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Ten Tips for Photographing Fall Foliage

Fall is in the air! Although the color is beautiful, autumn photography can be harder than you think. Looking to get the best out of your fall photos? These ten easy tips will allow you to make autumn images just like the pros.

Autumn cottonwood trees are backlit by the sun peeking out behind storm clouds, Grand Teton National Park, USA. Canon 5DIII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, ISO 400, f/16, 1/100 second.

#1: Find peak color. Being in the right place at the right time for peak autumn color has never been easier. There are plenty of online resources that allow you to monitor fall color progression and determine where and when to go for optimal photography conditions, including a number of sites dedicated to local foliage conditions for specific areas of the country—an internet search will pull up dozens for your perusal. Just remember that the color peaks earlier at higher elevations, and this may not always be reflected in online fall color reports which often rely on local spotters living at lower elevations. Photographing in mountain areas can give you the best chance of catching peak fall color, as different altitudes will peak at different times, giving you more flexibility and options for shooting peak conditions.

I waited for autumn color to peak before making this aerial photo in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, USA. DJI Phantom 4 Pro, ISO 100, f/3.2, 1/50 second.

#2: Match the right light to the scene. Everyone loves to see bold autumn color juxtaposed against a brilliant blue sky. Look to frame the most vibrant sunlit reds and yellows against the sky to create the strongest color scheme; including a few puffy white fair weather clouds certainly can’t hurt either. If you are deep in an autumn forest, shoot straight up with a wide-angle lens for a dizzying perspective. But sunny weather is just the beginning. Overcast light often works best for streams and waterfalls, and a little bit of drizzle can really help to saturate autumn colors.

I leaned back with a wide-angle lens to make this skyward view of autumn trees in Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina. Canon 5DII, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens with Canon adapter, ISO 400, f/11, 1/100 second.

#3: Use a polarizer filter. Polarizer filters reduce reflections and cut through glare, thereby enhancing color. They are particularly effective when photographing wet foliage and autumn streams and waterfalls, but even dry scenes can benefit from a polarizer. Polarizers can also darken blue skies and increase contrast between any clouds and the sky behind them, but be careful when using a polarizer with a wide-angle lens. Polarization is maximized when shooting at a 90 degree angle from the sun, and with a wide-angle lens, you’re going to be taking in a broad angle of view, leading to uneven polarization which can result in one part of the sky looking darker than the rest.

A polarizer filter helped remove glare from the water and wet rocks and deepen the color of the stream, Zion National Park, USA. Canon 5DII, Canon 24-105mm f/4 lens, ISO 400, f/16, 1.3 seconds.

#4: Shoot autumn reflections. Create compelling autumn images by photographing autumn color reflected in water. Still water, such as a pond or lake on a windless day, can create a mirror reflection of fall color covering the far shore. Look for rocks or logs in the water to break up the reflection and to provide a visual anchor to help strengthen your composition. Moving water, such as a fast-flowing brook or mountain stream, or rippled lake water on a breezy day, allows you to create impressionistic blurs. Experiment with exposures of a half-second or longer to capture a pleasing amount of motion blur. With reflection images, your photos will be most effective when the foliage is lit by bright sunlight and the water is in shadow. A polarizer filter can help to bring out the colors if turned only slightly—a little bit of polarization can enhance the scene, but too much can reduce or eliminate reflections.

I made this photo of sunlit autumn foliage reflected in a shadowed pond. I used a long exposure to blur the water and the wind-blown marsh grasses, creating an impressionistic mood for the image. Canon 5DIII, Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens, polarizer filter, ISO 50, f/32, 6 seconds.

#5: Zoom in for autumn intimates. Autumn is a great time for photographing intimate still life images. A short telephoto zoom, such as a 70-200mm lens, is perfect for such scenes. I personally like intimate scenes that help tell the story of the changing of the seasons. Look to zoom in on a distant autumn hillside, dew-covered leaves carpeting the forest floor, or a dash of fall color reflected in a still lake. Don’t focus all your efforts on tree leaves; plenty of other plants take on autumn hues, such as ferns, blueberry bushes, and other ground plants. Pattern photographs of bracken ferns are an autumn classic; ripening berries are also another cue that fall is in the air.

When I saw this white horse surrounded by aspen trees in Colorado's San Juan Mountains, I knew I had the perfect autumn intimate! Canon 5DIII, Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens, ISO 400, f/8, 1/100 second.

