Landscape Photography

How to Photograph Stunning Fall Foliage: 6 Essential Tips

September 15, 2022

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While many are excited about the bombardment of pumpkin flavored everything exploding in the United States, I’m getting goosebumps over the cascades of yellow, orange, and red that will soon shower the mountainsides. Fall photography is coming! Not only does the autumn season offer a little more snooze time with later sunrises and earlier sunsets, but it offers the excitement of discovering spots bursting with color.  The color and leaves change rapidly that you need to be on point. What’s there today may be gone tomorrow. Each year, the temperatures cool, I refresh my memory about how to photograph stunning fall foliage with these 6 essential tips.

Fall Photography of Autumn Waterfall and colorful leaves

Timing is Almost Everything

It’s true. Everyone wants to be out when fall foliage is at its peak, but predicting peak colors isn’t easy. Fall foliage reports may be helpful. However, often they are not extremely accurate at the time of trip planning.  The leaves changing color is primarily driven by the nights getting longer and the days getting shorter as we enter the fall season. The longer and cooler nights result is biochemical processes changing the leaves from green to those beautiful yellows and oranges.  Whether we realize it or not, this is the reason why many photographers opt from the beginning to the middle of October as the best window for fall foliage in the Northeast United States.

Fall Photography of color leaves and tree in autumn

But Creativity Trumps Timing

Timing, however, is only part of the equation and the peak of color is only a very small window. Plus, different tree species show their colors at different times. For example, Oaks display their yellow and reds after the Maple leaves begin to fall. There is no reason to wait for the perfect peak day. From late September through the middle of October, there should be color. Check the fall foliage maps and go find it. If only certain trees are showing color, then be creative to highlight the color in your fall photography.

  • Try a telephoto lens to isolate the leaves on branches, in water, or even on the ground.
  • Use the color as a way to draw the eye to the subject of the composition.
  • Look for a composition with complementary color pairings, such as red leaf on the green grass or yellow leaves with a blue sky.
  • Revisit locations to see how colors have changed. You may even find a fresh perspective for a better composition.
  • Try intentional camera movement (ICM) to give some creative blur.

Last, in order to help balance the highlights and the shadows, try to photograph in softer light on overcast days. If Mother Nature decides not to give you a cloud in the sky, then explore during the day and revisit the compositions you find under the softer and more even early morning and/or evening light.

Polarize & Protect

First, you should have a camera body, a lens, and a tripod. Those are the basics to get started with landscape and nature photography. Second, with focus being the leaves of autumn and their color, a circular polarizer/linear (CPL) filter is an essential piece of gear!

A circular polarizer is a photography filter that will remove reflection from any shiny or wet parts of the leaves. Additionally, a CPL will add a bit of saturation to the color of the leaves. It can even help reduce haze in the atmosphere making the colors more vibrant in the image.  The tradeoff is that the CPL will reduce the amount of light entering your lens, thus slowing down your shutter speed slightly. That’s why I started this section that a tripod is the first essential (or have lots of light in the scene so you can shoot handheld).

As a note, no matter the season, it is beneficial to always have rain protection for your gear. This doesn’t have to be expensive. Even though I have “proper” rain covers for my camera, 90% of the time I use either a shower cap (taken from a hotel) or an extra rain cover from my backpack when in the field. Both options work well and are easier for me to tinker with my settings compared to a proper camera rain jacket.

Fall photography of waterfall and cascades in the creek

Watch your RGB Histogram

The devil is in the details, your histogram details.  And I don’t mean the that big white histogram, it is important to check those red, green, and blue (RGB) histograms underneath. The reason being is that the fall foliage colors (yellow, orange, and red) are expressed in the red channel of the histogram. It is entirely possible and often likely that the compiled histogram will be pushed to the right. Then you’ll have to rely on the post-processing to recover.  If that red channel of the camera’s RGB histogram is pushed too far to the right, then you are potentially losing details of the leaves! My preference is to ensure I’m capturing all that important color data in the leaves.  To do so, I check to make sure there is no clipping, especially in that red channel.

Photograph the Fog & Mist of Autumn

Cool nights followed by warm days will enable the fog and mist to roll into your fall photography. If you wake up to a foggy morning, I hope you jump out of bed with excitement. Sure, fog and mist can soften, mute, or at times even cover the color. However, fog and mist add mood and atmosphere into the composition. These elements turn a rather straightforward image into something more complex and intriguing.  Since there may be less light during this time, it is again important to use a tripod and perhaps even increase your ISO for these type of images.

Watch Out for the Wind

One of the most deflating discoveries is when you think you captured something great, only to come home and find that some of the leaves aren’t in focus and were blurred from a simple gust of wind. Wind can wreak havoc on your fall photography images.  Actually, wind can torment nature photographers at any time of the year. Okay, sometimes it helps too. The key is simply to be aware of those subtle breezes. When photographing fall leaves, be sure to zoom in and check the leaves for any unintended blurring.

To capture sharp leaves, typically, the minimum shutter speed needed is 1/30th of a second.  If there isn’t enough light to properly expose the image with that fast of a shutter speed, then increase the ISO until you reach a safe shutter speed to freeze any motion from the wind. Lightroom and Topaz Denoise are so good at handling noise these days. I have no fear of increasing my ISO. 

Now, there may be times when the wind is simply going to be so strong that you need to work with it.  That is the time to incorporate motion into the composition whether you intentionally let the leaves blur or experiment with some intentional camera movement (ICM). Alternatively, see if you can shift your focus to small scenes. For small scenes, you may be able to shield your composition from the wind.

There you go! Those are the 6 tips I review each fall photography season. I hope they help you as much as they help me capture stunning fall foliage images. Happy Photographing!

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Fine art nature and landscape photographer, speaker, and Lightroom educator.

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