Fall Photography Basics

(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 Report website.

Just FYI – Sometimes I find that the best colors seem to be just a day or two after what the websites list as “Peak Color”. Not sure why, but (again, sometimes) it seems like their “peak color” still has a lot of green foliage in it – I like to try and get as many reds and oranges as I can, so I wait juuuussst a bit (again – usually a day or two – hesitate too long and you’ll miss it – D’oh!).

Another big thing to look for is a “leaf drop” map. You know you still have time if there’s peak color but LOW leaf drop. On the other hand, you know you’re missing out if there’s moderate to high leaf drop with peak color. The Foliage Report site mentioned above has maps for both color and leaf drop and is exceedingly helpful.

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.

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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.

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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!

Fall color along a river in Smoky Mountain National Park. The rapids flow along a group or rocks and boulder with red, yellow, and orange trees in the background.

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!



If you enjoyed this article, I think you’ll REALLY like my e-books, Secrets To Stunning Wildlife Photography and Secrets To The Nikon Autofocus System. They’re filled with hundreds of pages of information just like this. Check it out – click here (hey, it’s free to look 🙂 )


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22 Comments on "Fall Photography Basics"

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Hi Steve
I have enjoyed your Videos on photography tips and techniques it is really Helpful . Thanks !
Your photos are wonderful . I wish to have your books to learn more techniques & will be handy for reading.


Beautiful pictures! Love the way you explain tho go, is so down to earth and easy to understand, thanks!


Very succinct article. The pictures are incredulous at first glance, that must have meant loads of hours in the editing room

Russ Heim

GREAT Tips Steve,
Definitely gonna dig up my polarizer and see what I can find out there… 🙂

Sean Tomlinson

You’re so much fun – I enjoy your videos and your articles both. I’m working on using fall colors in central Kansas, we have a little and they’re lovely. This morning was particularly fun – I actually had time to shoot during golden hour (that’s the good side of a toddler getting you up at 6 am, right?). Now to find some mammals…

Ernie Smith

Steve you are an expert with both your ability and as a teacher, thank you for sharing

Sam Britton

What a sensational article, Steve. I always marvel at the images you create. Absolutely wonderful. I don’t have a polarizer filter for my Nikon 18-200 mm and am wondering if you have a suggestion on one to purchase. As you know, they can get a little pricey and I always wonder if it still makes the most sense to be sure to “get what you pay for.” Any thoughts you have will be appreciated. Love the new website.



Great article and love your site. Have you ever thought of identifying the photo locations in articles such as this. I grew up in middle Tennessee and now live in Asheville, NC, and recognize some of the locations. Others I do not recognize and would love to visit them.
Just a thought. BTW, I also purchased your wildlife book recently and I am enjoying reading it. I think, thanks to you, I have finally been convinced to go with Back Button Focus.

Thanks, Alan

francine dollinger

I love your website. I love the fall pictures. I plan on getting your book for wildlife as soon as I get a minute to read it. I live in Colorado for the last 4 years and cant tell you how great the wildlife is here. I wish I had read your info about the polarizer before I traveled this summer. I would love it if you could put the settings for the pictures also. I am terrible at waterfalls, it would help me get that better shot. I watch for your tips. Keep up the posts.


Thank you so much for the great information. Very timely as I’m headed out tomorrow to photograph in NW Montana and it is rainy and cloudy, but beautiful. I will use a polarizer! and the tips in your article. Thank you for being so generous with your knowledge.


New site working just fine, when you switched over I did find a speed problem. Love your instruction and photos.


Thank you for these fundamental tips.
Clearly explained and not too technical ☺
So, next thing I have to buy : a polariser 77mm.

To me your new site is top. Nothing to complain of . Good and clear layout, good speed… so…. what else ?

Bill Mihalovits

Thanks for the great tips and beautiful photos. It might be helpful to show “before and after” pictures to better illustrate how lighting and polarizing filters really make a difference.
Please keep up the great work.

Michael Watkins

Thanks for all the great tips. i wish I had read them before our trip we just finished to Waterton Lakes and Glacier NP. I was satisfied with my landscape photos however I did not put my polarizer filters, sitting in my bag, that may have added more to the collection. Next outing will use more for sure.
Your book has been very helpful.
My retirement plan has been to take nature and wildlife photos and that is what I have been doing.

Thank you so much for sharing

Michael Watkins

Cathy Midtsem

Thank you for sharing your photography tips and techniques. Your photos are absolutely gorgeous. Your book was so helpful and educational so I know your redesigned website will not disappoint.
Greatful novice.


Wonderful new sight. Fantastic photos. Only thing that could make it better is if you could give the settings used for the shot. That way us novices would know better where to start.
Thanks for all the great information. It inspires us all to get out and try to capture the beauty of nature. Ain’t it grand!

Bonnie Moore
Steve, I just wanted to let you know how much we are still enjoying the gorgeous art (mis)prints purchased a couple of years ago. My son just moved out on his own and asked if he could have 1 of my 3 treasured framed prints. I smiled sweetly and said I would leave them to him in my will or he could purchase from your website. My husband and I imagine what it must be like to travel as you do and capture such beauty. The passion for your art and your willingness to freely share with others brings joy… Read more »
Grace Singh

Your new web site is great your photographs are
Beautiful, stunning, amazing!!! I pray one day I’ll be able to take photo like that, thank you for sharing
Your gift. May God bless you love Grace


Really liked this article as it was an excellent reminder of all of the things to do. New website is very nice and I’m looking forward to seeing more good stuff.

Many thanks.

Mark and Emily Fagan

Steve, another great timely article. We just left Ouray Colorado were we photographed the fall colors and are now in Zion National Park where they are happening.
Your new site looks fantastic!
Thanks, M&Em