#6: Scatter leaves to enhance the scene. As a nature photographer, fall is one of my favorite times to shoot, but not just because of the beautiful color. Autumn is one of the few times I can take control of the creative process, and not be completely at the mercy of the landscape and the light. As I hike along a trail, I like to gather fallen leaves, picking up only the most colorful leaves. When I arrive at my shooting location, I strategically scatter the leaves to enhance the scene. This technique works particularly well for waterfall and stream images (cover rocks sticking out of the water with leaves to enhance the fall mood), and intimate still life photos (for example, add a dollop of fallen leaves to an intimate shot of bracken ferns). The trick is to make sure that the scattering looks natural—too many leaves facing color-side up, for example, are a dead give-away that the scene has been arranged.

I gathered leaves on the trail hiking to this feature, and then spread the leaves on the rocks around the chute to add a splash of autumn color, Zion National Park, USA. Nikon D3X, Nikon 16-35mm f/4 lens, polarizer filter, ISO 100, f/16, 1/5 second.

#7: Create autumn abstracts. Fall is a great time for creating impressionistic motion-blurred images. Although wind can often be a problem when photographing autumn foliage, if things start to blow too hard, switch gears and use motion blur to create fun and creative photographs. Look to take photos of wind-blown foliage using long exposures of a half-second or more; such images usually work best if some portion of the scene is stationary, such as a solid tree trunk surrounded by wind-blown autumn foliage. Use a tripod to ensure that stationary objects are rendered sharp during the long exposure. Also try moving the camera during a long exposure, swiping it vertically to create interesting abstract blurs. This technique works well when photographing forest scenes with lots of color. One to two seconds of exposure time usually works best with this technique.

I made this impressionistic autumn photo by pointing my lens at the reflection of an autumn forest in a small pond, Adirondack State Park, USA. Canon 5D, Sigma 50-500mm f/4.5-6.3 lens, ISO 100, f/16, 1/6 second.

#8: Take advantage of fall weather. Fall often brings cool and moist conditions. This is a magical recipe for fog, morning dew, and dramatic sunsets and sunrises. I love it when so-called “bad” weather moves in, as unstable weather can often result in the most photogenic conditions. Don’t play it safe by just shooting middle-of-the-day sunny weather; be on location for sunset and sunrise to capture dramatic and moody autumn weather.

Storm clouds building over the Porcupine Mountains of Michigan are set ablaze at sunset. Canon 5DSR, Canon 11-24mm f/4 lens, ISO 100, f/11, 3.2 seconds.

#9: Mix the seasons. I often like to take autumn photographs that show a transition between seasons. For example, sometimes I’ll juxtapose blazing fall color with foliage that has not yet turned and is still green with summer. Early snowstorms or frost sometimes happen in autumn, providing unique opportunities for mixing the seasons. When frost settles on autumn scenes, look for tight close-ups of fallen leaves fringed with white. If you get some particularly cold weather, try and find colorful leaves frozen in ice near the shores of ponds and streams.

A dusting of the first snow of winter on the Sneffels Range in Colorado contrasts nicely with the brilliant golden hues of autumn. Canon 5DIII, Canon 24-105mm f/4 lens, ISO 100, f/11, 1/50 second.

#10: Don’t stop shooting when peak color fades. Even after most of the leaves have fallen, there’s still time to make great autumn images. Often, the best photographs are made when the trees are bare and the forest floor is carpeted with fallen leaves. Post peak is a great time to look for stream and waterfall scenes with rocks covered with leaves. Sometimes, poignant images can be made of a mostly bare tree with just a few lone leaves still clinging to the branches. When the fall color is mostly gone, it may be more difficult to make compelling images, but a little bit of persistence and perseverance will often be rewarded with unique and dramatic images.

Fallen leaves carpet the rocks around a scenic stream in the deep woods of Maine, USA. Canon 5DIII, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens with Canon adapter, polarizer filter, ISO 100, f/16, 0.3 seconds.

Autumn color is amazing, and hopefully this article has given you some useful tips and inspiration for making the most of your fall foliage photography. So, get out there, and good luck!

With this abstract rendering of autumn color reflected in a pond, the ghostly submerged dead tree points the viewer into the background scene, Adirondack State Park, USA. Canon 5DII, Canon 24-105mm f/4 lens, ISO 100, f/11, 30 seconds.

About the author

Whether hanging over the rim of an active volcano, braving the elements to photograph critically-endangered species, or trekking deep into the wilderness to places most people will never see, world-renowned professional photographer Ian Plant travels the globe seeking out amazing places and subjects in his never-ending quest to capture the beauty of our world with his camera. Known for his inspiring images and single-minded dedication to creating the perfect photo, Ian has reached hundreds of thousands of people around the world in his mission to inspire and educate others in the art of photography. Ian is a frequent contributor to many leading photo magazines, the author of numerous books and instructional videos, and founder of Photo Masters.

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