Think Differently

October 05, 2023  •  Leave a Comment

Warm EmbraceWARM EMBRACEEvery sunrise is different - even at an iconic location such as this. The combination of a "bumper crop" in terms of autumnal color, exquisite rich light, and soft clouds created a uniquely warm ambiance.

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
From one year to the next, autumn foliage displays are never identical; there are too many variables at play to ensure consistent results. What's more, while every show is lovely in its own way, not every season produces spectacular color. Goldilocks would be the first to remind you things aren't always "just right."

There are many ways weather can affect autumnal color - and it's not just the period immediately leading up to the shortening days that is impactful. 

Whenever it's not quite a banner year, one or more of these factors might be responsible:

The summer was too dry.

The summer was too wet.

Spring was late.

There was a late-summer heat wave. 

Early autumn temperatures aren't quite right: optimal conditions are warm and sunny days with cool and crisp nights. 

There's an early hard freeze.

Just as the color begins to peak, rain and high winds knock the leaves down.

Considering that so many factors can influence the timing, brilliance and duration of autumn color, it's amazing how often the whole thing comes together to produce an extraordinary display.

I just finished up what will probably be my final shoot for this foliage season in Grand Teton National Park. Has its 2023 staging of the show been "just right?" Sadly, no. Much like last autumn, this season was uneven. Some trees turned very early. Others remained stubbornly green, often flanked by trees which were already bare. The color was also less brilliant than usual.

Spotty conditions last year were likely caused by lack of rain, excessively high temperatures throughout the summer, and a late-season heatwave which persisted well into September. This time around I suspect it was too much water coming at the wrong time. August was unusually wet, and an uncharacteristic gully-washer in mid-September dumped a tremendous amount of rain in a single day. Spring was also very late.

If you were going to the park this autumn expecting to see scenes similar to what's pictured at the top of the post, you'd have been disappointed.

To be clear, there has been color and the landscape has looked beautiful (then again, when is Grand Teton National Park not beautiful?) - but it wasn't the kind of autumnal extravaganza I know the Tetons are capable of producing. 

If you're someone who regularly photographs the foliage show - regardless of where that might be - I'm certain you've encountered a lackluster display. Or three. 

The conditions are what they are; there's nothing we can do about that. That said, we have complete control over how we're going to manage the situation.

What kind of photograph can be made when the colors aren't at their best - or if you arrived too early (or too late) for peak color?

A few suggestions:

  • If the color's a little flat, let the foliage take a back seat. Try using it as a supporting player to add seasonal context while emphasizing something else.
  • Go smaller. Look for intimate vignettes. You can almost always find some trees - or shrubs - that are vibrant regardless of what's happening on a grander scale. Big landscapes aren't the only way to tell the story of foliage season.
  • Look down. Color isn't only overhead; you might find some great compositions underneath your feet. Literally. This is especially useful if you're shooting past-peak with a lot of leaves already on the ground.
  • Conditions which might at first seem difficult, like dense fog or perhaps smoke/haze, can create interesting and unique opportunities. These types of things are often unpredictable and sometimes require great patience, but can be used to produce terrific images. Work with what you've got.

Radiant RetreatRADIANT RETREATGrand Teton National Park, Wyoming

FROM OUT OF THE MISTFROM OUT OF THE MISTGrand Teton National Park, Wyoming

There's no limit to the way foliage season can be depicted. Consider challenging conditions to be blessings in disguise. They'll force you to get more creative and look deeper into the landscape to find unique compositions.

Think differently!

In Local News

A low pressure system parked itself over Eastern Idaho and Western Wyoming early this week. Dropping quite a bit of rain at lower elevations, it deposited a few inches of snow above 8,400 feet. Driving the Teton Pass was an adventure as the mountains received their first significant dressing in white. 

If you're heading to the Tetons to photograph foliage, you'll still find color but it's definitely going to be on the waning side. There are no high winds in the forecast so that'll help preserve the leaves. As referenced, it's spotty all over the park. The line of aspens at the Oxbow upper lot were in prime form this season. If you hurry, you might still get something there. The bend itself didn't look great; the middle grouping of aspens dropped their leaves early. Buffalo Valley has sported good color; it's still worth checking out but move quickly. The cottonwoods on Mormon Row usually turn late but to my eye it doesn't look like they're in the mood to put on a show. There's some late color around Dornans and the chapel, though a lot of the trees there are bare. 

All Yellowstone roads will be closing for the season on October 31st, with the exception of the Gardiner entrance. It remains open year-round. 


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