A view from underwater of encircling trees, with the scene reflected in a mass of bubbles.

Autumn photography

Capturing the charm of autumn from a fresh perspective

Nature puts on a show during autumn that's unmatched by other seasons. Frequent showers saturate tones and gentle winds conduct a rhythmic flow, while fog and mist provide stark canvases of white and grey to contrast with the pops of colour from the changing autumn leaves.

"Autumn is the season that stimulates the senses the most. It makes you contemplate life," says Netherlands-based nature and landscape photographer Theo Bosboom. "But while it's a charming season, it's very difficult to create something that hasn't been seen before." In his Autumn Leaves series, Theo wanted to find a new way to highlight the best of the season.

Theo is a regular contributor to National Geographic and BBC Wildlife magazine and has twice won the European Wildlife Photographer of the Year award. After returning to the valley of the Hoëgne in Belgium year upon year, he felt he had captured everything the forests had to offer.

"This image represents the end of autumn for me, as only a couple of leaves cling to relatively bare branches against a foggy backdrop. It has a very silent and still energy, and it makes me think of Japanese paintings – simple, graphical, strong in contrast," Theo says.

"It's very picturesque and just magical in autumn, but after a couple of years I realised I'd photographed it from every angle," he says. "I started wondering, 'Is that it?' Just then some leaves fell into a stream and I watched as they were carried away on the water, tumbling under the little waterfalls and getting stuck behind branches and rocks. That's when the idea came to me of photographing the leaves from under the water, in a way that perhaps a fish sees autumn."

While the idea for The Journey of the Autumn Leaves may have seemed simple enough, bringing it to life would be far from simple. "At that point photography was still just a hobby for me," he explains, but he got hold of a Canon WP-DC28 waterproof case for his compact Canon PowerShot G10. Changing into rubber boots and a wetsuit, he waded into the cold stream, held the camera in its waterproof case under the water and pointed it skywards.

"I couldn't really see what I was doing, but every time a leaf passed by I pushed the button and hoped for the best," he continues. "The majority of the pictures were pretty bad and I took countless accidental selfies, but one really nice shot stood out [see below]. It made me realise this could be a project, and that's when I decided to invest in the underwater housing for my Canon EOS 5D Mark III [now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV]."

The overarching trees are pictured from under the water, with a lone leaf floating on the surface.
"I think this shows a fresh perspective on autumn – the view under the water of the landscape above with the leaf in limbo in between," says Theo. "It's special to me because it was from that first session, and is the image that encouraged me to continue the project."

Over the autumns that followed, Theo swiftly moved from amateur to professional, eventually giving up his day job as a lawyer in 2013. He developed his underwater shooting techniques, preferring to use natural light where possible, which, in contrast with landscape photography lore, meant that the best shooting time was in the middle of the day.

"When the sun was at its peak the rivers received the maximum amount of light, so I rarely had to rely on flash, unless the water was very murky or I wanted to illuminate an interesting corner," he says. "I needed to boost the ISO to capture strong images in the river, because I needed the extra light underwater. Thankfully raising the ISO on the Canon EOS 5D Mark III didn’t affect the quality."

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"I found bubbles fascinating to photograph from beneath the water because they have these wonderful reflections of the landscape above. The best locations to find bubbles are near waterfalls or fast-flowing water."

Unable to see his compositions in real-time, Theo relied on trial and error, but knew there were certain things he could do to improve his chances. "I always like to shoot in Aperture Priority mode, because I can trust that the camera is going to get the shutter speed right for me. It leaves me to play with the depth of field, which is important in landscape photography and when you want to capture a lot of details," he says.

"Underwater I didn't need a great depth of field, so I could keep the aperture wide open to allow in more light. The camera's autofocus was really reliable and an absolute must, and I learned to get as close to the subject as possible, especially when the water wasn't clear. I also learned that a wide angle lens would yield the strongest results."

"This is my favourite from the collection. I held the camera at the bottom of the stream, which meant I could steady it for longer and use a long shutter speed of a third of a second, so that the leaves were still sharp but the water above showed movement. I think it resonates well with the idea I have of autumn: the flow of things, the cycle of life," Theo explains.

For those unsure about taking the plunge, there is also plenty of potential above water to whet your autumnal appetite. "People are often looking for the epic landscapes, and they spend all their time waiting for the 'right' light, but I prefer to concentrate on details, which hold just as much, if not more interest," he says. Fallen leaves, acorns, brightly coloured berries and mushrooms are all ideal autumnal subjects, which are less dependent on great light or weather. "Just look to the ground and you'll soon discover many interesting things – with details your options are limitless."

The word 'details' may conjure up ideas of macro photography – and many compact cameras have very good macro capabilities – but Theo means simply focusing on some aspect of the scene in front of you, rather than the whole vista. "I like to use my Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM lens to focus on something, such as part of a tree, and I just zoom in and out to isolate what works for me," he says. "You can do exactly the same with a compact camera – just work with what you've got."

"This is one of my early images that tells the story of this mountain stream," says Theo. "It's a very classic, timeless, above-water landscape, but it marks the point where I'd come as far as I could shooting this style of shot of this particular river in the forest. It was the point where I wondered 'What’s next?'. I love the grey and misty morning light. The composition uses fallen leaves, while the movement in the water, plus ferns, beech and birch trees, gives it balance."

Working with what you've got seems to apply to the weather too, as Theo is far from a fair-weather shooter. He claims there is no such thing as bad weather in nature photography, only bad clothing (or lack of camera protection – not all cameras are equally weatherproof, so it can be wise to invest in an appropriate rain cover or lens hood). He says, "It's a good idea to check the forecast and plan ahead, but every kind of weather has its possibilities – you just need to think out of the box. After it rains, the colours are more intense. Windy weather can disrupt long exposures when you want to get sharp shots of leaves or other things that move, but you can turn it around and make more impressionistic images of them in motion. Foggy conditions create great atmosphere. And then there are those great mornings when you have fog and dew and dappled sunlight. I'm too impatient to wait for the 'right' light, so if the light isn't working for one thing, then I go and find something else to photograph."

"This shot was taken above the water of a small beech in full autumn colours, but I employed the same technique as some of the underwater images, using a wide angle lens pointed to the sky after I had crawled under the tree to get this perspective," says Theo. "I like how it contrasts fiercely against the misty, barren forest as the surrounding trees have no leaves."

As much as Theo is a fan of autumn, he says there's as much creativity to be had during the transition periods too. "Photograph things like summer flowers at the end of their lifecycle protruding through the fallen leaves, or keep an eye on the weather report for that first fall of snow, because when it settles amongst the existing autumn colours it creates a powerful mix of seasons," he says.

"This shot is very typical of my photography where I am searching for interesting patterns, details and rhythms," Theo says. "I really like the distribution of the leaves, the little bit of foam. It was taken on a shallow part of the side of the river, which wasn't moving very fast. It's just a nice collection of different types of leaves in various colours and stages."

Theo's Autumn Leaves project has been widely published, and he even received a runner-up award in the Creative Visions category at the 2013 Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition for one of the images. But with as many photographers vying for attention on social platforms as leaves on the forest floor, he says finding a fresh perspective is the way to stand out. "You can travel to far-flung places, and make wonderful pictures, but most editors won't pay any attention to them unless they are really different in some way," he says. "Really think, 'What can I add to what's already out there?'"

Written by Natalie Denton

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