Three Tips for Photographing Fall Colors

Three Tips for Photographing Fall Colors

Autumn is upon us and the great migration is in full swing with hordes of photographers descending upon small towns all across the northeastern United States to capture the changing colors of the leaves. Leaf peeping (and photographing) is hard work. It requires patience, solitude, and the ability to put up with the constant aroma of pumpkin spice latte in the air. For those of you heading out to photograph fall colors this year, here a few tips that I hope will help you get the most out of your experience.

I live in Houston, Texas where the idea of "seasons" is nice in theory but in reality nonexistent. Last October, my wife and I decided to get out of town and enjoy fall in all its majesty by spending a few days in the beautiful town of Stowe in northern Vermont. Camera (and drone) in hand, I set out to capture the colorful foliage.

1. Get Up Early

The subheading to this section should be "A Love Letter to Sunrise." I firmly subscribe to the notion that the best time of day for landscape photography is dawn (for more inspiration, see Michael Stuart's three-part series about photographing sunrises). During our visit to Stowe, we stayed at the Trapp Family Lodge (yes, that Von Trapp family), a stunning 2,500 acre property at the foot of the Green Mountains. I used The Photographer's Ephemeris app to determine exactly where the sun would crest over the mountain and made sure I beat the rooster's crow to get set up in the best position to catch the first rays of light pour into the valley. 

I learned a handy trick from Elia Locardi's "Photographing the World" tutorial series (Part 3 is out now!) to avoid lens flare when photographing the sun directly: physically block the sun with your hand in a frame and manually blend in that frame over other frames (ensuring that you keep the camera locked on the tripod so everything aligns perfectly) in Photoshop to eliminate any unwanted lens flare in the final image.

The smaller the aperture, the more pronounced the starburst; f/16 worked well in this case to get a strong starburst effect in camera. I manually blended multiple exposures together in Photoshop to account for the high dynamic range in the scene and dodged and burned to add extra contrast and highlight some of the array of colors in the trees.

2. Use Colorful Frames

Exploring the back roads around town led us to a hiking trail towards Bingham Falls. We inadvertently followed our inner Robert Frost by taking the road decidedly less traveled which fortuitously led us to discover the waterfall through a clearing. The composition presented itself immediately with the waterfall framed perfectly by a well-balanced smattering of color. It was a great way to use color to create an interesting frame for the subject. I set a shutter speed of 4 seconds (with my camera on a tripod of course) to capture a long exposure of the water for a pleasing, flowing look. The canopy above blocked out a lot of the light so I was easily able to use a long shutter speed. If there had been more light in the scene, I would have had to utilize an ND filter to avoid overexposing the image. I used a focus stacking approach by taking several exposures and blending them all together in Photoshop to ensure that all parts of the final image were tack sharp. 

3. Look for a Different Perspective

I lugged around my DJI Phantom 4 throughout the trip in the hopes of being able to take to the sky if the opportunity presented itself. Fortunately I got a couple of chances to fly from secluded spots without disturbing anyone, first endeavoring to point the camera straight down to capture an interesting, uncommon perspective of the foliage. I next actively looked for the best vantage point to frame the town and found one with miles of reds, yellows, oranges, and greens spread out throughout the surrounding hills and mountains.

Check out Jerome Courtial's article on drone photography for a comprehensive look at drone photography settings and tips.

Who's shooting the fall colors this year and where are you going? I'd love to hear your tips and see your images in the comments.

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17 Comments

Samantha Autumn's picture

I love shooting Central Park, NYC in the fall

Aneesh Kothari's picture

Yes! I was there a couple of years ago at the tail end of the season and it was beautiful. Can only imagine how it looks during peak fall. Love that your last name is "Autumn" - very fitting!

The ONE drawback to leaving the North East for Seattle is that fall is no longer colorful.

you forgot about north easts winning sports teams.

And four actually distinct seasonal!

Not having to deal with the North Jersey Summers anymore is worth the trade.

I figured you would have said winter instead, which is typically the season many northerners say they could do without. They can seem long but I also enjoy the winter. My favorite season by far though is fall. I think it's the best time of the year for photography, especially a late sunny day after a good rain when the air is now so clean and everything looks so clearly defined and contrasty.

LOVE the winter. You can always put on another layer (sub 0 gets kinda rough though). Fall is by far my favorite season though. The weather is cool, the sun golden and the trees stunning. Thankfully, winter is only an hours drive into the mountains from here.

Summer -- you can only get so nekkid -- and then it's still too hot.

4. Shoot in autumn!

On a serious note, I often read articles recommending shooting in overcast light. For me, I never do that. The electricity of sunlight streaming on and through colorful foliage is huge.

Aneesh Kothari's picture

Damn, I knew I forgot a tip! Overcast light is nice because it's like a giant softbox - everything is nice and diffuse. But like everything else, it's situational. I agree, I love streaming sunlight. Would love to see some of your foliage pics if you'd like to share!

Yep. Lower on the horizon light in the clear and crisp air of a fall day in the northeast is about the best light I can think of. Mix in fall foliage and it’s magical.

The article you referenced in your opening remark spoke of fall but you changed your link title to autumn. Why? Fall is the term most commonly used in America, and fall in America is what that article was addressing, and so is yours.

Aneesh Kothari's picture

A fair point. I was using them interchangeably and frankly, I just liked opening the article with the word "Autumn" for variety over saying "Fall" again. Good catch!

Paolo Veglio's picture

Although I frankly don't see the big deal of using autumn instead of fall I second the use of "fall" mainly for language consistency.
If you spell the word "color" without the "u", for example, then you're using the en-US variant of the word "colour" used in the en-GB so, to be consistent, you should use the American English throughout the text.

Anyway, I think this is more of a problem in official matters or publications, this is a photography website after all, so I’m good either way

Writing articles for this site actually falls under the definition of the word official. Writers are officially writing for it and in some cases also representing it. So, yeah, I believe getting the grammar right is important, and especially so for the more obvious things.

Mark Iandolo's picture

Love it! And those aerial shots are great

Aneesh Kothari's picture

Thanks, Mark! When are you going to head north and photograph fall? US equivalent of sakura season :-)