Capturing Fall's Splendor in the National Park System

National parks offer endless photographic opportunities. To help bring home the best images, don't forget the "Rule of Thirds," as the top photo illustrates, or to focus on small settings, such as these leaves found at the Johnstown Flood National Memorial. Photos by Brett Gross.

Fall is a very busy time for the National Park System. Leaf peepers hit the road by the millions to see the fall foliage on display in our public lands.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park was the most visited national park last year, with nearly 9.4 million visits, and almost 1.1 million visitors came to the park in October alone.

A few years ago we decided to brave the throngs of visitors and see Virginia’s fall display in Shenandoah National Park (where, ironically, the highest visitation month is October!) and drive the famed Skyline Drive. With the colors at their peak around our home in Pennsylvania, we figured that Shenandoah's forests would be nearing their peak as well.

We were wrong. The mountains of Virginia were still a very vibrant green. We were a bit too early.

These days potential visitors can take a look at the National Park Service’s webcams at Shenandoah or read their leaf reports at this site. (Hint: Go now!)

Hopefully, you will be luckier than we were and will get to see some peak fall colors. With those wishes I’d like to offer some tricks that you can use to make the most of your surroundings.

Use a polarizing filter. If you have a digital or film SLR camera (a camera with interchangeable lenses) then you have a very exciting option: a polarizing filter. If you don’t have an interchangeable lens camera then you can skip to my next tip. A polarizing filter screws onto the end of your lens and can dramatically reduce reflections and glare that can make your foliage really pop. Using a polarizer isn’t as simple as screwing it onto your lens, however so let’s get into it a little bit more.

First off, polarizers are much easier to use if your lens’ front does not rotate as it focuses. The reason is that the polarizer can spin freely and you will get drastically different effects depending on how you have it set. If your lens’ front spins as it focuses, then you will see your perfectly set polarizer shift out of position.

Second, you will only see a difference in colors when you have the sun to your right or left and not when the sun is behind or in front of you.

There is no ‘best’ way to set a polarizer. Look through the viewfinder and spin the polarizer to see what it will do for you (if anything). When you get the effect that you want go ahead and shoot it.

Also a polarizer can cut out reflections on water. If you want to get foliage reflections then you will probably want to take the filter off.

Use the rule of thirds.
This photographic compositional technique should always be in your mind as you frame a shot. As you look through your viewfinder or into the LCD screen of your camera, imagine a tic-tac-toe board superimposed onto the scene. It is commonly advised to put the horizon on one of the two imaginary horizontal lines and something interesting on a vertical line.

Generally, if you are shooting a person you will want to put them on one of the imaginary vertical lines and put their eye level on one of the two horizontal lines.

In the picture above from Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you can see how I used the Rule of Thirds:

* The cabin is centered in the middle zone

* The fence occupies the bottom third of the frame

* The mountain’s peak lines up with the top horizontal line

Of course since photography is most definitely an art, feel free to ignore the Rule of Thirds if you want to achieve something specific.

Use water. Water is an excellent subject by itself (how many pictures of Yosemite Falls do you have?) and it really loves to be photographed with fall foliage nearby. If you are lucky enough to have still water, try to get it with a reflection in it.

Be creative. On a recent trip to the Johnstown Flood National Memorial I saw some really interesting plants. By themselves they are pretty neat and with the colorful ridges in the background I think that they made a nice subject. I used a wide aperture to keep the background blurry so that it doesn’t detract too much from the focus. The final effect was a nice sharp closeup of the plants with a swatch of color as their backdrop.

Shoot early, shoot late. The sun’s light is most complimentary for fall foliage early and late in the day. Given the shorter days, it is much easier to be up and shooting at dawn and dusk so try to take advantage of these photographic golden hours. As a plus, a lot of wildlife is more active at dusk (they’re crepuscular) so keep your eyes open for deer.

Look close. While you are probably in the park for the scenery or wildlife, don’t forget to look at the small things nearby. Individual leaves can be very interesting subjects, so keep your eyes open for that one leaf whose color makes it stand out. While the tree that it is on may not make a compelling subject the leaf and its neighbors may. A leaf on the ground can also make a great subject so don’t forget to look where you are walking.

Shoot what you find interesting. Perhaps the most important thing is for you to shoot what you find interesting. Don’t worry if you can’t use the Rule of Thirds or if the sky is a drab overcast. Your photographs are a great documentation of your trip so don’t hesitate to shoot what strikes you.

Don’t fret your timing. Even if you miss the peak of the colors of fall foliage season, don’t be afraid to shoot. The trees may not be as bright or as beautiful after they shed their leaves, but you can always take advantage of the geography of a scene. A bright blue sky can add some needed color.

Even if you get to your destination a little early or a little late for the full fall display, I am confident that you will have a memorable experience!

Happy shooting!