When it comes to color and impact, fall is full of opportunity. The season is an amazing time to create mood with color while capturing landscapes as they transform before one’s eyes. Trying to create an image about which I’m particularly passionate, however—especially in autumn—can be challenging. When shooting fall colors, there are filters that I never leave home without: a polarizer and neutral-density filter. These filters overcome obstacles that otherwise would be impossible to correct without using a filter, even digitally. Polarizers and neutral-density filters are indispensable in many of these photographic situations. A third filter I recommend for film shooters is the graduated ND Filter; It is similar to Neutral Density Filters but only covers a portion of the image. The darker portion is used to cover the brighter part of the image preventing it from being overexposed. This allows the camera to expose properly for the area that is not darkened to balance the overall exposure. With the rapid growth of post-processing many photographers choose to correct after the image has been taken. Post processing applications such as Photoshop and Lightroom have a graduated filter tool that can be used to replicate this.
The Color Polarizer
The most important filter for fall is the polarizer. Useable in all facets of nature photography, this filter can make a significant improvement to your images. The polarizer deepens the color of blue skies, provides more saturated colors, and reduces glare and reflections in bright or sunny conditions. Concerning fall foliage, the polarizer eliminates glare on leaves and flowers. It intensifies and saturates color in wet foliage and adds color density to blue or hazy skies. One additional benefit of using a polarizer is that it cuts through the haze in the atmosphere. This added clarity allows subjects to stand out more against the deeper tones of the sky so that fall foliage looks even more pronounced.
When light reflects off a shiny surface it becomes polarized. When we see this reflection, from the surface of water for example, we call it glare. A polarizer rotated to the correct position will block or absorb most of the reflected glare while letting light polarized perpendicular to the reflection to pass through. This allows the actual color the object to come through. This is achieved by using a specialized foil positioned between two sheets of glass. The front part of this polarizer then can be rotated, altering the amount of polarized light that can be blocked out by the filter. A simple rotation of the front glass allows the photographer to dial in the amount of effect desired in the image. To do this properly, position the polarizer on the lens and rotate slowly while looking through the camera’s viewfinder. Choosing where to stop the rotation is a personal choice, but you want to maximize the effect up to the point where it begins to look unrealistic. For example, when the scene includes blue skies, rotate the polarizer only until you get deep, rich blues. If over rotated, the blues can turn into an unrealistic darker tone, especially in higher elevations. To maximize the potential of a polarizer, keep the sun at a right angle to the camera. If you face the sun and hold your hands out to to your sides, where your arms are pointing are the directions where the polarizer will work the best. A 90-degree angle to the sun is optimal because this is the location of the most polarized light in the sky.
One challenge many photographers have is determining the best time to use a polarizer. It’s effective in many situations, but if you’re unsure when to use a polarizer, hold it up and look through it with your eye instead of screwing it onto the lens. This is a quick way to see if the polarizer is having any effect. In the fall, the polarizer is best utilized just before midday when conditions are brighter. The increased brightness adds extra contrast to the scene and cuts through the haze, especially when shooting through a telephoto lens. Photographing fall color on sunny days can add additional depth in the image when including the sky in your compositions, especially when contrasted against the vibrant colors of fall.
In addition to deepening blue skies, the most understated reason for using the polarizer is to reduce glare and reflections. This is important because once glare is present in an image, no amount of post processing can undo the damage. That glare reduces the color saturation in images, giving them a flat, washed-out appearance. The polarizer alters this by blocking out the polarized light, enhancing color saturation.
Reflections can be an issue without a polarizer, as well. This is evident in scenes that contain water. Nature photography in fall often includes elements such as creeks and lakes, which cause unwanted surface reflections. I like to take images of colorful foliage against the backdrop of the darker water. This would be impossible without a polarizer. It also reduces the glare off darker rocks, which allows the color of the foliage to stand out even more. Having the ability to dial in a certain amount of polarized light allows each photographer to create a sense of style that’s uniquely his or her own.
Color Polarizers over the last few years have been really improving in terms of color rendition, build, and size. Features such as color enhancement and color balance are combined into one filter to give the maximum benefit. Color Intensifier filters work by using a specialized optical glass known as “didymium” glass. The glass accentuates a portion of the color spectrum while suppressing the colors adjacent. The intensifier targets the color saturation in the red-orange area of the color spectrum. It increases those colors without affecting the overall color balance of the image. So when it comes to the colors in the red-orange area the foliage of autumn is a great element to add impact to the image. One of the key signatures to a stunning autumn image is having an image with strong colors in the warm tones without affecting the neutral and white colors.
