As the temperatures cool, the lush green landscapes of summer fade into the colors of fall. While many are excited about being bombarded with pumpkin flavored everything in the United States, I’m getting goosebumps over the cascades of yellow, orange, and red that will soon shower the mountainsides. Not only does fall photography offers a little more snooze time with later sunrises and earlier sunsets, but it offers the excitement of the hunt to find spots bursting with color. Let’s face it, the fall foliage forecasts aren’t always the most accurate. Here are my 6 indispensable shooting tips for fall photography when you are in the field.
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 to trip planning. The timing of color changes in the leaves is primarily driven by the increasing length of night. As the days grow shorter and the nights grow longer and cooler, biochemical processes being to change the leaf from green to some fall color variation. Whether than realize it or not, this is the reason why many photographers opt for the beginning-to-mid Octobers the best window of days to book their travel in the Northeast.
Fall Photography Shooting Tip: Use the fall foliage colors to shape around the image’s focal point.
Creativity Trumps Timing
Timing, however, is only part of the equation and the peak of colors is only a very small window. 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 image.
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.
Even try finding 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.
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 try using the softer morning and/or evening light.
Polarize & Protect
First, a camera body, a lens, and a tripod. Those are the basics to get started with landscape and nature photography. Second, with the camera focus being the leaves of autumn, a circular polarizing filter (CPL) is a must! A polarizing photography filter will remove reflection from any shiny or wet parts of the leaves as well as deepen the color of the leaves. Additionally, a circular polarizing filter can help reduce haze in the atmosphere making the colors more vibrant in the image. The CPL filter will reduce the amount of light entering your lens so that’s why 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 maneuver if I want to tinker with my settings.
Use 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 can add a needed interested by creating mood and atmosphere into the composition turning a rather straightforward image into something more complex and intriguing. Since there may be less light during this time, it is important to use a tripod and perhaps even increase your ISO for these type of images.
Wind is the Devil
With rain comes wind, and wind can wreak havoc on your fall photography images. Actually, wind is just there to torment at any time of year. Okay, sometimes it helps too. Though, if the preference is to freeze motion in the image, then you will need to ensure a shutter speed that is 1/30th of a second at a minimum. When there isn’t enough light to properly expose the image with a quick shutter speed, then increase the ISO just until you reach the preferred shutter speed and aperture. Then, there are the moments when the wind is just going to overpower any camera settings. That is the time to incorporate motion into the composition or see if you can work on close-up work where you may be able to shield the area in the image from the wind.
Watch your RGB Histogram
Alright, so I thought wind was the devil, but I’m retracting that statement. 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 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 rely on the post-processing to recover. If that red channel of the camera 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 data in the leaves. To do so, I check to make sure there is no clipping, especially in that red channel.
Chrissy is a professional nature and landscape photographer, photo educator, and writer born and raised in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains. She enjoyed her engineering career until a move abroad sparked an intoxicating and blissful obsession with landscape photography. After years of maturing her talents, that obsession transformed into a career.
With an affection for exploration, Chrissy has traveled to over 40 countries through her semi-nomadic lifestyle. As a result, her portfolio is a diverse range of locations featuring both grand landscapes and nature’s small scenes. With as much as she thrives in creating images, she equally enjoys teaching and sharing her passion with others, and writing awkward bios in the third person. Chrissy’s industrial engineering skills collide with her nature photography in her online course: Let’s Get Organized! in Lightroom.