In this quick autumn photography tutorial we’ll explain everything you need to know to capture brilliant autumnal images right on your doorstep.
When you think of great autumn locations your mind probably conjures up images of amber forest canopies in New England or golden Swedish landscapes. But there are plenty of great autumnal scenes to be captured right here at home in the UK.
Your garden or yard may not look like the ideal autumn location at first glance, but with the right techniques and a creative eye, you’ll be surprised at what you can achieve.
Autumn images: it’s all about the background
In a cluttered and built-up environment like a city garden no subject will ever be free from background distractions. There are always going to be distracting objects around your subject that you want to exclude from the image, and it’s up to you to make sure they don’t spoil your shot.
A great way to eliminate background distractions is to mount a telephoto lens and get down at a low angle to where you’re at ‘eye’ level with your subject.
The narrow field of view in a telephoto lens makes it easier to give the effect of compressing the perspective, thus allowing you to arrest a busy background and covert it into a pleasing, solid smear of colour. It’s a lot easier to do this with a telephoto lens than with a shorter focal range.
When shooting with a telephoto lens, your out-of-focus background is also magnified, which is essentially mimicking the effect of shallow depth of field and making your subject stand out from the background even more.
We like to use a beanbag when shooting this way, as it helps support the lens and avoid camera shake. If you don’t have a beanbag, try using a simple bag of lentils or dried beans!
Not only are you supporting the lens, but you’re also giving yourself an angle to better overlook the background behind the subject. This will improve your composition and help your subject stand out even better.
Eliminate a background entirely!
Spiders are an autumn favourite, and they abound in your garden at this time of year. They make particularly great autumn photography subjects because as the nights and morning grow colder, their webs collect dew. And on a bright morning with low, golden sun sparkling through the droplets collected on the web, you can make a very striking image you’ll appreciate for years to come.
However, the big challenge with shooting spider webs covered in dew is that the conditions are often too windy (even a slight breeze can prove difficult) or, again, the background is distracting.
But we have a hack that can help you take control of this classic autumn scene…
Shooting autumn spider webs
For a more striking image that’s free of distractions, try placing a piece of opaque Perspex about 20cm or so behind the spider web. Next, if you’re spider is willing – and he should be; it’s his time to shine! – place a large manual flashgun behind it.
You don’t need a top of the line flashgun for this. We’ve used a budget £20 model we got on eBay and it works just fine.
Next, you’ll want to provide fill-lighting with a smaller flashgun at a distance of about 45cm, which you’ll fire through another piece of opaque Perspex that you’ve placed about 20cm in front of the spider’s web.
Still with us? To recap, you’ve got opaque material 20cm behind and 20cm in front of your spider web, with flashguns on the far side of each pointing through the material at the web.
Next, check your camera’s histogram: the background should be about 255 in each channel. You don’t want any part of the web to get overexposed. Now it’s just a case of adjusting the fill lighting until you’re happy with how it looks.
Take a few test shots and adjust as needed. There’s a bit of trial and error in this, and the figures we suggested above are just that: suggestions, starting points to get you in the general vicinity from which you can fine tune as needed.
What you need to shoot autumn photography in your garden
Camera with raw capture
Of course needing a camera is obvious, but many of us these days shoot on camera phones and other devices. And it’s still possible to get great images this way, but for the best results the camera you use, whatever it may be, should be able to produce raw files. This will enable you to edit your images and fine-tune the exposure to a more pleasing result.
We talked about the benefits of a telephoto lens when shooting autumn photography, and just after that the next most useful piece of glass will be a macro lens. And the longer you can afford the better! If you can’t afford a macro lens, a cheaper way to achieve a similar effect is to mount one of your existing lenses on an extension tube. It’s less convenient, but also less money.
A wide-angle zoom (12-24mm on cropped sensors, 17-35mm on full-frame) is highly versatile but if you have Photoshop CS2 or 3, consider instead shooting vistas with a longer prime lens then stitching the sections together in PhotoMerge. The image quality is likely to be better – and the file size bigger.
We discussed telephotos, but the ideal one to have is the ever-versatile 70-200mm zoom. This optic is a staple of many photographers’ camera bags because it’s so great at isolating details that don’t require the magnification of a macro lens. Pair a 70-200mm lens with an x1.4 converter, and your reach will stretch even further! Your effective maximum aperture will increase to f/4 (if using an f/2.8 zoom), but this is still quite useful.
Tripod and head
You don’t need to spend hundreds on a carbon fibre tripod to shoot great autumn photography in your garden. But likewise, you don’t want to spend £30 on a budget option from China, either. Have a look at the many alloy tripods on the market.
These may add an extra 1.5kg to the weight of your kit, but they’ll cost a fraction of what you’ll pay for a carbon fibre equivalent. And they’re equally steady. Use them with a shutter release and with your camera set to its self-timer and you’ll get pin-sharp images every time.
However: expect to pay at least as much for a good ball and socket tripod head as you will for the tripod. Some of our favourites are Manfrotto, Gitzo, Kirk and Arca Swiss.
If you want to try the spider web technique we mentioned above you’ll want to find a powerful manual flashgun, such as the Metz 60. But you needn’t break the bank on this. We got ours on eBay for the cost of four beers in a London pub, which at the time of writing is £5.20 and really is a crime. What’s more, have a look on eBay to see what kind of deals you can find on slaves and even the pieces of opaque Perspex.
Most cameras these days have decent weather-sealing, but you still don’t want to let it get rained on for an hour. Even though, say, Pentax’s weather-sealing has proven impenetrable in tests, it still just provokes anxiety in us and no one wants that! So cover your gear. A simple piece of heavy-duty polythene will do, and it will help you keep shooting when the conditions get interesting.
A circular polariser filter is another great piece of kit to have when shooting autumn photography. What’s more, it’s just about the only filter effect that you can’t mimic – easily – in your photo editing software.
Say what? Yes, gaffer tape. Sometimes you have to take control of a scene and remove unwanted distractions manually. A swaying tree branch, for instance. Stick it in your bag; we’re certain it will come in handy.