Photographing the Beauty of Autumn
“I cannot endure to waste anything so precious as autumnal sunshine by staying in the house.” Nathaniel Hawthorne
My son once said to me – “One day you’re going to love autumn as much as I do.” And I think, after many years, that time has arrived. Loving an autumn in London didn’t come naturally to me.There can be endless days of steely grey skies, cold thrashing weather, permanent dampness of person and quite a lot of feelings of grimness. But when nature turns on its beauty at this time of year, it can at times be more incredible and more special that at any other time of the year..
I think those bad days are just there to keep us photographers on our toes. Nature is saying, wait for it, wait….wait….patience, bam! There you go. Incredible, incredible beauty. And because it’s not happening every day we become hungrier for the beauty.
I love autumn too because, unlike summer or spring when everything is just pretty and opulent, beauty in autumn reminds us of how fleeting and temporary life is. We can’t take the moments of fantastic light, or a tree on fire with colour, for granted. We have to be opportunistic – see it and capture before it quickly escapes us. (That momentary opportunity of autumn is explained really nicely by Charlie Waite here in describing one of his photos.)
Last Sunday I headed up to Hampstead Heath with my Light Monkey’s photo group for a dawn walk filled with SPECTACULAR beauty. Mist weaving through a golden sunrise, light falling onto trees as their leaves fell, and a dewy, moist ground. It was one of those mornings when you know you are taking wonderful photos, because what the world has laid out for you is so inspiring your skin feels tingly.
These moments, and days, are just the result of putting the time in. Of pushing yourself out the door on a cold morning to see the sunrise, or away from that delicious glass of wine because you’ve noticed some interesting light outside. If you keep showing up then you’ll find the magical, the truly inspiring – and your photography will make you feel so gratified that you made the effort.
The photos in this post are both by me and some of the members of my Light Monkey’s photo group (thanks to them for so generously sharing them). It’s always an extra exciting part of going out and taking photos as a group – when you share the photos afterwards and see how we can all be in the same place and yet see totally different things.
So here are some thoughts about capturing the moments of autumn:
It’s a great time for macro photography
Getting those close up shots of intense colour of the leaves, the dew drops on the spider’s web, the shapes and textures of the falling foliage. (Here’s a good introduction on how to shoot macro photography from the excellent website Cambridge in Colour.)
Playing with the shape and textures
It’s a mad time in nature, when the trees are throwing off their leaves, filling the floor at our feet with intensely colourful shapes. The trees are revealing their bending branches, wildly playing together in their air. I love looking at trees at this time, and using their amazing shapes and combining it with the texture and colours of the falling leaves.
“Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.” Albert Camus
Plenty of contrast
In autumn instead of just a wash of green, nature has a mass of contrasts – lots of colour, changing textures etc. When there is lots of contrast around it makes it easier for the eye to break down the elements and place them together.
Autumn means more moisture is in the air
So now we have more dew on the grass in the morning; mist and fog make an appearance. These are all additional elements that will enhance your subject. Fog and mist usually burn off soon after sunrise, so get up early (dawn is much later at this time of year, 7am in the UK at the moment, so you really have no excuse :)) and bring your tripod. Use the extra rain to play with reflections.
If you can’t get out before dawn try sunset, when there can be extraordinary light. But it’s good to know that through the cold months the sun doesn’t rise as far so you can often get interesting photos throughout the day. (Here is another great Cambridge in Colour link, about making the most of shooting in natural light.)
Use all of your senses
I am a big fan of using your other senses – listening, smelling and touch – to connect yourself with the world around you. The more immersed you are in your environment, using all of your senses, the more you can see. And if you’re finding it hard to concentrate – thinking perhaps instead about that stupidly annoying email you received this morning – then using your other senses is an excellent way to anchor you into the here and now. It takes some of the pressure off trying to see everything.
“At no other time (than autumn) does the earth let itself be inhaled in one smell, the ripe earth; in a smell that is in no way inferior to the smell of the sea, bitter where it borders on taste, and more honeysweet where you feel it touching the first sounds. Containing depth within itself, darkness, something of the grave almost.” Rainer Maria Rilke
The combination of beauty and melancholy
I like autumn too because there is a mix of beauty and melancholy. Someone once said to me that there is a loneliness to much of my work. I prefer to think of it as a sense of aloneness, because I don’t feel lonely. But I think what this means is that I am communicating a feeling, something that is familiar and touching for people to look at. I am connecting a feeling that I have with one that the viewer might also have. And for me life isn’t just all roses and starlight. It’s special because it’s both precious and fragile. It has both love and sadness.
I’ve been listening to some music that I think fits this season of beauty and melancholy, music that makes your spine tingle but also speaks to that wisdom of the soul: Blue in Green by Miles Davis; everything by Nick Drake and Beethoven’s Symphony 7 (if I’m feeling a little greedy for inspiration I just listen the ‘best bit’ here).
Exploring subtle colours
Spring and summer – that’s nature showing off. Autumn brings a need to probe the more subtle edges of what’s interesting and lovely to look at. That’s one of the reasons I love photographing Venice, nothing is loud and brash (except the sunshine sometimes and the tourists often :)) – the buildings and the colours are all very subtle. So you have to examine the qualities of the colour, the subtle contrasts, the depth of the colours, and be enchanted by that. I am not quite as excited as my wife and son by the depths of brown in the woods, but I’ll definitely take great interest in the myriad of greens and yellows, no problem.
Many artists have documented changes in their environment or favourite views over the seasons. Like Ansel Adams with his Seasons in Yosemite project and David Hockney with his study of trees in Yorkshire. It’s an excellent way to become more connected to your environment and to train your eye in noticing both the big and subtle changes of a scene.
And it’s not just nature you can document. The seasons affect every part of human life – in the look of our streets to the feelings, gestures and appearances of people within them.
And just while we are on the subject of looking at other photographers /artists I’d like to recommend:
Studying other photographer
Don McCullin talks in this interview about how he learnt about photography by studying great photographers. He started with the concept of beauty, not war, in absorbing how to compose photographs. This is an idea that I really love: that your subject doesn’t have to be pretty or beautiful, but having an appreciation of beauty in this world will make your compositions stronger, more compelling and pleasing to the eye. Look at what Sebastiao Salgado has done by finding beauty in the most difficult subjects – and thereby attracting tremendous attention to his subject.
So if I could encourage one thing of you this week – it would be to find some nature (Hampstead Heath in London – perfect!) and go have some fun. If you are in the Southern Hemisphere – keep this post for six months 🙂 Or somewhere that doesn’t have many seasons (hello my old friends in LA) – travel.
Be an explorer. Get up and push yourself out of the door because you’ve seen some interesting light. Leave your bed or your good book for later. Venturing out for exploration will always be rewarding. Don’t let the cold weather keep you inside; shake up your body and your mind and go and find something extraordinary.
I would love to know – what inspires you to photograph autumn? Do you love the light, the colours, the grey, even? Comment on my blog here or reply to my email.
Until next time – happy photographing,
Anthony and Diana
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