Want to capture the gorgeous hues and moody tones of fall? While creating stunning autumn landscape photos might seem difficult, it’s actually pretty easy – once you know a few tricks.
As an experienced fall landscape photographer, I’ve spent plenty of time in search of those elusive fall photos. I’ve made lots of mistakes, but I’ve also had a lot of success, and in this article, I aim to show you how it’s done.
Specifically, I share 14 practical tips for creating beautiful fall landscape photography. I’ll cover:
- The perfect lens choice to emphasize patterns in foliage
- The best fall landscape settings for gorgeous results
- My favorite type of autumn landscape light
- Much more!
So if you’re ready to head out into the field and start taking some jaw-dropping shots of your own, then let’s dive right in, starting with:
1. Check the fall foliage forecast
The best fall landscape photos tend to be captured when the colors are at their peak; that way, blazing reds, smoldering oranges, and sunny yellows can be incorporated into image compositions.
Unfortunately, peak colors rarely last for more than a week or two. If you don’t time your outings carefully, you may arrive on location only to find that the trees have not yet changed – or worse, that you’ve missed all the action.
That’s where fall foliage forecasts come in handy. Simply do a quick Google search for “fall foliage predictor in [location],” then see what you can find. Chances are a foliage forecast exists for your area (and if it doesn’t, a forecast probably exists for an area nearby).
Remember, however: The more specific the foliage forecast, the better. Fall color timing can be dramatically different as you change your elevation or latitude; you don’t want to use foliage predictions for New York City to determine the fall colors in London!
One more tip: If you’re busy during peak foliage times, it’s often still worth scheduling a trip. Sure, it’s harder to get gorgeous shots when the fall foliage is patchy, but it’s not impossible. If the fall colors have come and gone, try to convey a sense of the impending winter by capturing a few lone leaves on a tree. And if you’re out shooting a week or two before peak colors, use the few brightly colored trees as focal points in an otherwise green forest.
2. Head out when the weather is bad
But autumn landscape photography is a whole different ball game. You can capture nice shots illuminated by stunning golden hour light, but you can often create the moodiest, most autumn-esque shots if you shoot when the sky is blanketed by thick clouds. The overcast light will add a sense of loneliness, it will help bring out subject detail, and (major bonus!) it’ll enhance the fall colors.
If you shoot on overcast days and you like the results, consider taking your moody landscape photography a step further. Take your camera out on rainy days or – if you’re lucky enough to get them in the autumn – snowy days. Just make sure you bring adequate protection for your gear. I recommend a simple rain sleeve, which you can grab off Amazon. Though if you’re in a pinch, you can always use a trash bag plus some rubber bands.
Bottom line: Rain and snow combined with fall colors look amazing. While the shooting process can be a bit uncomfortable, it’ll all be worth it in the end.
3. Use backlight and sidelight
You don’t just have to shoot autumn scenics on drab, dreary days! In fact, you can get great shots on sunny days, too – you just have work with the light.
A great technique to use when shooting fall landscapes is to shoot directly toward the sun. Shooting into the light can result in stunning images as the backlit leaves of autumn glow and reflect the vibrant colors.
But watch out for flare when using backlight and shooting into the sun. By partially shielding the sun behind a tree, you can reduce any unwanted flare.
Another way to shoot autumn landscapes is by using sidelight to your advantage. Capture the canopy of colors side-on to the angle of the sun. The complementary colors of oranges and yellows combined with a blue sky can work very well together. (The warmer tones from the foliage offset the coolness of a blue sky perfectly!)
4. Use a telephoto lens
Autumn leaves, trees, and forests look so beautiful that it’s often tempting to whip out that wide-angle lens and capture the entire scene.
But while a wide-angle lens can work for fall photography, it’s often nice to go in the opposite direction and shoot with a longer focal length. A 70-200mm or a 55-200mm lens is ideal, though you can also shoot with a 100-400mm lens or even one of those monster 150-600mm options. (Primes work, too, but they’ll limit your flexibility, especially if you’re shooting from roadside overlooks.)
You see, a longer lens can really help simplify the scene and make the shot about more than just the colors. A telephoto focal length lets you emphasize patterns in the leaves, plus it’ll compress the scene to create a beautiful wall of trees.
You can also use the longer focal length to highlight intimate details of a forest interior. Look for patterns, then hunt for the part of the scene where the pattern breaks and include it in your composition. Consider also adding negative space to help isolate your subject. Empty sky works great for this, though you can also create negative space with forest floors or motionless ponds.
5. Use a wide aperture to isolate the subject
Often, photographers shoot autumn landscape photography at narrow apertures, such as f/8 and beyond. And when you’re capturing images full of sweeping vistas or intricate patterns, a narrow aperture makes sense.
However, you can also create unique fall shots with a wide aperture. Set your lens to f/2.8 or f/5.6, then get in close and isolate your subject from its surroundings. You can get a shot like this:
Here, the foreground tree leaves are sharp, while the background becomes a pleasing, slightly colorful blur.
Ultimately, a wide aperture creates visual contrast between the sharp subject and the soft, abstract background. This also adds tension between the real and the unreal, providing you with an image that’s more dynamic and expressive.
While you can always shoot lone trees against colorful leaves, try experimenting with different subjects and backgrounds. Get creative with your choices. Pay close attention to your subject, and make sure you have enough depth of field to keep its key features sharp; it often pays to check the LCD preview after you’ve taken a shot just to be sure.
