'Autumn's Delight', Black Springs Bakery, Victoria
Summer has only just drawn to a close, yet there is an unmistakable change in the air. Can you feel it? As we enter March, the wonderful long days of January and February begin to fade, the nights grow chilly and amidst the crisp autumnal air, shades of gold and red slowly transform our cities, parks and small country towns. While I will miss summer's warmth and my late afternoon rides along the river, I am excited by the possibilities the dynamic seasons of autumn, winter and spring promise. These are my favourite days for photography, as the landscape so dormant over summer, suddenly awakens.
As I look forward to once again donning my pack and wandering in search of wild light, I thought it would be fun to share some autumnal photographs, stories and a few general tips for the coming season.
When is Autumn at its Best?
Although autumn spans the months of March, April and May I have learnt the hard way that autumn colour is not predictable, as the timing of the best colour will vary significantly between specific trees, locations and even from year to year. A long warm summer could delay the onset of autumn colour well into May, while an early onset of cold weather could bring out the best in our trees early. When trees do finally change, their best colour may last a week or as little as a day, their foliage prematurely dislodged by strong winds. If you have a favourite autumn location, it is best to visit often. It would be a shame to miss the best colour by a day or two and have to wait another year.
I find timing to be one of the more challenging aspects of landscape photography in autumn, particularly if lengthy travel times to distant locations are involved. While we have little control, we can seek advice from locals and hope for the best.
A few years ago I set out on a 17 hour journey to the New England district of New South Wales, hoping to photograph Gostwyck Chapel. To be on the safe side, I called ahead and was advised by a local motel that the chapel currently had its best autumn cover in years. Unfortunately, the day I headed north a cold front passed through bringing heavy rain and strong winds. The following morning as I watched the chapel emerge from the darkness, my heart sank. A carpet of red lay on the ground, with the chapel seemingly stark and bare. Fortunately, my disappointment was short lived as only one wall had been stripped. A healthy cover of Boston ivy had survived the wind and rain.
'Going to the Chapel', Gostwyck, New South Wales
Side lighting, particularly during the golden hours of sunrise and sunset weaves a wonderful tapestry of light and shade. Softer and richer in colour than during the summer months, this gorgeous light accentuates the autumn colour, drawing out hidden textures and adding a depth to our images.
On my visit to the New England district I had the opportunity to photograph Gostwyk Chapel over several days in varying conditions. It wasn't until the third morning, as the sun rose over a nearby hill in a sky free of cloud that the early morning light brought life and depth to this special scene.
While I will often avoid photography in harsh midday lighting, due to intense highlights and near black shadows, it can actually bring out stunning colour in the right subject. Evenly lit deciduous trees with little shadow, like this little liquid amber near Myrtleford can work well.
Overcast light is particularly beautiful for subjects which never experience the kiss of golden hour, set deep within a garden or forest and shrouded in shadow. The soft light filtering through the clouds and into the forest reduces the contrast, opening shadows and reducing bright highlights while bringing the scene within the capabilities of our sensors and film. Often, even our eyes will notice details which would have been otherwise missed in a scene bathed in brilliant sunlight and deep shadow.
Surrounded by towering gums and located at the end of a steep descent, the ornamental boat house and lake in the Alfred Nicholas Gardens on Mount Dandenong benefit greatly from soft overcast light. Captured on a cold May afternoon on the return leg of a trip to Tasmania, this shot reminds me of the patience required when photographing landscapes. Although the forecast called for a mostly overcast day, the clouds parted just as I took my first shot for the morning, ruining my exposure. I then spent hours waiting for a brief patch of cloud to pass overhead. When the clouds did finally return, the shadows were still so deep, I had to take a second exposure to bring out the details behind the fern on the left.
'A Secret Garden', Alfred Nicholas Gardens, Victoria
Embrace Inclement Weather
The weather during autumn can be wet, wild and at times unpredictable. Although we have a natural aversion to getting wet and are likely to head for the nearest cafe when the heavens open, inclement weather has a wonderful way of clearing the air and unlocking an intense colour hidden in otherwise dry foliage and trunks. While heavy rain may make photography impossible, I like to wait it out under a large golf umbrella and, more often than not a break in the weather will appear. When the rain stops for that brief moment, my camera is already set up, allowing me to capture the scene, as I did one cold morning outside Beechworth gaol. After hours of waiting I finally had my shot, and a week later these trees had dropped their leaves.
Beechworth Gaol incidentally, is famous for its connection with Ned Kelly, his gang, family and friends. It looks beautiful during autumn, from the outside!
More to Autumn than Leaves
With the vibrant displays of colour soon to erupt across our southern states, it is easy to forget the other opportunities which autumn offers. The high country for example, is a particularly wonderful place to visit during autumn. Snow gums shed their bark and when wet, offer their own spectacular show of colour. As the occasional cold front brings rain, wind, fog and the early sprinkling of snow, places like the Bogong High Plains, Hotham or Dinner Plain offer much to the photographer.
I have to confess I do have a special place in my heart for snow gums, in particular those around Wallace Hut on the Bogong High Plains. Sadly, the elements and years have taken their toll, and these old trees are now falling in heavy winds.
'Seldom Seen', Wallace Hut, Falls Creek, Victoria
Tripod and Cable Release
A tripod will give you a good study base for those longer exposures at sunrise, sunset and in overcast light. While a cable release will ensure you don't knock your camera while firing the shutter.
Remember, it is better to spend a few more dollars on a quality tripod which will withstand wind and the occasional bump. I won't forget the day I met another photographer who had just knocked over his flimsy tripod with a canon 5D MKIII on it. He then almost knocked it into Cradle Mountain's Dove Lake while talking to me. Sadly, his expensive camera wouldn't have been cheap to repair. Hopefully it was insured.
Try Shooting in Manual Mode
Taking creative control of your camera's exposure allows you to express your vision of the scene you are photographing. Try setting the aperture to a high number, bringing the entire scene into focus or a low number to take the background out of focus. Blurring the background can be incredibly effective when shooting individual leaves. Your LCD panel's histogram will quickly reveal the results allowing you to hone your exposure and technique. Your camera's manual will be a great place to learn about manual exposures.
Keeping Dry and Safe
I have made quite a number of mistakes over the years in wet weather, which have resulted in myself and my cameras becoming rather soaked. While this hasn't hurt my mechanical film cameras so far, the outcome for a digital camera may not look so good. These days I always carry a spare jacket, plastic bags and large golf umbrella. When going further afield into the high country, I also make sure I carry warm clothes a little food, drink and a personal locator beacon just in case.
As is often the case, there is a great satisfaction to be had in discovering new locations. When searching for potential subjects during autumn, don't forget to head out of town and explore the lesser known country roads. Often the best locations are out of the way and known to only a handful of souls. In some ways, it pays to get a little lost every now and again on this journey we call life, if we want to explore and experience the best it has to offer.
There are so many wonderful places to photograph during autumn. Here are a few of my favourite locations.
New South Wales :
Autumn is a time of inspiration for photographers, and I hope we all get some wonderful shots.