The days of summer are a distant memory. Instead of shorts and a t-shirt, you put on a pair of pants and a hoodie. The air is crisp and the scents of flowers turn to scents of turning foliage. This is the time of year I look forward to most and, like clockwork, I begin to plan out where I want to see the great displays.
Living in the desert has a huge benefit that makes shooting fall colors and the season itself much more enjoyable. Areas on the east coast and in the high country get magnificent displays no doubt, but these are often short windows of opportunity. Winter is knocking on the door. In the southwest, fall colors can be enjoyed from September all the way into January. It’s quite a spectacle, although very different.
Despite having grown up on the east coast, I had never photographed the amazing displays that I now see in photos on a yearly basis. Sometime I hope to make a trip back and photograph them, but that may have to wait at least another year.
Now, you may be thinking… How can someone with no images from the east coast offer advice about photographing autumn? Easy. I simply love the season and have experienced the colors in a variety of locations across the west that rival even those along the east coast and Midwest.
Moisture and Timing
As with wildflowers, it’s good to keep an eye on how much moisture a specific area has received over the summer. If it’s too hot and dry, the season is over before it even begins. Nobody wants to photograph a mustard brown aspen grove or brown maple leaves. Aspens should be gold and maples should have nice shades from yellow to red. Depending on the elevation, some aspen groves can turn as early as mid-September and others by mid-October. During my visit to Glacier National Park in Montana last September, the colors were in full swing within the third week. Places like the Grand Tetons, southern Idaho, and even Colorado appeared to have strong showings at the time. Here in Arizona, the aspens seem to start at the end of September and last for a few weeks before giving way to winter when they allow the lower elevations to show what they offer.
Fall Colors in the Southwest
This is where living in the southwest has it’s advantage for fall color. When the aspens, maples, and oaks are toast in other areas, there is another wave of autumn color lingering in the southwest. The high desert landscapes like Zion in Utah and Oak Creek Canyon in Arizona bring on the maple transformation. Even here, the maples (along with some oak, sycamore, and other deciduous trees) last well into November. Late October and early November might be my favorite time of autumn; this time period combines my favorite season along with the rugged desert landscapes that I’ve fallen in love with over the years. Most people never expect to hear the words fall color in the desert, but we sure get a healthy dose.
How to Photograph Fall Colors
You may not be convinced yet to visit the southwest as part of your fall color itinerary. So, let’s talk about actually photographing the scenes and tapping into some creativity. For the most part, fall color photos can be formulaic. If you want to shoot the grand autumn scenes in the mountains, you typically have layers of fall colors with stunning mountains rising above.
I personally like to mix the grand scenes with a little bit of intimacy. I find a scene full of rich autumn colors and remove the sky from the equation. Carefully consider the composition and the elements surrounding it. You may be looking over miles upon miles of aspen groves that create a beautiful mosaic of color. Or you may be in the forest as the setting sun casts its glow against the tree trunks and gives that nice pop of color to the leaves. You may even find a creek lined with perfect autumn foliage. Transition yourself to see more of the intimate. The shapes, colors, contrasts, textures. Look where you don’t normally look. Look up, look down. Play around with in camera motion blur for some painterly renditions. Study the smaller scenes within the grand scenery.
Perhaps my favorite part of photographing autumn is that there is always something to photograph even when the weather is “bad”. It also just feels great to be outside this time of the year.
The only question is where are you headed this year to photograph fall colors? Feel free to share your ideas in the comments below.