Color polarizers are now designed and built lighter than ever before. Options now include a slim mount with the option to screw on a second filter such as a ND Filter. They are also designed brighter to allow more light into the camera. In the past, using a color polarizer would block two stops of light. Changes to the design in new color polarizers have reduced that down to one-stop of light. This means that more light reaches the camera sensor thus allowing increased shutter speed times. This occurs because the filters have a lower optical density, which increases the shutter speed. Changes in the use of optical glass and multi-resistant coating within the filter have become stronger and less resistant to scratching while the glass has become clearer reducing glare. This is due to the filter glass using a highly proprietary glass. The result is a sharper image overall. Advances in color polarizers are allowing photographers more freedom and creativity.
The ND Filter
The use of an ND filter allows for creativity. It encourages the photographer to think outside the box and develop fresh concepts of viewing nature. A neutral-density (ND) filter is made to reduce the amount of light that reaches the camera’s sensor so that a longer exposure is required to achieve an equivalent exposure. The longer exposure of ND filters provides photographers the dynamic feel of movement, especially noticeable with subjects like water, which can be a great complement to the brisk colors of fall foliage when contrasted with the blurred effect of moving streams, rapids and water banks. Ideally, to capture this blur, you need to expose the image for at least half a second, but often, available ambient light will be too quick, even when using the lowest ISO and smallest aperture. This is when it’s advisable to use an ND filter to block light from reaching the camera sensor and thus increase the exposure time.
Be careful not to increase the exposure too much, though, as this can blow highlights in the water. Changing the shutter speed with the ND filter is the best way to change the impact of the image. When using a ND filter I like to use take bracketed shots to capture detail in the water. Taking multiple images with different shutter speeds gives the water a different mood. The longer the shutter speed the more calm and tranquil the image personifies. Shorter shutter speeds project movement and action. The overall mood and impact is more dynamic. Textures in the water are defined and create patterns that lead the eye through the image. The use of longer or shorter shutter speeds with ND Filters is a creative choice that defines the impact of your image depending on the mood you are trying to create.
Because the ND Filter is dark it becomes difficult to see what you are photographing once the filter is on the lens. Make sure to compose your image and make sure everything is sharp before putting on the ND Filter. This is particularly handy when using higher stop ND filters or stacking filters. ND filters can even be combined with polarizers so the polarizer reduces the glare and reflection, while the ND filter increases exposure time. Also, when buying ND filters, make sure they’re threaded, which means that other filters can be stacked on. Vignetting can occur with very wide-angle lenses when stacking two or more filters. A trick to avoid this is to zoom in a short distance or purchase a larger filter with a step-up ring. This can be very effective especially during mid-day when otherwise the light would be too strong to capture a long exposure of the water. The result of the filters combined transforms the mood of an image. The longer shutter speed allows the photographer to still use wider apertures like f/16 to capture sharpness throughout the image while still using a long exposure. It is very important when using an ND filter to block light from entering your viewfinder to prevent light leakage. Covering your camera and lens barrel can also be very beneficial.
Over the last several years ND filters have become much better. There are different options when it comes to the number of stops of light that can be blocked from entering into the camera. When I originally wrote this article the darkest ND available was 10-Stops. At that time results with the 10-stop filter were very inconsistent. If shutter speeds were long it was not uncommon to see a magenta color cast in the overall image. ND filters have come a long way in the last few years especially when it comes to avoiding colorcasts. ND filters now reach 20 stops of light with excellent results. This allows the photographer even longer exposure times and thus more movement and mood in the image. Even in the brightest daylight, a 20-stop ND filter can allow very long shutter speeds. When trying to determine correct exposures with the ND filters it can be difficult to get it correct without the process of trial and error. I suggest using a smartphone application called the neutral density calculator. It determines exactly the amount of time needed based on the filter being used as well as other factors. When shooting longer exposures it’s necessary to have a sturdy tripod and ballhead to prevent any movement of the camera itself.
The Grad ND
The last filter that’s used for photographing fall colors is the graduated neutral-density (grad ND) filter, which compensates for an uneven light source. Often in landscape images, the sky is brighter than the ground; so if you meter the exposure for the ground, the sky is overexposed. Alternatively, if you expose for the sky, the ground becomes underexposed. Sunrises and sunsets are common times where the skies are bright, but the foreground is in shadow. Graduated filters were designed to allow the photographer to balance the light in the skywith the light in the landscape, allowing everything to be properly exposed.
