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On Assignment: Techniques for Capturing Autumn Leaves

The best assignments are right in your own backyard
Photo of Autumn Leaves technique

Editor’s Note: Have you ever wondered how your favorite photographers capture the images they take? Digital Photo Pro’s monthly column “On Assignment” is where Canon Explorers of Light, past and present, share a backstage look at one of their favorite assignments and how they delivered the goods. This month we go On Assignment with outdoor photographer Rick Sammon.

When I was invited to contribute to this column, I thought about my most important assignments over the past 30 years: self-assignments. I feel as though they were important because I had to please my harshest critic and toughest boss: me.

Some self-assignments were harder than others. The assignment illustrated here, Autumn Leaves, was relatively easy. Nonetheless, I took the self-assignment seriously. What’s more, I’m sharing the fall foliage photo as it’s leaf peeping season in many parts of the country – and I try to share timely tips.

The Challenge

The main message of this column is to give yourself self-assignments from time to time. Be hard on yourself. Sure, look at the technical aspects of making an image. However, also see if your image captures a mood or feeling and conveys an emotion – the most important aspects of a successful photograph. Also, as Ansel Adams suggested, look into a photograph, and not just at a photograph. Ask yourself, “What do I see, and what will the viewer see?”

Speaking of Ansel Adams and before going on, I’d like to share with you a story told to me by John Sexton, one of Ansel Adam’s assistants. It relates to the image that opens this column. Here’s the paraphrased story: Back in the 1970s, someone on the East Coast writes Ansel Adams a letter: Dear Mr. Adams, I am a big fan. I have your books and some of your posters. You inspired me to go to Yosemite, and when I got there…it did not look like that.

I share this story because the photo that opens this column is not a 100 percent accurate representation of the scene. Rather, as Ansel Adams would say, it’s my interpretation of the scene. Read on to learn more.

My Self-Assignment

Capture the beautiful autumn colors and their reflection in my backyard pond in Croton on Hudson, New York.

My Pre-Visualization (an Ansel Adams technique) Thought Process

Use a wide-lens to capture a wide view of the spectacular scenery and use my camera’s in-camera HDR feature to capture the wide contrast range of the scene – before the light and colors faded in the late afternoon light.

The Behind-the-Scenes Story

My wife Susan and I have lived on this pond for more than 30 years. I pass it every day on my daily walks.

Seeing colorful autumn leaves, illumined by the late afternoon light, reflected in the still water was nothing new. However, on this particular afternoon walk, the combination of color, light and the perfect reflection made for the most dramatic view of the pond I had ever seen. I ran home, grabbed my Canon 5Ds camera and Canon EF 11-24mm wide-angle zoom lens, and ran back to the pond. I was chasing the fading light.

I photographed the scene using the automatic HDR feature that’s built into my camera (and many Canon digital SLR cameras).

My Favorite Shot

I only photographed the scene from two positions that afternoon. The photograph at the top of this story is my favorite because the foreground elements give a sense of “you are there” to the photograph. Those foreground elements also frame the pond, drawing your eye deeper into the photograph. Finally, everything in the scene is in focus, so the scene looks like it does to our eyes.

Basic Landscape Photography Tips

Most of my landscape photographs, as well as seascape and scenic photographs, show the entire scene in focus. For maximum depth-of-filed, choose a wide-angle lens (the wider the better), set a small aperture (the smaller the better), and focus 1/3 of the way into the scene.

To create a sense of three dimensions in a two-dimensional image, use a foreground element or elements. Shadows can also add a sense of depth to an image, as can photographing a subject from an angle (as opposed to straight on).

If a close foreground element and aperture combination don’t allow you to get everything in the scene in focus, you can use a feature in Photoshop called “focus stacking,” which lets you combine pictures taken at different focus points into a single image in which everything is in focus.

When it comes to composition, placing the horizon line in the center of the frame is usually a no-no. With reflections, however, that can work quite effectively. But generally speaking, if the foreground is interesting, place the horizon line near the top of the frame, and vice versa.

