Photographing Fall Colors

Fall colors adorn the mountainsides in Teller county, Colorado
Fall colors adorn the mountainsides in Teller county, Colorado

Pro tips for photographing fall colors and foliage

As summer starts to fade, it’s time to turn our thoughts to the approach of autumn. The smell of pumpkin spice is in the air, and soon the leaves will be turning. If you want to photograph the changing leaves this year, it’s good to have a plan, and have the right approach. Here are my tips for getting outstanding photos of fall colors.

Determine when the foliage will peak

Predicting when foliage reaches peak color is an inexact science. The timing will vary by latitude, elevation, and seasonal factors like rainfall. Generally, fall colors start in mid-September in the higher latitudes (northern hemisphere) and can run as late as November as you travel south. You can view an interactive map of US foliage predictions here.

Cloudy days are best for colors

While everyone loves a sunny day, you’ll get far better results with rendering color if you can be out on a partly cloudy day. Wait for the sun to become obscured by clouds before shooting. The naturally diffused light will soften the scene, remove harsh shadows, and make colors really stand out. If you do end up with an overcast day, compose your shot to crop out the sky.

A cloudy or overcast day is best for bringing out the colors in fall foliage

For a creative spark, look for close-ups

I think that all too often we are looking for the heroic, wide-angle shot of fall colors. But your wide-angle lens can actually make the colors less noticeable, especially if you’re somewhere without wide swaths of color. If you are struggling creatively, don’t try to fit everything into your frame. Get out a short telephoto or even a macro lens and look for tight shots that capture the colors and textures of fall. You can often find leading lines and patterns in tree bark, and a longer focal length will allow you to render soft, out of focus backgrounds.

Aspen leaf and raindrops, captured with a 105mm macro lens

Do you need filters?

With digital post-processing tools being so powerful these days, I rarely shoot with lens filters anymore. But for fall colors, you’ll want a polarizing filter for your lens to reduce the glare from the leaves. A polarizing filter is the only way to truly get glare off of leaves and water, so it’s a must-have accessory.

Experiment with different compositions and creative techniques

One technique I love is to use a wide-angle or fisheye lens and point straight up into the sky from beneath the trees. If the sun is in the frame, stop down the lens aperture to render it with a starburst pattern. On cloudy days, you can add a polarizer or solid ND filter and experiment with hand-held long exposure “swipes” and create abstract images. With a little practice, you’ll be able to get some unique and creative photographs of fall colors that will stand out from the pack.

Fall colors reflected in Bear Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park, CO

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