A Perfect Autumn Morning
Great landscape photography opportunity rarely comes to you easily, even in early October in Upper Peninsula (UP) of Michigan, where you are supposed to get gorgeous fall color photos by randomly pointing your lens to anywhere.
I had been thinking about visiting northern Michigan during October for many years and last weekend I finally got a few days to do so. I drove more than five hours from Cincinnati to Chicago to meet my buddies Charlie Zhang and John Fan. The second morning we left Chicago, and drove another ten hours to the Porcupine Mountains area, expecting to see fall colors in their fullest glory. While this year’s peak season was delayed by a week during to unusual high temperatures, we thought we arrived at the right moment according to the foliage reports.
To say we were disappointed is an understatement. Contrast to what had been reported online, the entire area, especially the locations near the lake, was still mostly green. We spent a couple of days driving around the west portion of the peninsula and didn’t have any shot that was worth keeping.
Finally we went to the east side of the UP and explored the Hiawatha National Forest. Although leaf colors were much better here, finding a perfect, photogenic spot was still a very big challenge. We spent many hours driving in the forest, exploring many unpaved roads and scouting potential locations. I was pre-visualizing a peaceful small pond surrounded by colorful birches, maples and aspens. However, for whatever reasons, around nine out of ten lakes we checked, the nearby trees are mostly unsightly evergreen conifer, even though these lakes are inside some broadleaf forests in high colors. Other lakes have beautiful colors along the shorelines, but they are too big. A big lake poses too problems: the trees are too far to reach even with a 200mm lens; and it is normally is not as calm as a small pond so it is hard to get perfect reflections, which are essential for the type of shots I want.
Hundreds of miles of travelling and a few days later, on a gorgeous morning we finally had all the right conditions line up perfectly — soft morning light, peak foliage colors, the right mix of colorful trees along the shore of a small lake, mirror-like calm water and beautiful reflections, and chilly morning temperatures (about 37 F) resulting in mists rising from the surface of the lake. I had this image in my mind for many years and I finally nailed it.
This version was shot before sunlight hit the trees (click image for larger photo):
And this version was captured after the sunlight illuminated the top of tree crowns (click image for larger photo):.
How to get this type of shots:
- Contrary to many photographers who like to wait until sunrise before starting shooting, I prefer to photograph this type of scenes in early morning before the sunlight hit the top of the trees (the first image). The soft morning light renders a very soothing and peaceful mood, exactly what I had envisioned. The light is very even so you don’t need filters. When the morning sunshine hits the top of the trees, the colors are more vibrant and dramatic. However the contrast between the upper and lower part of the image can be very high. You either need to use a Graduated Neutral Density (GND) to control the light ratio, or do some serious post editing work. The mood of the photo will also be very different (see the second image “October Glory”). I am not saying one version is “better” than the other, as it’s a matter of personal taste. However they are just very different images and convoy different feelings.
- I favor to use a medium-to-telephoto lens and a very tight composition. Unless I see some really dramatic clouds that can contribute to the final image, I will crop out the sky to have a cleaner look. Blank sky on top (and its reflection on the bottom) of the image will not do anything good to your photos.
- Check the weather forecast! You want a relatively warm day followed by a chilly morning, so the water temperature is much higher than the ambient air temperature in the morning. Mysterious mists will rise from the surface of the water, significantly enhancing the mood of your image.
- Early morning light has a very high, bluish, color temperature. I prefer to use “Daylight” white balance to keep some of the cool blue cast, which is pleasant to the eyes of many viewers. If you rely on the “Auto” white balance of the camera, the camera will try to remove the color cast. The result may or may not be what you want. Do some experiments and find your personal preferences. Of course if you shoot RAW (and you should), you can always change the white balance setting during post processing. However I like to see the results while I am shooting.
- This image is a stitch of multiple vertical frames, so I can have a high-res image that can be printed very big. A Really Right Stuff L-Plate (see my previous blog post “A Case for L-Plates”) and an RRS leveling-base are very helpful in such situations.