Photographing Aspen

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Last Dollar Mountain

The fall photography season here in Colorado is possibly at its peak today. Famous for the golden yellow of the aspen groves set in front of snow-capped peaks (no snow yet this season, sadly), Colorado fall photography captures the essence of the West for many.

In this post I wanted to offer a few simple tips on photographing aspen trees at their best. This post will assume that you’ve timed your shoot for the best colour and leaf conditions. Remember that the precise timing of peak colour and condition does vary from year to year (although perhaps not by as much as some of the early fall colour reports might lead you to think).

A few things do tend to hold true though:

  • The sequence in which various areas (and even individual aspen groves) turn tends to be the same from year to year. More northerly locations turn before those to the south. Higher elevation groves turn before those at lower elevation. Even at individual locations, e.g. the Maroon Bells, certain groves will tend to turn before others.
  • Aspen that display red and orange colours are likely to do the same from year to year (although not always to the same degree – it depends on weather conditions through the year)
  • Wind will blow the turning leaves off the trees (no surprise there)

So why is today possibly the peak for the 2015 aspen photography season? Photographers have been chasing the leaves south westwards across the state from Rocky Mountain National Park, through Aspen and Crested Butte, down to the San Juan mountains around Ridgway, Ouray, Silverton and Telluride (where I’m writing this from).

Today the wind has been gusting reportedly at up to 40mph, with leaves blowing all around. It’s a bright, blustery, beautiful autumn day.

To make the most of what’s left of aspen shooting for this year, you should consider (as always :) ) the angle of light and how it interacts with the trees. Aspen trees photograph well in a wide variety of conditions, given their vivid colours, rich textures and attractive patterns.

However, there are a couple of scenarios in which they won’t look their best: front lit by direct light, or under clear blue skies (unless backlit – see below).

Top Tips

Aspen light angles

Here are some key things to consider when photographing aspen:

  • Avoid direct front-light: the trees will probably look flat and dull (the “bad” angles shown above)
  • Avoid shooting in the shade under clear skies: the reflected blue light will result in disappointing colours in your shot
  • Backlighting is great!
  • So is side-lighting!
  • It’s easier to get back or side-lighting when you’re shooting to the south (at least here in Colorado)
  • You can still get backlighting with the sun high in the sky – you don’t need to wait for sunrise or sunset light
  • …although sunrise/sunset light through aspen trees can look great!
  • If you can put a dark background behind your backlit aspen, they’ll pop even more
  • A cloudy day is often a good day to shoot aspen

Here are some examples of various photographs in different lighting conditions to give you a flavour of what works well (and what does not):

Backlit

Autumn Gold

Approximate shot plan: http://ephemer.is/1FLzLWp (red pin is shooting location)

These trees are backlit by the mid-morning sun on the western side of Independence Pass. The leaves glow bright gold when backlit, particularly when they’re at peak colour.

Frontlit

Kebler Dyke

Approximate shot plan: http://ephemer.is/1P9UAwy (red pin is aspen grove location)

The Dyke on Kebler Pass is famous for its groves of red aspen. However, the front lighting seen in this photo does not really show them at their best: front-lighting makes the colours appear matte and gives a dull impression overall. It would be better to have cloud cover to diffuse the sunlight, or to shoot at a different time of day that side-lights the trees.

In Shade

Monarch Candy

Shot plan: http://ephemer.is/1JKFsyE (red pin is shooting location, grey pin shows the sun is below ridge)

These trees on Monarch Pass are in shade, the sun having dropped behind the ridge to the north west. In these conditions, you really want a cloudy sky to avoid blue light being reflected down onto the trees, which can make the colours appear a little sour on camera (they may still look great to the eye in the field).

Overcast

Aspen Study

This shot was taken on Last Dollar Road near Telluride on a completely overcast day. The “softbox” effect of the clouds provides diffuse light in which the aspen look great – particularly if you can capture the delicate shading effects on the silver tree trunks.

Direct sidelight

You don’t need direct back-lighting to make aspen trees glow:

Dallas Divide - Last Light

Shot plan: http://ephemer.is/1hgqHwG (red pin is shooting location, grey pin shows direction of shot)

This shot, on the Dallas Divide, shows the aspen side lit by the low sun (around 10° above the horizon). They glow beautifully!

Diffuse sidelight

Even when the sun drops below the higher ground to the west, the aspen trees retain a beautiful glow, caused by the effect of diffuse side light from the brightest part of the sky. The cloud cover helps soften the light further: it’s a different effect, but still very attractive:

Dallas Divide - After Last Light

High-angle backlighting with a dark background

Side-lit Aspen

Shot plan: http://ephemer.is/1LoAKOy (red pin is shooting location, grey pin shows direction of shot)

The sun was high in the sky at +35° when this photo was taken this morning – not your typical ideal light. But a stand of yellow aspen will still glow even when backlit by high angle sunlight. If you can shoot them against a darker background, they’ll stand out even more, as shown here:

Aspen high angle backlight

I hope you enjoy what’s left of the aspen season for 2015!