09 Oct 2018

My Number One Tip For Photographing Autumn Leaves

Do you ever swoon and sigh over the beauty of the leaves changing color in the fall, but feel like your photos don’t do the colors justice? Me too. But I remembered something the other day that helped me out, and it’s actually something that will bring vibrance to ANY photos of plants, autumn or not.

It was a beautiful blue-sky fall day when I was driving home last Friday. I was admiring the jewel tones of the leaves and thinking about how I had been struggling to get any compelling photos of the foliage earlier in the week, when it had been overcast and gloomy.

The leaves lit by the sun were firey with color, and I suddenly remembered something I had learned from James Gurney, illustrator extraordinaire, about transmitted light:

When sunlight travels through a semi-transparent material, the light becomes richly colored. Light that just bounces off the surface is fairly dull by comparison.

This “stained-glass-window effect” is called transmitted light, and you often see it when the sun shines through the green or yellow leaves of a tree. You might also see transmitted light when the sun backlights colored balloons, a sailboat’s spinnaker, or a translucent nylon awning.

What I was seeing on that drive was the transmitted light through the the leaves. Look at a tree from the right angle with a bright light in the sky, and it looks absolutely luminous with color, like a stained-glass window - because it kind of is.

So my number one tip for photographing autumn leaves (or really any plants)?

Look for the transmitted light.

A brightly colored red leaf among shadowy leaves
Just look at that transmitted light highlighting the leaf in the middle bright red.

I was so excited about remembering the transmitted light concept that I ran inside as soon as I got home, grabbed my camera, and started taking photos of leaves on my street to demonstrate the principle for this blog post.

A red leaf from above
This is a lovely leaf, brightly colored and brightly lit - but the waxy surface bounces a lot of the light off the leaf, dulling the overall color.

Bright red leaves from below
The same leaf as above, but with the light coming through it and photgraphed from underneath.

I think both the photos above are quite lovely, but the one underneath has that vibrant, gummy-bear-red that is what grabs my eye in the first place when I look at a red tree. In the first picture, the light is behind me, and in the second picture, the light is in front of me.

An orange fall leaf
A beautiful leaf, waxy surface side and light from above.

A vibrant orange leaf
The same leaf with the light behind it. I loved the BRIGHT BRIGHT orange and stark shadows here.

I actually think that the two pictures above are equally good, taken as photos - even though the oranges in the top photo aren’t as bright, I like the composition of the photo a little more. But the same leaf with the light shining through it, below, took my breath away.

You can also see that the green leaves are extra vibrant and beautiful with the light shining through them:

Red and green leaves with dappled light
Don't the colors really remind you of gummy bears?? Is that just me?

Catching transmitted light in plants often means taking your picture into the light, or from underneath the leaves, but not always. If you look at the bottom painting in James Gurney’s blog post linked above, you’ll see that the bright yellow leaves on the edges of the trees really bring them to life. As you walk around, pay attention to where the light is making the leaves on trees the most vibrant.

Fall trees in the woods and boardwalk
Firey edges of autumn trees along the forest boardwalk.

Red and orange trees from below
With tall trees above you and the right light in the sky, the leaves will often be very vibrant if you look straight up at them.

There are definitely more factors that come into play if you’re not just taking close-ups of leaves. I still haven’t figured out how to get those sweet sweet foliage photos consistently either. But you can bet that looking for the sun in the right place, making the leaves shine with color, is going to help make your photos pop.