Important filters for landscape photography include a polarizing filter and ND (neutral density) filter. A polarizing filter can reduce reflections on water and foliage. It can also make a blue sky look darker and white clouds look brighter. I did not use a polarizing filter on my Kapland’s Pond shot because I liked the way the trees and sky were reflected in the pond.

A good tripod and a good ball-head are important for steady shots in low light. In this situation there was enough light for a hand-held shot.

The basic rule is not to use a shutter speed slower than the focal length of the lens, that is, don’t use a shutter speed slower than 1/100th of a second when using a 100mm lens. Image stabilization and vibration reduction lenses let you shoot at shutter speed one, two and sometimes three stops below that recommendation.

Photo of Autumn Leaves

Image Processing Technique

The above shot is my in-camera HDR image. I had set my camera’s HDR mode to EV O, EV +2 and EV -2 to capture the dynamic range of the scene. For a super colorful image, I chose the Art Vivid mode.

The HDR image looked awesome on my camera’s LCD monitor. When I looked at the image on my home monitor, however, I knew some digital darkroom work (a slight boost in contrast, brightness and tweak of the shadows and highlights) was required to reach my creative objectives.

If you compare this image above to the opening image for this column, you will notice (if you look closely) that the opening image is slightly cropped. You see, I have what is called OCD: Obsessive Cropping Disorder. I crop to eliminate distracting elements near the edges of the image and to create an image with impact. Another way to look at cropping: If somethings does not add to the photograph, subtract it with cropping.

Photo autumn leaves editing
This screen grab shows my three original in-camera RAW images from which the camera creates a high-resolution JPEG HDR image. The image on the bottom left is the in-camera recommended average exposure. As you can see, all the pictures lack dramatic color throughout the scene. The dramatic color was created by choosing the Art Vivid Mode.
Photo of fall leaves
Here’s a photograph I made from a different angle and when the sun was a bit lower in the sky. I used the same camera settings and processing techniques for this image. It’s okay, but for me, without the strong foreground elements, it does not have the same “I am standing there” feeling.
Photo of fall leaves
This is the un-cropped version of the preceding photograph. As you can see, a simple crop (OCD again) turned a full-frame image into an image that looks like a panorama. I decided on the panorama format because I wanted to crop out the dead space (open water) in the bottom left of the original frame.

Summing Up

Some people say that the hardest place to take pictures is in your backyard. I guess it depends, but I have seen a lot of beautiful photographs made in backyards. Keep an open mind. Look for the light and look hard for photographs. My guess is that you can make some great pictures close to home – very close to home.

And most important, give yourself self-assignments from time to time, and don’t go easy on yourself during your personal one-on-one review session.


The opening image for this column is also the result of what I call my “One-Picture Promise.” Let me explain: When you are in a situation, ask yourself, “What is the one lens/focal length, the one composition, the one set of camera settings I should use to get the best possible image?” If you think hard and envision the end result, I promise you that you will get a more creative image and have fewer outtakes.

Photo of a fall landscape
Keeping to my fall foliage theme for this column, I followed my “One Picture Promise” when I took this photograph near Telluride, Colorado. To capture the beauty of these “Dancing Aspens,” I got down very low to ground and shot upward. Info: Canon EOS 5Ds, Canon EF 17-35mm lens @ 17mm.
Photo of an autumn landscape
This photograph was also taken near Telluride, Colorado. There was really only one main position from which to capture the beautiful “S” curve that flowed through the scene. I chose it and made the picture, here, too, using my camera’s HDR mode: Info: Canon EOS 5Ds, Canon EF 24-105mm IS lens @ 98mm.

About Rick Sammon

Canon Explorer of Light Rick Sammon has published 43 books and has recorded 32 on-line classes. During the pandemic, Rick started the Photo Therapy Facebook group – a safe place for photographers to get motivated and to say inspired. Visit with Rick at

Canon EOL page:





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