The sun is behind me, and the floating leaves are bleached to a uniform pallid yellow. But the wooded hillside reflected in the placid water is a riot of color. Conclusion? If you want to capture the full glory of an autumn scene, it's worth taking time for reflection before you shoot.
Your choice of subject, how you frame your shot, the weather, and the time of day — these are all important in determining how a photo turns out. But this is just the start. If you want good photos, you have to do more than hold 'em and squeeze 'em, and that often means…
Taking Over the Controls…
And overriding your camera's automatic settings. Point‑and‑shoot is great when seconds count, but when you can take your time, it's often best to make your own decisions. Luckily, even inexpensive digital cameras now permit you to set such things as aperture, shutter speed, and sensitivity. Of course, many folks are understandably intimidated by owner's manuals that are longer than some novels. But you don't have to give up so easily. You can take control. And here's how:
- Choose quality over quantity
- Don't be too sensitive
- Bracket your shots
- Overexpose when necessary
- Limit depth of field
First, though, study your camera's manual. Yes, even if it hurts. If you've lost it — or thrown it away — just bing or google your way to the manufacturer's website, where you'll most likely find the owner's manual that you need, available as a free, downloadable PDF. Begin by searching the manual for terms like quality, recorded pixels, or compression, and when you find the relevant section, follow the instructions and set your camera to record the highest number of pixels per shot. A digital photo is simply a file. If you limit the file size unnecessarily, you limit the information it can hold. And that information is your image. You can always throw away the bits you don't need or don't want. But you can't add back what isn't there. The upshot? If your camera allows separate compression settings for JPEG images (the most‑used photo file format, though pros often opt for other formats), select the highest quality setting available. Of course, this means that individual pictures will take up a lot of space in your camera's memory, reducing the number of shots you can take before you have to delete images or download them to your computer. So buy the highest capacity memory card your camera can accept — or your budget permits — and while you're at it, buy a spare.
Next, if your camera allows it, decrease the sensitivity. This corresponds to the ISO rating of photographic film. Low ISO (low sensitivity) settings limit low‑light performance, but they also increase resolution and reduce false colors, or "noise." On the other hand, high ISO, or high sensitivity, settings make low‑light photography easier, but the resulting images are both grainy and noisy. For most backcountry photography, image quality is more important than low‑light performance. So go low.
Now set your camera to Manual mode. This will allow you to select aperture and shutter speed. Why do this? Simple. Manual mode puts you in control. The mistakes you make will be yours, not your camera's. That's both good and bad. Bad because you'll probably spoil shots, at least at first. Good because you'll soon learn how to manipulate shutter speed and aperture to get just the result you want. Don't worry. The good outweighs the bad. Moreover, digital photography makes it easy to experiment. Take full advantage of this. And don't forget that you can hedge your bets on critical shots by bracketing, taking a series of images of your subject while altering exposure in regular increments, underexposing or overexposing by as much as a full stop (±1.0 EV). This makes it more likely that at least one shot will be exactly what you're looking for. A hint: If you're hoping to capture the rich, vibrant colors of an autumn landscape, deliberately underexposing your shot can help — unless there are sunlit waves sparkling in the foreground, that is. Then overexposing may give better results.
Here's an example, a complex scene that came out pretty well, despite deep shadows and brilliant highlights: