The Grass Is Not Always Greener....

By Michael J. Hickey

So you want to go out and explore the wonderful Fall colors with your cameras.  Good for you! So do I!! My first response would be to BRING THE PASSION! Without it, your pictures will show it.

Believe me,  I've seen way too many images that looked like the photographer felt that they SHOULD have taken the picture, as opposed to WANTING to take the picture.  There is a very big difference there.

OK, now that you've decided that you're ready to get out there and enjoy the magic of Mother Nature, where to go? For many people, the immediate thought would be to go to the most famous, or biggest National Park and shoot. And they wouldn't be wrong; but they wouldn't necessarily be right either. Many factors come into play when arranging a photo excursion. You could have a week-long vacation planned for Yosemite National Park, only to realize that when you arrive Nature isn't cooperating! We've probably all been there, done that. Like they say, the best laid plans...

Staying close to home can be exceptionally rewarding for many reasons.  First, it saves a good deal of money and in the current economy, that is for many people a necessity.  Second, it forces us to develop and polish our photographic eye since we don't have the Tetons or Rockies right at our doorsteps. And third, it helps us to become more intimately involved in our own neighborhoods. It's all good! You can literally go on a photo vacation less than an hour from home or several hours from home and you're not required to spend the night.

Personally, I've been as far south as the Great Smoky Mountains, and as far north as Acadia National Park. Both of these places are simply amazing in any season. Images are everywhere. But I've also been to Ricketts Glenn State Park, and the Washington Crossing Historic Park area. Ricketts is only a three hour drive, while the Washington Crossing area is a mere 20 minutes away from our home. I've come away with almost as many memorable images locally as I have from the Smokies.  The single factor is that I've been to the Smokies more often than some of these local photo spots.  So I'm actually giving advice to MYSELF in this article, as well. Even your own backyard can be a joyous photographic adventure. All it takes is the desire to look. One of my favorite philosophies in life came from the book, The Tao of Photography, and it says "I don't want to shoot new things, I want to see things new".  That ties in to another one of my favorite statements from Dr. Wayne Dyer: "When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change". I get goosebumps every time I feel these sentiments! Trust me, they apply to photography and to life.

Now that you've decided to stay local and have a place in mind, when to go? For me, this one's easy.  When looking for Fall foliage, do a small amount of research.  Check to see when the foliage will be at its peak for your desired area.  Simply googling FALL COLOR PA will get some answers; also many areas have fall color hotllines or websites. The next step would be deciding what time of day to go. I'd suggest arriving before sunrise! That way you have the entire day to explore and roam freely. And since you're local, the thought of waking at such an early hour shouldn't bother you too much. I used to be the guy who slept unitl 11 am on weekends.  Then my intrepid brother-in-law, Gary Fink, took Janet and I for a pre-sunrise shoot.  I literally 'saw the light'. It changed the way I looked at things....and the rest is history!! Thank you, Gary.

So there you are, loving every second of being at your local hotspot, creating image after image and wondering, possibly, how can I make these images SING?  For me, the lighting dictates the subject matter, period. Great photographs require at least three things working in concert: subject, composition, and lighting. Lighting is by far the most important. I've seen images where the subject was phenomenal, the composition powerfully exciting, but the lighting was poor. Result: mediocre image at best.  And on the flip side, I've seen a boring subject that was composed poorly, but the lighting was absolutely stunning. Result: great image. It's the lighting that brings the image over the top. It is that magical 'thing' that makes the image SING.

When you want your images to have that extra 'something' to immediately grab the viewer's attention, here are some tips to accomplish this:

  • Make SURE you're paying attention to the lighting conditions; do your research.
  • When you feel it's time to begin making images, ask yourself, even aloud if necessary (I do this, I really do!) - "Why am I taking this picture?"  Really, what is it that makes you excited about the subject? You've taken all the necessary steps to get to this location which has great potential for photographic excellence, so now it's time to get to it.
  • The lighting will dictate my focal point. DeWitt Jones said: "If you planned on shooting waterfalls, but Nature is giving you a lakeside sunrise, shoot the sunrise!" Work with Nature! That's his way of saying the lighting dictates his subject matter.
  • Grab the attention of the viewer: I like to use the lighting to my benefit by accentuating the positives. If you have overcast conditions, the colors are going to be extra saturated.  There's a downfall to this. Overcast skies are DULL!! They appear either gray, or even white, regardless of film or digital medium.  And that sky, if included in your image, is going to demand the attention of the viewer's eye...not the wonderful colors that you had intended on shooting in the first place! So my advice is do not include the sky at all. I call this choice the 'intimate' landscape image. You've focused the viewer's eyes solely on the colors, and hopefully included your dynamic composition, and not the distracting sky.
  • Use a polarizing filter! The polarizer eliminates glare from wet surfaces, such as leaves, rocks, etc., and enhances colors in a huge way. I would recommend using a polarizer especially during, or right after, a rainfall. This is especially helpful when you're photographing subjects such as streams, rivers, or lakes that are surrounded by foliage. If you are shooting these types of subjects, the polarizer will lengthen your shutter speed by two stops.  This will result in a longer exposure which gives the flowing water a silky, ethereal appearance.
  • If you have a bright sunrise on your hands, you can use the first 30-45 minutes of that golden light to your advantage. Watch what the rising sun is illuminating. Whatever that rising sun is shining on, it will be a gorgeous warm-toned, glowing subject. Now it's just up to you to compose it, and expose it, as you see fit!

