(Note, this was published a few years back, but I decided to update it for the upcoming fall season)
So, ready to photograph some fall color are ya? Not so sure where to start? Well, take a gander at the 10 tips below and you’ll be well on your way to snagging yourself some wall hangers!
1. Timing is EVERYTHING!
I’ve said it before, but it’s even more important for fall color – shoot when your subject looks best! A quick Google search for “Fall Color Report” will provide an avalanche of links with helpful information. I personally like both the Weather Channel’s fall color reports and the Foliage Network website (sadly, the Foliage network no longer has enough spotters to do their maps, BUT they do have links to resources that can help with foliage conditions) .
Bonus for 2020 – CNN has a really great interactive map – it even uses a slider for predicted color. (Thanks George!)
For this shot, I had to keep checking for over a week before the trees were “ripe”!
One word of caution – strong winds and rainstorms are not your friends. If you have a place in mind and you’re waiting for the right moment to pounce with your camera, it’s always a good idea to watch the weather for the area you’re planning to photograph. I’ve timed trips for perfect fall color – only to have all the leaves scattered before I arrive.
2. Use a Polarizing filter.
This is my secret weapon for getting great fall color (and great color in general). A lot of people think of a polarizer as a filter that makes blue skies bluer (LOL – the only thing I don’t use it for), but its main purpose it to take away reflections.
Even though you normally don’t notice it, vegetation – leaves in particular – tend to reflect a lot of light. When you photograph this reflection, it “masks” the color of the object under it. By removing the reflection, you allow the true color to show through – you know, like all those brilliant reds, yellows, and oranges.
To see a real world example, you needn’t go any further than a pair of polarized sunglasses. We’ve all been driving along in the car and did the whole “with and without” sunglasses thing. Polarized sunglasses always seem to make the colors pop – and it’s all because they eliminate the little reflections present on leaves (and rocks, vegetation, etc).
Oh, and no – there really isn’t a photoshop way to duplicate the effect no matter what you may have read on the internet. If you photograph the reflection instead of removing it with a polarizer, you never captured the underlying color information to begin with, so no way to recover it.
3. The color isn’t (usually) the subject.
A big mistake people make when shooting fall color is getting all caught up in the color and forgoing everything else.
Hey, I’ve been there and done that myself – only to be disappointed when I reviewed the images on the computer. So, nowadays I tend to treat color more as an added element of the photo instead of the end all and be all.
So, my #1 job when seeking out fall color shots is to find a really great scene first – and then try to set up a composition that uses the colorful vegetation to enhance what would have been a great photo even without the color.
Had I been there in summer, I would have done the same composition – autumn just added some color:
4. Wet leaves are AMAZING!
Sure, shooting on a nice, sunny day can be fun, but you’re far more likely to find me trudging through the woods looking for fall landscapes in wet, foggy, or drizzly conditions.
No, no, it’s not because I’m a bad weather masochist or anything. Ever pick up a colorful rock from a beach that’s been in the water? Ever notice it doesn’t look so hot after it’s dried off? Same thing applies to leaves. Shoot ’em when they’re wet, add a polarizer, and you’ll find yourself cranking the saturation slider DOWN in photoshop!
5. Shoot under cloud cover.
I know, another blow to sunny days, but the soft diffused light that an overcast sky provides can really give you some incredible colors. A bright sunny day can easily overcome the punchy colors you’re trying so hard to capture (and even a polarizer can be hard pressed to save you), whereas an overcast day allows for a larger palette of subtle colors to come through.
You know, more of a moody photo than one that smacks you across the face and yells “SUNNY DAY!!!”
This, like many of the shots in this article, is under soft cloud cover:
6. Get great sunlight.
Of course, there’s always room for some sunlight – you just need to leverage it to your advantage.
First, start off when the sun is low – the “golden hour” that’s often mentioned in photographic circles. We’re talking one hour after sunrise and one hour before sunset. The angle of the light is much better, rendering textures that a high sun conceals. The light is also much warmer in color, augmenting those warm colors in the foliage and causing ’em to pop even more.
Look for compositions where you can showcase the light. In conditions like this, I’m usually looking for side light options or even backlight opportunities. (Backlight can really make the colors of the leaves pop!)
Keep in mind that no matter what you’re trying to photograph, I very seldom (read: almost never) come across a scene that looks better at mid-day – those first and last hours of light will, 99% of the time, make your subjects look better than mid-day light ever could.
7. Look for color contrasts.
Another great piece of advice is to keep an eye out for color contrasts. A patch of yellow trees in a sea of evergreens, a single red leaf on a mossy log, or even a green tree in a batch of red ones.
The yellow leaves stand out against the deep greens in this photo:
8. Remember to try different focal lengths!
When it comes to fall colors, it’s tempting to try to include everything you see. However, wide angle isn’t the only tool in your arsenal.
Try all the focal lengths at your disposal – as well as varying distances from your subjects. Maybe a closeup of a red leaf is more compelling than the entire tree. Perhaps a wide angle of a stream is just right. Or maybe zooming in on a group of trees on a hillside makes the best photo.
Although, sometimes ultra-wide is just what you need:
My advice it to use your lens to include everything that adds to your photo and crop out everything that doesn’t. Look at every part of your composition and decide if that area is adding to the shot – or taking away from it. Let the landscape dictate your focal length.
9. Try adding water
OK, I’m a waterholic and I freely admit it. I love flowing water in my shots and I happily use it with fall color every chance I get.
From flowing streams, to lakesides, to waterfalls, I’m game. In most cases, I’m still taking the exact same shot I would have otherwise captured, I’m just using fall color to enhance the scene.
This stream in the Smokies just begged for a photo!
Also, keep an eye out for fall color reflected in the water. Sometimes the reflection combined with a good subject can be pretty magical.
10. Don’t forget the critters!
Most mammals are looking their best in fall, so make sure you take advantage of it. Naturally, you don’t have total control of where you’re going to find an animal, but I promise you, they do sometimes find themselves surrounded by fall colors.
So, in addition to your wide angle, grab that telephoto and see if you can get a critter in the colors!
Sometimes, they do cooperate!
There ya go – happy shooting and maybe I’ll see you out there!
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