 45°, the sun is increasingly behind you. You would want to get the sun behind you if you are photographing a hillside full of various colors.

My favorite zone of backlighting is partial backlight. This is just off the source of light, and what you are seeing here is not the light shining on the leaves, but the light shining through the leaves. This gives us the most brilliance in the colors, which pop in the photo. Notice in the top photo that it is in this zone that the hues are most vivid.

I hope this helps as you look for the right angle for shooting fall colors. Move around a bit so that you’re pointing somewhat toward the sun, but not directly! You’ll be surprised at the colors you see.

And as always, be an observer as well as a chronicler. Let the scene feed your soul!