What you need
For regular suburban streets, a smartphone can actually do pretty much everything – the trick is to zoom in on the details rather than trying to take in a broader view.
For overseas travel, a regular kit lens will do fine, though longer zooms like Nikon 18-105mm are better. A DSLR isn’t essential because you can get the same kinds of shots on any camera with a zoom lens. A DSLR’s bigger sensor can give a more defocused effect to backgrounds, and manual control of the lens aperture will help too, but neither is essential – the main thing is to have a good eye for light and colour and a willingness to pay a little more attention to the details.
One more tip: set your camera’s white balance to its ‘Daylight’ or ‘Direct sunlight’ preset to fix the colour balance to a neutral daylight setting. Autumn colours play havoc with the auto white balance settings on cameras.
1. Blue Sky and Foliage
The brilliant blue sky can make a beautiful contrast with the yellow, red and gold colours of autumn leaves. Framing the vibrant sunlit autumn colours through the branches and point your lens up towards the clear sky; don’t worry too much even if there are a few white clouds.
The different the position you are in and the angle you are shooting, the different the colour tone and brightness of the sky, so walk around and snap until you get your desired effect. If you face away from the sun the sky will be bluer, but if you aim the camera more towards the sun the leaves can take on a luminous, semi-transparent appearance which looks more vibrant. Using a small aperture can create a sun star, and a wider zoom setting will give you more pronounced tonal gradation across the sky and it lets you capture the shape of the tree and its foliage.
2. Put the Leaves on Spotlight
Set up a contrasting background, such as cleaning away the rubbish and unwanted add-ons on the road and put the fallen leaves or the one perfect leaf into the dark shades, or even take them home. Focus only on the leaves and the colour of red and yellow will truly stand out. This will be even much easier if you use the lens’s maximum zoom setting because this has the effect of making the background larger in proportion to your subject. With a longer focal length it’s a lot easier to find the perfect patch of colour or shade in the background; you may have to move a pace or two one way or the other to get the alignment just right. Another way is to make the background go out of focus. The usual advice is to use the widest lens aperture, but most kit lenses only open up to around f3.5-5.6 – it’s a start, but there is more you can do.
First, zoom right in to the lens’s longest focal length; the longer the focal length, the shallower the depth of field. Second, get as close as you can – the shorter the focus distance, the shallower the depth of field. If you do these two things, you can get defocused backgrounds even with compact cameras with small sensors.
Close up on the details will help to make your leaves come to life too. The kit lens on a DSLR or high quality Compact Camera will have a minimum focus distance that stays the same whatever zoom setting you use; so use the longest zoom setting to get the maximum magnification, or use the macro or close-up mode if you are using a smartphone. Also, since the autumn leaves are often translucent, pick one up and put it against the light, this will help revealing its delicate veins beautifully. Again, you can try with different angle to test out the effect.
3. Cover the Whole Nature Scenery
If there’s a water surface, make a mirror reflection. Windless conditions are critical for achieving mirror-like reflections of autumn colour in water. But an uninterrupted mirror can create too static a picture. Therefore, try looking for rocks or logs in the water to break up the reflection and to provide a visual anchor to help strengthen your composition. Also, try taking the shots when the sun is not too bright to make a more dramatic image.
On the other hand, you can scatter the leaves with attention to the colour distribution. Scatter them in background of contrasting colouring or near the waters can give create a great impact. Bear in mind that colour, rather than the trees and leaves, is the key when you are trying to take in the whole “autumness” of nature. The contrast of different colours and tones is what makes your image appealing and breath-taking.
Moreover, remember that there are also plenty of other flora that take on autumn hues. Keep an eye for every little wonder that happens in the surroundings.
To sum up, remember 3 points, colour contrast, change of angle and lighting, and focused or whole picture. Play around with these three points and you will be able to take great photos of foliage 🙂