By no means are the above tips a comprehensive list. I've only included several to get you started, and hopefully excited about reconsidering your own neighborhood as a potential gem. I don't have the space in this article to go into exposure and compositional variations.  That I will save for another article. What I'm trying to convey with this article is simply this - use what Nature is giving you, and don't fight it; the magic can be found anywhere - you just have to be there!

Below I've included three images taken locally, with my thought process behind the making of each...


This maple tree was taken at Washington Crossing State Park several years ago. I was very much intrigued by the overall shape of this gorgeous tree, so I decided to accentuate the strong graphic lines of its branches and trunk by using a 20mm wide angle lens. Because it was bright overcast, the polarizer didn't have a positive effect (it would have if it were just after a rain, however) - so I shot without the filter. I used the fullness of the tree's leaf cover to obscure the offensive sky; if I had shot this straight on, the brightness of the sky would've taken the viewer's eye completely out of the image. The reason I shot looking upwards was because of the 'umbrella' shape of the branching of the limbs. I placed the dominant trunk far to the right, allowing for a pleasing flow of the limbs to comfortably fall equally throughout the frame, achieving an aesthetic balance. Notes: To achieve maximum sharpness, I shot this image at f/16. Because the overcast was bright, the shutter speed, even at f/16, was still relatively fast at 1/60th of a second, which kept all the leaves sharp.


This stream image was made at Ricketts Glenn State Park some years ago. We had arrived there before sunrise so we could be at our location before the sun would be high enough in the sky to make this image an impossibility due to harsh highlights caused by direct sunlight on this scene. Plus, the beauty of arriving before sunrise is that you just might happen to witness fog rising off your stream! In this case, as luck would have it, we did just that....the fog was clearing, and the sun wasn't yet high enough in the sky to ruin the low contast of the scene. And, as we all know, fog enhances the mood of any image. This image was also made with the 20mm wide angle lens - this time with a polarizer, for two reasons: to enhance the colors of the rocks and leaves (which were wet from the overnight dew), and to give me a longer exposure (around 4 seconds) to artistically blur the flowing water. I set up my tripod low to the ground to give a more personal, intimate glimpse into the life of the stream. I used the fallen, colorful leaves in the foreground to bring the viewer's eye into the scene...Notes: I needed full depth of field, so I shot at f/16. Becuase of the small aperture and the use of the polarizing filter, it resulted in my 4-second exposure. Luckily, the wind was very low, which allowed the leaves in this image to still remain sharp, despite the long exposure time.


This intimate landscape image was made at the Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve area, directly to the right of the old barn.  I was totally impressed with the contrasts of textures and colors of this scene. To get this compacted viewpoint, I used my 70-300mm lens, set at around 250mm. I love to make Fall images including the four primary colors of the season: red, green, yellow, and orange. This shot has bits of all of them. What I'm most pleased about is the strong graphic interplay of the white sycamore treetop and the dark gray treetop to the left. I didn't want the eye-catching white to be placed directly in the center, which I feel would've made for a much less exciting composition. The bright Fall colors are supporting the intricate, detailed lines and shapes of the foreground treetops to create a classic impression of the season. This image was shot in full overcast lighting, which made for the perfect combination of low contrast and high saturation. Notes: I didn't use the polarizer on this one, because of the dry conditions - I tried it, but it didn't pop the colors, so I chose not to use it. As for settings, to achieve maximum sharpness, and still maintain good depth of field, I shot at f/11. My shutter speed was approximately 1/8th of a second, which was no problem here, because there was little to no breeze to cause any unacceptable blurring of any components of this image.

Last Updated on Saturday, 12 February 2011 19:09