A Detailed Guide to Photographing Fall Foliage

Capturing the color of autumn is a unique window of opportunity for any photographer – vibrant colors can transform an otherwise mundane scene into a blanket of red, yellow, and orange hues. So how does a professional photographer take advantage of this breathtaking season? There are many things you can do to set your images apart from simple snapshots – some are easy, and others a bit more advanced. Below you’ll find a detailed guide to photographing autumn foliage – covering everything from light to composition, as well as a few other helpful tips which will improve your fall foliage techniques this coming season.

Know Your Light
The color of autumn is a short-lived season, which means that the last thing you should do is stay indoors due to less-than-ideal weather. You can find a beautiful image with any kind of lighting – you just need to adjust how you evaluate your scene and use what you have to your advantage.

Your lighting play a huge role on the vibrancy of color when photographing fall foliage. While many don’t consider an overcast day to be the best lighting foliage photography, it’s an incredible way to capture the saturated colors of leaves. Overcast lighting has the ability to eliminate harsh shadows and highlights – and in the process, bring out those powerful tones and colors that aren’t visible under the sun.

You should also know that wet leaves are much more vibrant than those drying in the sun – this combined with overcast lighting can provide you with some serious color.

Overcast lighting is not just for daytime – the blue hours (that small window after sunset and before sunrise) can add a stunning blue/purple hue to fall foliage, with all the benefits of overcast lighting listed above. If you’re a night owl, you don’t have to get up at 4am to capture the fall foliage – night time overcast photos are incredibly powerful, especially when the moon is new (not visible) or there is cloud coverage. While you’ll have to employ long exposure techniques (be prepared for 10 minute shutter speeds), the result is an evenly-lit photo, but with a surreal sense to it.

Of course, nothing can beat those warm tones of the sun combined with the incredible color of autumn. The more direct lighting gives you an increase of shadows and highlights which expands the tonal range and drama of an image. In particular, the golden hours have the ability to flood your lens with visible rays of sun – combine this with the foliage color, and you’re in for an incredibly powerful photo.

When shooting under the sun, you’ll undoubtedtly run into exposure problems – especially in the morning and evening when the angle of the sun gives you more highlights and shadows to work with. An overexposed sky, underexposed ground, or blown highlights from reflections are all common issues that you may encounter. To rectify this, you have two main options – exposure blending or using GND filters. If you’re taking photos of landscapes, you can use either method – if not, then exposure blending will be your best bet.  

Using Weather
The rush of autumn means that weather is unstable and unpredictable – rain, mist, and frost can show up without notice, but that doesn’t mean you can’t photograph during these conditions. Actually, many landscape photographers look forward to these pleasant surprises as it adds a bit of autumn authenticity.

Mist & Fog
Not only is autumn a show of color, but those cold nights allow for many misty mornings. Fog on water and thick mist in the air can provide a stunning composition – combine this with the light of the golden hours, and you can create an outstanding autumn landscape.

Also keep in mind that autumn mornings are often laden with frost from the sudden drop in overnight temperatures – perfect for blue or golden hour autumn images. It’s not just the autumn leaves that look fantastic with frost – it’s the green grass and other foliage that has yet to see the harshness of cold weather.

Past Peak
Just because the leaves have fallen doesn’t mean you can’t capture stunning photos of foliage. The starkness of barren trees combined with color on the ground presents plenty of opportunities for creative landscapes.

As mentioned above, water has the ability to saturate the color of leaves, so wet foliage on the ground presents a particularly successful canvas. This combined with the overcast lighting of a rainy day (which also brings out vibrant colors), and you’re in store for a highly colorful autumn portfolio.

Once peak foliage arrives, it can last a while – anywhere from a week to a month, so you have plenty of time to try out different perspectives and compositions once peak arrives. Also, it’s good to know that once leaves change color, they don’t become any more vibrant than what you already see. And once they fall, the color only lasts a couple days – so actually your window of opportunity to photograph colorful foliage on the ground is shorter than the peak season itself. And finally, foliage can vary greatly within a short radius due to differences in elevation and the type of tree – the tops of a mountain range can be vibrant with color while the town center below has barely turned.

Autumn Techniques
Weather and light have a huge role to play in the kind of autumn images you create, but what special techniques can you use with your camera to photograph autumn in a unique and powerful way?

Sprawling mountain vistas of color is one of the most sought-after autumn photos to capture. If you’re photographing in a rural area with hills and mountains, you’ll want to photograph layers of autumn foliage as a panoramic stitch.

When shooting a panoramic, there’s a certain set of rules you need to follow to make sure your images can be stitched together correctly – this includes using your manual settings, locking your focus, etc. For more information on how to shoot panoramics, follow this tutorial.

Polarizer Filters
Many know that a polarizer filter is a wonderful tool that reduces exposure and also deepens the saturation of colors – a huge benefit for autumn. However, what works particularly well for fall foliage is that a polarizer filter’s glare-reducing ability also applies to sun and light reflecting off of leaves, meaning those colorful leaves that were originally washed out from reflections now have color that is deep and vibrant.

Slowing Down Your Shutter
The colors of autumn provide a wonderful opportunity to get creative with your camera. By using a slow shutter speed, you can capture movement in a surreal and powerful way. Falling leaves or branches of color swaying in the wind are both excellent opportunities to use a slow shutter speed to get a bit artistic with autumn – and don’t forget about moving water.

During the daylight hours, you’ll need to slow down your shutter tremendously in order to capture movement like this – and using a small aperture generally won’t cut it. Instead, you’ll need to use ND filters of varying strength depending on how slow you want your shutter to be. Don’t be afraid to stack your filters either for those very long exposures – just watch out for any unwanted vignetting. And of course – don’t forget to lock your mirror, mount on a sturdy tripod, and use your remote cable release.

Autumn Bokeh
If you have a fast lens, autumn is the perfect time to use that wide aperture and create some outstanding bokeh images. You can photograph bokeh in practically any situation, but autumn is unique – the colorful leaves can create a mosaic of shapes and tones, and they also makes a fantastic backdrop for an outdoor portrait session.

Composing Your Autumn Photo
While autumn photographs of a sprawling mountain side can be breathtaking, they’re not the only images you can capture. Autumn color is a short-lived season where every style of photography can come into play.

Focus on Simplicity
Minimalism can be equally as powerful as an autumn vista – isolated trees, leaves, and macro shots are often ignored in the quest to capture a more complex photograph.

You can also isolate using a wide aperture rather than with your composition – this is a great technique to employ when your photography is confined to a small area. Make sure to bring along a fast lens, such as the 50mm f/1.8 prime – an inexpensive, yet incredibly versatile piece of glass. This will give you some incredibly sharp isolation, allowing you to find a scene to capture even in the most unlikely areas.

Change Your Perspective
Sometimes the simplest way to improve your autumn photography is the most successful. Changing your vantage point from eye-level to up high or down low can provide a unique perspective that many do not expect.

Hijack Some Foliage
One of the great aspects of autumn is that you can take the foliage wherever you go – or at least a small part of it. By positioning a leaf or two in a unique way, you can completely transform an otherwise bland composition by offering a strong focal point – this works especially well with wide angle lenses (the Sigma 10-20mm is one of my favorites).

The autumn season is too short to afford a missed photo opportunity. Clouds, sun, day, night – you can always find a stunning composition to capture, whether you’re looking at a beautiful mountain vista or the confinement of your backyard.

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