10 Tips for Shooting Vivid and Vibrant Fall Foliage Video

Happy first day of fall! While we await the inevitable splash of autumn color here in Maine, I’d like to share ten tips for shooting foliage in motion. There’s plenty of info online about foliage as it relates to still photography, but little has been written about capturing fall colors with video.

Why video? Well, why not? A well-composed still image can be striking, but it is ultimately a moment frozen in time. Taking the time to capture nature in motion can yield gorgeous results.

Why not set up a tripod with your smartphone, GoPro, mirrorless or DSLR and see what moves you? Air moving leaves, leaves catching light, water reflections dancing on leaves — the results can be beautifully hypnotic and rich in texture. When possible, let the camera roll for a while. You never know when a shower of leaves (or a single leaf) might make an entrance and make the moment.

#1: Milk the Magic Hours

The golden glow of sunrise and sunset can soften harsh foliage tones that tend to show up when the sun is high. Better yet, the sun’s low angle produces dramatic side lighting. Move to a spot where the light is hitting the scene side-on and take advantage of this soft, radiant glow.

When the sun is high, try shooting closeups of backlit leaves. Backlighting makes foliage glow. Frame the shot so that the leaves keep the sun from hitting the lens. With a bit of breeze and a bit of luck, you can capture some stunning lens flares.

#2: Keep a Polarizer Handy

A rotatable circular polarizer can help remove glare from foliage and bring out its vivid color. It can also add depth to the blue in the sky and make cloud formations pop more majestically. Slowly rotate the polarizer while looking at the LCD screen (or through the viewfinder) to dial in the desired amount of effect, but be careful not to overdo it. If you do, the image will appear overly contrasty and areas of sky will look uneven in hue. This is less of a problem when shooting scenes with a long lens, like a 70–200mm.

Gear tip: Since you won’t be using polarizers in every shot, having a convenient place to store them is helpful. Op/Tech makes neoprene filter holders that clip to your camera strap. They make changing and storing filters quick and easy.

Polarizer effect comparison: 180 degrees rotation
(L) An attached polarizer filter rotated to its darkest setting. (R) Rotating the filter 180º reveals it’s lightest effect. Dial in just enough to deepen color, but be careful not to overdo it.

#3: A Sweet Spot of Color

Instead of just shooting distant panoramas, try featuring bursts of foliage color in the foreground or background of otherwise drab scenes. A touch of red, orange or yellow in a mostly rock-filled coastal scene can provide all the color you need. Sometimes a few well-placed, brightly colored leaves will bring a tightly framed scene to life, especially on the wet rocks found near waterfalls or lake shores. But take care not to lay them out too perfectly with all the colored sides up — it’s a dead giveaway.

#4: Contrast & Composition

Try framing shots that include areas of complimentary colors. Bright oranges next to deep evergreen hues. Yellow birches next to blazing red maples. If you’re out there just past peak color when the forest floor is covered with recent leaf drop, shoot closeups foliage on the ground or in the water. Clearing away distracting twigs, rocks and other bits of debris can make a scene that’s “almost photogenic” worthy of your camera’s attention. I call this “Martha Stewart-ing” the scene. :-)

blog7-foliagewidescenes-websave

#5: Embrace the Mist

Shooting foliage shrouded in ground fog, mist and low lying clouds can result in beautifully serene imagery where strong colors are tempered by soft white textures. It’s best not to include too much sky in the frame, since the white-to-gray flatness is not very interesting to look at. Using a tripod to create a time-lapse (or shooting a long video clip that’s sped up 10X or so in editing) can highlight cloud movements or the evaporation of morning mist.

#6: Water Work Wonders

With thousands of lakes & ponds here in Maine, I often head for places where water-meets-foliage. A calm day with no wind can yield some amazing mirror-image clips. To add motion, toss a stone into the water out of frame and let the subtle ripples bring the scene to life. The gentle wave action that comes with a light breeze can make a scene dance with light.

If you’re up for some experimental fun, attach a GoPro to a selfie-stick or monopod and hold the camera underwater in a stream. Drop some colored leaves in and see what you get as they tumble past the camera. Feeling adventurous? Shooting fall foliage underwater (while wearing a thick wetsuit) is one of my favorite pastimes. Find a river with a decent current, launch some leaves below the surface, and follow along with your camera. A ziplock bag with pre-picked colored leaves tucks nicely under a weight belt strap. (Check out this week’s video.)

Foliage from an underwater perspective

#7: Get High & Low

If you can avoid it, don’t shoot from head-height. It rarely makes for interesting compositions. Get up high if possible, but definitely experiment with low angles. Tufts of grass, fallen leaves and mushrooms all make great foreground elements. Gear tip: Bring a trash bag (split lengthwise) to use a tarp when you need to lay on the wet ground. Also, a stadium cushion is a great lightweight item to keep in your daypack. Use it to kneel on or sit on as you shoot, or as a place to put your camera gear when swapping out lenses.

#8: Watch for Wild Weather

Blue skies are pretty — and pretty predictable. Stormy skies can appear extremely dramatic in contrast to soft foliage colors as weather systems move through. Eye-popping footage can be captured on days like this, but make sure you’re prepared for the weather. Pack gear to protect your camera from moisture, and dress for whatever the worst conditions might dictate.

#9: Lenses & Shutter Speed

A long lens (like a 70–200mm telephoto) is great for capturing tightly cropped scenes with mirrorless or DSLR cameras. With translucent leaves as your subject, experimenting with shallow depth of field pays off big here.

When shooting panoramas using wider lenses, sticking to higher f-stops will keep the whole scene in focus. Be sure to adjust your shutter speed when switching from still photos to video capture. While 125th/sec is great for crisp still images, slowing the shutter speed to 60th/sec will create a soft motion blur between video frames that’s visually smoother than the choppy, jittery look of faster speeds.

Pakpod used for shooting fall foliage

#10: Use a Tripod

Shooting foliage video clips hand-held is rarely going to cut it. For capturing stillness and serenity, you’re going to want to use a tripod. For a full-height tripod, you’ll find lots of good choices from companies like Manfrotto, MeFoto and 3-Legged Thing. For low angles, easy attachability and super-versatility, I use a Pakpod tripod. It’s lightweight, compact, extremely riggable, and is always at the ready in my day pack.

Enjoy the color, and bring some home! ~ Steve

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