Autumn is coming soon to a region near you! I loved the appearance of the first fall foliage – and the inevitable explosion of red and gold as the maples shift their hue. And for nature photographers this is an exciting time of the year. Weather and seasonal changes make for some of the best nature photography opportunities before the long colorless winter sets it. Successful fall photography requires the right timing, proper skills, and keen observation of the elements around you.
Here are some breathtaking fall photos for inspiration – and some fall photography tips to help you make the most of your time in the field.
#1: Find the Right Light for Fall Photography
Fall colors are easiest to photograph under a thin, even cloud cover. This provides soft overcast light that helps balance out the highlights and shadows. Another trick that pros often use when photographing fall colors is to wait until everything you are photographing is in shade. This is how I captured the fall scene in Image #1 from Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio.
Soft morning or evening light is beautiful as well – but controlling the camera exposure can be difficult even under overcast skies. Depending on your nature photography composition, you may have to use exposure bracketing to capture the entire dynamic range. Varina used exposure bracketing in Image #2 from the same location to capture this gorgeous fall scene.
#2: Look for Macro Photography Opportunities
Autumn is also a great time to pay close attention to details. Look for interesting patterns and textures and pay close attention to your background. Use the negative space to create a sense of place and create a mood.
Varina captured this beautiful aspen leaf in Marble, Colorado with a macro photography lens. Nature photographers often carry a diffuser and a reflector to modify the light for small subjects like these.
#3: Use a Circular Polarizer Filter
Use a circular polarizer to reduce scattered light and enhance colors for fall photography. This filter is especially effective when photographing wet autumn leaves. You can also use a circular polarizer to bring out rich colors in the sky and create dramatic complementary colors between warm fall foliage and blue skies.
In this fall photo from Snowmass Wilderness, I used a circular polarizer to cut glare on the tree trunks and bring out the rich blue colors of the sky. If you are using a circular polarizer with a wide angle lens, make sure that you are aware of uneven polarization.
#4: Use Reflections for Fall Photography
We try to make the most of reflections at any time of year, but reflections in autumn can be used to capture particularly beautiful photos. Reflections can be used to amplify the colors for fall photography on days with little to no wind. Surfaces of the lake and ponds are most often used to photograph the reflections.
In this photograph from last year, Jay used the calm waters of Maroon Lake in Colorado to capture the reflection of the fall colors on the mountains. Jay chose not to use his circular polarizer filter because it would have minimized the reflections of the mountains and clouds.
#5: Set Your Camera Exposure Correctly
Your camera exposure can dramatically impact colors you are trying to capture. Underexposed or overexposed images will look dull or washed out and you will lose the rich autumn colors you are trying to capture. So it is critical to get your exposure just right for fall photography. Because of this, it is sometimes necessary for nature photographers to resort to exposure bracketing for fall photography.
I took this fall photo in the Grand Staircase of Escalante. We arrived just before sunset and Varina used a wide angle lens to capture the color in the sky before it faded. I had to use exposure bracketing for this autumn photo in order to capture the entire dynamic range and then I used Photoshop layers and masks to manually blend different exposures.
#6: Create In-Camera Effects with Motion and Blur
I like to use long exposures on blustery autumn days. This creates motion blur and appealing shifting colors and patterns. Don’t put your camera away when the wind comes up. Instead, see if you can create something unique. Here are two of my favorite creative techniques to capture artistic fall photos.
This technique involves moving the camera while the shutter remains open. Rather then creating a tac sharp image, the resulting image will be a blurry fine art abstract similar to the photo Varina captured in Marble Colorado.
If you are shooting during the day, you may need a neutral density filter (ND filter) to slow down the shutter speed during the in-camera motion. You may find that in-camera motion requires experimentation (such as varying the direction and speed) to get the desired results.
Using Subject Motion Blur
In this creative fall photography technique, you can use wind or water to create motion blur in the fall foliage you are trying to capture. You may need an ND filter to create the long exposures that are necessary to capture the motion blur with the moving subject.
In the image above from New Mexico, Varina used a long exposure to capture blurry fall photos on a windy day. She wanted to capture the beauty of the landscape as high winds and heavy clouds announced a coming storm in New Mexico. She was drawn by the rich orange colors and the complimentary deep blue/grey of the sky.
#7: Pay Attention to Your Post Processing
Post processing plays a big role in creating stunning fall landscape photos. In the above photo from New Mexico, Varina used exposure bracketing based on her histogram reading. Aside from the dynamic range problem for fall photos like this, white balance can be pretty difficult. Because Varina used a wide angle lens, the balance of light is often different from one area to another. In this case, the foreground needed one white balance and the sky needed an entirely different one.
Take a look at the processed image (#2) above. The foreground color is just right (at least according to my memory of the scene), but the sky is oddly white. This happens because light is being scattered and reflected differently in the sky than it is on the ground. When Varina set her white balance correctly for the fall foliage on the ground, the sky just looks wrong.
So, she set the white balance in the RAW converter, saved a snapshot, and opened the file in Photoshop. Then she went back to the original RAW file and adjusted the white balance until the sky looked right (Image #3 above) – ignoring the funky colors fall foliage colors created in the foreground. She then reopened the file and blended the two files with the help of some Photoshop layers and masks to create the final result.
The finished nature photo is a better representation of the reality of the scene and the white balance is no longer distracting. I know… there are a lot of steps involved when it comes to capturing a wide-angle shot like this. But it gets easier with practice. I promise! :)
Do Your Research
In most parts of the world, fall photography season is very short. So being at the right place at the right time is important. A quick Google search will reveal plenty of websites that track fall foliage in real time at a location you plan to visit. So make sure you do your research before heading out to capture the autumn foliage.
The only remaining question is… what are you waiting for? Get your camera and try to capture some stunning fall foliage photos before it is all over. Good luck.