Photographing Autumn in Vermont

From the Interstate highways of Vermont, as they swoop from high vantage points down into the valleys, you can fully appreciate the extent of the autumn foliage in the Green Mountain State. For mile upon mile, hour after hour, the mountains are a riot of color. The far hills are shaded with dark blue to purple, while closer elevations appear to be a soft rose madder. Mountains on either side of the road constantly surprise the eye with spots of deep orange, cherry red, and the bright crimson of the sumac patches.


To comfortably explore a road system that’s seldom shown on the usual state maps, you must develop some navigational skills. If you’re following step-by-step instructions from a photography guidebook or tourist brochure, you’ll soon learn not to take the information too literally. A road junction that goes unmentioned will take you twenty miles from where you wish to be. In fact, you’ll need a compass in your vehicle, so you can keep track of your general direction. To know where you are at all times, you must trace your progress on a map that shows all the dirt roads and names most of them. Such a map system is Delorme’s Vermont Atlas and Gazetteer, a book of small-scale topographical maps that are exquisite in detail. An odometer with a trip meter is very useful, as well, to indicate when you’ve driven a specified distance.


In autumn, I often add a warming filter (81B or 81C, or an FLD), use one of the new ‘enhancing’ filters, or a combination of these. Be careful about making bright colors look garish. If you’re stacking filters, be sure to allow for changes in exposure, and watch for vignetting if you use wide-angle lenses. I carry a selection of Cokin filters in the “P” size, and two different holders, which allows me to quickly change lenses. In most cases, use of a polarizer is mandatory. In Vermont, the use of metal roofing (which blends with dark backgrounds!) is becoming popular. The Cokin blue-yellow polarizer (CokinP157) will cause roofs of this sort to turn blue on a sunny day, separating them nicely from the background. The steeple of the multicolored church in East Orange, just off Highway 25 west of Waits River, can hardly be seen when you shoot down on the village, if you don’t use such a polarizer.

On really cloudy days, the light is extremely flat, and you’ll often achieve nothing by using filters to change the color of the world. You can’t change the quality of the light with a filter. On these days, it’s best to concentrate on close-ups of colored leaves and trees, and keep the sky out of your composition. The colors will jump out of the film under lighting conditions such as these, and you’ll return with exciting images. Users of the Cokin colored polarizer, which comes in a square holder, have learned that if you interchange this filter with a cheap one that comes in a round holder (such as the Cokin 057 Star filter), you can use the polarizer with various split colored or neutral filters. The two holders will easily snap apart, and the filters can be quickly interchanged.


1) From the west side of the church in East Barnard (pronounced BARnard), the Allan Hill Road runs straight up. Almost a mile along this road on the left-hand side, the Maple Grove Farm provides a good opportunity to employ leading lines. From the road, an open wooden fence parallels a curving driveway down to a large red barn. At the east side of the fence is a wide stretch of grass, upon which the fence throws strong curving shadows in the late afternoon. Behind the barn, the opposing hill makes a colorful background.

2) Just to the west of the East Barnard church is a large cemetery. By shooting from the corner of the cemetery with a short telephoto lens (135mm), you can fill a good portion of the frame with a few gravestones, which can be superimposed against the church itself. Working inside the cemetery and closer to the church, you can create interesting compositions by using a wide-angle lens (24mm) and a low perspective, again employing superimposition. The low perspective will allow you to “break the horizon” with the gravestones, making a more dynamic composition. Superimposition may also be employed in photographing at Waits River, a famous Vermont “photo op.” The village is located about twelve miles west of Bradford, on Highway 25. You can stop in front of the church, then take the small road down the hill and across the bridge, stopping just after the bridge and looking back.

The road and the bridge make a natural leading line to the church. However, if you move to the left, you can superimpose one of the dark buildings in the foreground on the church, thus adding more depth to your image. This technique also has the advantage of reducing the visible part of the building’s metal roof, which reflects a lot of the morning light, to a thin line.

