For the Northern Hemisphere, fall is in the air! As leaves start to turn yellow, orange, and red, it's time to get out there and make some great autumn photos. In this article, pro photographer Ian Plant shares his five favorite tips for making fabulous fall photos. He also shares a few bonus tips as well!
Watch the video above for a helpful summary of Ian's five favorite fall photo tips, and keep reading to learn more.
Chase peak fall color
This almost goes without saying, but you want to make sure that you are on location at a photo destination when the fall color is at its very best. Luckily, it is relatively easy to track fall color in many places. In the United States, there are plenty of online resources that allow you to predict peak times for fall color, and to get regular updates from foliage spotters as the season progresses.
Knowing where and when the foliage was at its peak intensity helped me capture this sea of color in the Adirondack Mountains. Canon 5D, Canon 50mm lens, ISO 100, f/11, 1/50 second.
Here are a few of my favorite sites for predicting and tracking fall color:
The Fall Foliage Prediction Map from SmokyMountains.com provides peak fall color predictions for the entire U.S.
The Weather Channel has regularly updated fall color tracker maps.
The Foliage Network has regular fall color reports for the Northeast, Midwest, and Southeast U.S.
In addition, you can find a number of sites reporting fall color conditions for a variety of states and local natural areas. Just try doing a search online and see what you come up with!
Mountain areas often have great fall color, with an added bonus: peak color times typically vary by elevation. So, if you are traveling to a place like the Blue Ridge Parkway, for example, you can easily drive higher or lower in elevation until you find an area where fall color is at its maximum intensity. Plan extra time for photographing such areas, allowing you to capture the progression of color from higher to lower elevations.
Mountain locations such as the Colorado Rockies give you some "wiggle room" to capture peak fall color, since color changes at different times depending on elevation. Too late or early for color at one elevation? Just head up or down as necessary to find an area where the color is raging. Canon 5DII, Canon 24-105mm lens, ISO 100, f/11, 1/50 second.
Shoot angled light
I love backlit fall photos; autumn leaves seem to glow from within when they are backlit by the sun. When using a wide-angle lens, make sure to include the sun itself within the composition; stop down to a small aperture such as f/11, f/16, or f/22 to create an attractive "sun burst" effect. Make sure to partially block the sun with a tree limb to minimize flare (check out my article on the avoidance, creative use, and removal of lens flare).
Aim your wide-angle lens up for a dizzying "forest canopy" perspective; include the sun to create a strong point of interest for the viewer. Canon 5DIII, Canon 16-35mm lens, ISO 100, f/11, 1/20 second.
I also like working with front-lit or side-lit foliage. Look for opportunities to pin the foliage against a blue sky or dark, shadowed background. A polarizer filter can help to intensify the color of the foliage and to darken the blue sky, but avoid a polarizer when photographing with a wide-angle lens (uneven polarization of the sky can result when shooting wide-angle). Overcast conditions work best when photographing fall color surrounding streams and waterfalls, or intimate scenes of a pattern of fall color in the forest. Polarizer filters work well for these types of shots, removing glare from leaves and intensifying the color of the foliage.
I made this photo of a bald cypress tree in the Texas bayou lit by side-light. I carefully chose a position placing the tree against a shadowed background to make it stand out from its chaotic surroundings. Sony a7RIV, Tamron 150-600mm lens, ISO 500, f/5.6, 1/500 second.
Look for color contrast
Fall often gives you a vibrant mix of colors, such as greens, yellow, reds, and oranges. Look for a medley of colors to spice things up. I often look for autumn scenes with pine trees or a few deciduous trees that haven't turned yet; that little pop of green can enhance the color scheme of your photos.
I used a drone to capture this aerial perspective of fall color on the shores of Lake Superior, creating a complementary color scheme juxtaposing the warm palette of autumn with the cool blues of the lake. DJI Mavic 2 Zoom drone, ISO 100, f/2.8, 1/13 second.
Even better, look to bring in a complementary color, such as blue. This can be from the blue sky, from water (such as a stream, pond, or lake), or if something in the scene is in shadow on a sunny day. The contrast of cool blues with warm fall colors is really exciting, and it will help to make your fall foliage photos stand out.
The warmth of the fall color contrasts nicely with the cool tones of the trees and water on a sunny, slightly foggy morning in the Texas bayou. Sony a7RIV, Tamron 150-600mm lens, ISO 100, f/11, 0.6 seconds.
Reflections are a great way to make colorful and abstract fall photos. Still water creates a mirror for a fall color scene, while moving water renders reflections of autumn foliage as an abstract blur of color. Experiment with long exposures (one-half second or longer) to creatively blur moving water reflecting fall foliage.
The fallen tree under the water adds an eerie element to this autumn reflection photo taken in the Adirondack Mountains. Canon 5DII, Canon 24-105mm lens, ISO 100, f/11, 30 seconds.
Reflections also are a great way to achieve the warm/cool color mix I discuss above. To get a warm/cool color scheme, make sure the foliage that is being reflected is in strong light on a sunny day, while the reflective water and anything poking out of it (such as rocks or marsh grass) is in the shadows. The reflected foliage will be rendered as bright and warm, while the rest of the scene will appear cooler in tone.
I photographed this small pond in Acadia National Park on a sunny morning. The fall foliage reflected in the water is in bright sunlight, enhancing its color, while the water, marsh grass, and lily pads are rendered a cool tone in the shade. Canon 5DIII, Canon 100-400mm lens, ISO 100, f/22, 2 seconds.
As nature photographers, we don’t often have a chance to control the scene we are photographing. But when photographing fall color, don’t be afraid to take control. Grab a handful of colorful fallen leaves and scatter them throughout your scene. I do it all the time! The trick is to try and place the leaves haphazardly, so they look natural. For example, if every leaf is placed with the color side up, it is a dead giveaway. Of course, savvy viewers will likely suspect leaf placement, but so what! Arranging fall leaves is fun and it can allow you to make better photos. Just a few strategically placed leaves can take your fall photos to the next level.
I sprinkled some fallen autumn leaves over my foreground ferns in this rain forest scene from the Olympic Peninsula. Sony a7RIV, Venus Optics 12mm lens, ISO 400, f/11, 0.8 seconds.
Fall photo processing tips
In the short video tutorial below, available to PRO subscribers only, I share a few simple tips for processing fall photos using Adobe Lightroom/Camera Raw and Photoshop. A PRO subscription unlocks access to this video as well as a number of my other courses and tutorials.