Grad ND filters are made so that the top part of the filter is dark and the bottom is clear. Grad NDs come in various strengths, depending on the number of stops needed to balance the sky and foreground. The trick is to place the grad in the right position. Inaccuracy will cause unnatural shadows in the image to be placed too high or low.
There are different types of graduated filters, depending on the transition of brightness in the scene. There are hard and soft grads, which are used in different situations. When evaluating a scene, the transition between exposures isn’t always clearly defined, and a sharper transition will be apparent in the image. In this situation, use a soft grad to blend the transition without noticeable changes. Other times, the transition is abrupt, like the horizon on an ocean, and the image would benefit most from a hard grad.
To line up your grad ND correctly, use the depth-of-field preview button while looking through the viewfinder. Fine-tune the filter up or down to position it just right. Essential to using graduated filters is choosing the right number of stops of light. To do this correctly, spot-meter for the sky and then once more for the foreground. Take the difference between the two exposure values and subtract one to capture a scene that looks natural. The best way to use a grad ND is to position it over the lens by holding it with your hand or using a filter system that allows the filter to be dropped into a slot in front of the lens. Most nature photographers prefer to hold the filter, allowing them to adjust the graduated line to the scene before them.
Over the last few years the use of the graduated ND filter has shifted from using it on the camera to using a graduated ND filter tool in post processing. The graduated ND filter tool allows you to replicate what the filter does on the camera but with more precision. The Graduated ND Filter is still an essential filter for film shooters or photographers who prefer to get everything correct in the camera.
Warming And Cooling Filters
When photographing autumn colors it’s important to capture the mood of the season. When you think of autumn colors the color palettes of warm tones such as red, yellow, and orange come to mind. It’s important that you capture the whole color spectrum of warm tones while keeping the neutral tones natural. A warming filter, which often can be used in combination with a polarizer or as an all-in-one filter can be very beneficial. The filter adds subtle warmth to the overall color of the image without looking unnatural. It improves shadow detail that can be lost with a neutral polarizer. The warm tones of an image pop out more against the cooler tones; this contrast in color tones adds more impact and color balance to the image. For autumn colors, the foliage is more pronounced against the color tones. Another added benefit of a warming polarizer is its ability to cut through haze and resulting in a more natural appearing image.
When purchasing a filter, quality is important. Chances are, you spent some time and money investing in a good lens, so why put a poor-quality filter in front? Remember, everything you put in front of that lens is only as good as the lowest-quality glass used, and not all filters are created equal. Polarizers, for instance, should be used frequently, and it doesn’t make sense to use a less expensive polarizer that often can be less effective. I use the Singh-Ray LB ColorCombo, which is a combination of a warming polarizer and a color intensifier. I use this polarizer when I want to capture the best of the warmer tones in my images, especially the reds. It works by leaving the neutral colors and only saturating the vibrant colors. Manufacturers such as B+W, Heliopan, Hoya, Lee, Tiffen and others also make high-quality circular and linear polarizers, with numerous models for best matching to your camera and lens. Over the last few years, there has been a increase in camera filter companies that are constantly improving the filters and pushing the boundaries of creativity. Newer companies like Haida, Breakthrough Photography, and NiSi filters are putting out quality filters that are comparative in quality and cost. When choosing an ND filter, it’s important to make sure that it doesn’t have any colorcast. For a series of extremely graduated ND filters, the Blender ND Filters from Formatt Filters use a transition that’s very gradual over the length of the filter, rather than just in the middle, which can be limiting in a scene. For ND grads, I recommend buying large, square filters that are comfortable to hold and will fit over all your lenses.
Falling Into Place
I try to create a story with my images as well as a sense of place, and I want people to imagine that they could see themselves in the images, which may even inspire them. Shooting fall colors is an event I look forward to all year. Capturing the vibrancy of images of changing seasons has always meant something special to me, so even with digital photography, it’s important when shooting autumn landscapes to use optical filters to capture the beautiful colors, tones and hues that abound in the fall.
Kevin McNeal is a landscape photographer who resides in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. He focuses on grand colorful landscapes that reflect the most unique places on earth. Capturing moments of magic light and transferring this on print, images behold a combination of perseverance, patience, and dedication to capture the images in ways unseen before. The stories of how these images are rendered come across in the feelings the images convey.