3) Framing techniques may be employed for photographing the multicolored church in East Orange. You can reach this viewpoint by driving 1.8 miles west from Waits River, then taking the small road on the left to East Orange. At the church, turn left up the hill, for three-tenths of a mile, keeping to the left. You’ll find that, by looking down, you can make a lovely composition of the church, framing it with the trees on the road. Different lenses will allow you to emphasize the frame or the church, as you please. A blue-yellow polarizer will help to separate the dark-toned church steeple from the background.

4) To enjoy an excellent “look-down” opportunity, go west from Barnet (off Interstate 91) toward West Barnet, about 2.5 miles, then up the steep hill on the Barnet Center Road for almost a mile. You’ll be looking down on the Hillside Acres Farm, which you can photograph from a variety of angles. The sumac bushes by the side of the road may be used for framing as well as for hiding some of the junk at the left side of the barn. If you’re a well-prepared photographer, you’ve equipped yourself with several cows in your camera bag. Place these in a dominant position in your foreground, using the farm as a background for your shot.

The church steeple in the historic town of Manchester is framed by the fall foliage of several trees, which fills in much of the negative space in the composition.

This horizontal image of Maple Grove Farm in East Barnard gives heavy emphasis to the lovely fence, and its shadow, which makes an excellent leading line into the photograph. Eliminating any distraction from a bright sky is often a good idea.

The angle from which this image was made was carefully chosen to place the white church in East Barnard (freshly painted!) against a dark background, and breaking the primary horizon. The headstones nicely break the secondary horizon, making a dynamic composition.

This view of the church, made from the hill above the village of East Orange, illustrates the use of a blue/yellow polariser, to bring out the color of the metal roofs now becoming popular in Vermont. Without the polariser, the church roof was a distracting monochromatic glare. The tree branch in the upper right of the composition fills in some of the background space, and helps frame the church.

Colored leaves are best photographed on a dark day (preferably raining), using a polarizer. Under these conditions, the bright colors will seem to leap off the film. Care must be taken to prevent bright patches of bald sky in the background from becoming a distraction.

This shot of a moving river, with a slow shutter speed to put a slight ‘veil’ on the water, can only be done on a very dark day, when very little skylight is reflected from the water. The colors of the autumn leaves, and the moss on the rocks, seem to come alive under this kind of light. Use of a polarizer helps reduce reflections on the water, while a neutral filter of 1-2 stops, together with slow film, will allow use of slower shutter speeds on brighter days.

“Coprinus comatus”, the shaggy mane mushroom, is very commonly found in the middle latitudes of North America, often hiding under tall grasses. Also known as “lawyer’s wig”, they tend to turn black around the bottom of the cap as they age. Fungi seem to peak in the autumn, and like colored leaves, provide endless opportunities for interesting macro compositions.

Here is the compositional ploy called “repetitive pattern” with a vengeance … but it’s a little subtle. The foreground presentation of the “vee” in the fence (a foreground vee is a little-used compositional tool, but VERY effective) is repeated in the roofline of the house, and the crotches and branch intersections of several trees. The color of the sky and the autumn leaves merely add to the presentation, photographed in a small southern Vermont town.

Vermont cemeteries always seem to be more attractive, more historic, and more photogenic that those in other places. That in Weston is a case in point, with flags marking the graves of Revolutionary War participants, and headstones leaning just enough to impart a feeling of antiquity. A 24mm wide angle lens yielded almost an infinite depth of field, while allowing several stones to fill about one-third of the frame. Breaking the horizon with the stones makes for a dynamic composition, while use of a blue/yellow polarizing filter augmented, saturated, and warmed the existing colors.

This typical fall scene in Craftsbury Common is enhanced by using the fence as a leading line (more or less!), and placing the sunlit figure on a bench against a dark background. Clothing of human figures in a composition, that matches typical autumn colors, is always a good idea.

by Michael Goldstein

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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