Tips for Photographing Fall Aspen
By David Cobb
It’s that time again in the Pacific Northwest when I’m on the search for fall aspen. The season usually runs from mid-September to late October, depending on the elevation and whether the aspen stand is in the eastern or western sections of the Pacific Northwest. Even though I seem to photograph aspen every year, I never tire of the challenge–and challenging it is. What follows are a few ways I’ve found to improve your chances of taking an aspen image you’ll like.
First, USE A POLARIZER! This not only cuts down on the leaf reflection, but also adds to the pop and warmth of the leaves. When shooting fall aspen, also pay attention to your histogram’s red channel, because your RGB average may indeed seem inside the histogram but that doesn’t mean you’re losing information on the red channel and detail on your leaves.
You’ll need to find an interesting stand when photographing aspen, because color alone doesn’t cut it. Look for interesting trunks and avoid deadfall. Ask yourself if the trunks have an interesting form? Are there corridors within the forest that will lead the eye into the scene? Another way to add interest to an aspen scene is to photograph the smaller trees among the larger. This adds color and interest to the lower sections of the stand, and breaks up the monotony.
With most forest photography of fir and pine, I often climb a hill and shoot towards the middle section of the forest. Not so with aspen. With aspen I find myself shooting more level or sometimes uphill. I also climb a hill and shoot down, but only if I want to include the color of leaves for a golden background behind nicely formed trunks.
Another tip is to shoot aspen from far above. From here, the color itself can create interesting patterns and become form. Fallen aspen leaves shot with a macro lens can have a similar effect and pattern, especially when dotted with water droplets.
I find a zoom or medium-wide angle lenses works best when photographing aspen. This doesn’t cause too much distortion in the trunks, and easily frames the interest of the shot. I also use these lenses when creating an aspen panorama in order to avoid image distortion while stitching. Of course, image blur may be what you’re after with a forest pan. Aspens are great for that when the light is at higher contrast. I often use this technique with a shutter speed between ¼ and 1 second, and simply pan vertically while shooting. The results are a crapshoot, but you’ll find yourself getting more successes with practice.
The best aspen stands to be found in the Pacific Northwest are scattered about the region, and here are a few of my favorites:
1) The Steens Mountains in eastern Oregon are known for fall aspen, so arrive for some early season practice.
2) The road between East Glacier and Saint Mary, Montana has wonderful craggy aspens, and these often change the third week of September.
3) There are some great stands near Stanley, Idaho, but you’ll need to search them out and recent fires have hurt some areas.
4) Check out Washington’s Columbia River Plateau near Mount Adams for some great fall aspen amongst ranchland.
5) Also the road between Leavenworth and Lake Wenatchee in Washington supplies a variety of aspen color including deep red.
6) In southern Oregon near the Klamath Basin, you’ll find a few stately groves which look best in the snow.
There are still a few weeks left to take part in the fall aspen shoot, and hopefully these tips will prove handy.