6. Mix foreground and background elements
My previous autumn landscape tip encouraged you to use wide apertures and isolate individual elements. That approach certainly works well – but it’s also worth trying the opposite strategy, where you seek out broader scenes, then use a wider lens to capture everything.
If you’re traveling in a mountainous area, you may be able to find scenic overlooks, which work great for this type of shot. I’d also recommend looking for a combination of interesting background and foreground elements; that way, you can use the foreground element to draw the viewer into the scene, anchor the composition, and even lead the eye toward the beautiful surroundings.
For the best results, start with a nice background, such as a stand of aspen trees or a beautiful maple tree overlooking a river. Then look for compelling foreground subjects. Mossy rocks, fallen leaves, and even rocks can work great. The key is to choose an item that complements the background but is also interesting in its own right.
You’ll need to use a wide-angle lens (the wider, the better) to include the entire scene in your composition. You should also narrow your aperture to at least f/8 (and probably f/11, f/13, or even f/16) to keep the entire scene sharp. (As I discuss below, a tripod can also be handy in these scenarios!)
7. Use a tripod (and watch your shutter speed)
If you’re planning to create autumn landscape photos using a wide aperture, you can often get away with handheld shooting – but in general, the best approach is to mount your camera on a tripod right from the beginning.
You see, since fall landscape photography is often done on cloudy (and even rainy) days, the light tends to be pretty limited. Therefore, if you want to capture a decent exposure, you’ll need to either use a wide aperture, a high ISO, or a slow shutter speed.
As I mentioned above, a wide aperture can work, but it’s not always the right way to go. If you want to keep your entire shot sharp, an f/2.8 or f/4 aperture won’t get you enough depth of field. And while a high ISO will boost the exposure, it’ll also introduce unpleasant noise.
Your best option, then, is to lower the shutter speed. This will stop you from handholding your shots, but it’ll let you use a narrow aperture, and a low ISO and get a good exposure – all at the same time. With a sturdy tripod, dropping the shutter speed to 1/60s, 1/30s, or even 1s shouldn’t be an issue, though you’ll need to be careful if you head out on windy days.
In particular, you’ll need to pay attention to leaf movement – if your shutter speed is too slow and the wind is blowing hard enough, you’ll end up with motion blur. And while a little motion blur isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’ll reduce the overall appearance of sharpness, so just be careful and only drop your shutter speed as needed.
8. Look for patterns and textures
Fall color photos tend to start with, well, color. It’s what generally draws you to the scene in the first place, after all.
However, the best fall landscape shots merely use color as a jumping-off point.
In other words, they include color, but the color doesn’t carry the image. Instead, the composition relies on color plus patterns and textures to hold the viewer’s interest.
Many fall scenes do have plenty of interesting patterns and textures to work with, so moving beyond color isn’t especially difficult. Simply find some reds, yellows, and oranges that you like – then think about other compositional elements you can incorporate into the shot.
For the photo below, I used a combination of yellow color, forest floor texture, and tree repetition to create an eye-catching result:
9. Photograph some autumn details
Photographing details lies in the fuzzy gray area between macro and landscape photography. Sometimes it’s one or the other, sometimes it is a little bit of both. In general, however, I see photographing the details as another part of landscape work. These images tell a small but important part of the story.
Mentally, details give us a starting point for seeing how a landscape will come together, and they also play an important role in providing a sense of scale. The small bits of the scene are rarely captured in a big landscape photo, and yet they are a very important part of our experience in the field. Therefore, the details should be an important part of the story you tell your audience.
Close-up work requires a lens capable of relatively close focusing or a powerful telephoto lens. I’ve used big 500mm and 600mm glass for this kind of image, and I’ve also used wide-angle lenses that have the ability to focus on ultra-close subjects.
However, I prefer to use a moderate telephoto with decent macro capabilities. Nothing fancy; just a good lens that lets me get close to the subject.
Whichever you choose, these kinds of images rarely have much depth. Even photos from a low perspective only show a few inches from front to back. Therefore detail shots are usually about pattern and color. Here are a few things to think about as you compose:
- Consider how the lines in the image interact. Do they cross distractingly or guide your eye around the frame in a pleasing way?
- Which color dominates? In the autumn, colors such as red can be overwhelming and often need to be balanced by cooler greens or blues.
- How can you isolate your subject? Can you crop out extraneous details? Use a shallow depth of field?
- Embrace the autumn colors, but don’t overwhelm your viewer with too much of the same thing. Good images usually show a variety of textures and colors.
Forests and fields offer plenty of stunning macro subjects. You can shoot:
- Lone flowers against a fall foliage backdrop
- Leaves on the ends of branches
- Fallen leaves on front lawns
- Spider webs covered in dew
- So much more!
Honestly, landscape detail photography can get very addicting, very fast. And fall is an amazing time to dive into the genre!
10. Experiment with intentional camera movement
Intentional camera movement (ICM) involves deliberately moving your camera during a long exposure to create abstract effects like this:
And thanks to the beautiful colors, fall is a great time to try it out.
First, find some nice colors and trees. If possible, ensure there’s contrast between the tree trunks and the autumn leaves (note the white trees and orange leaves in the photo above).
Finally, focus on the leaves, then move your camera as you release the shutter!
Note that intentional camera movement is very hit-and-miss, so don’t be discouraged if your first shots don’t turn out as great as you hoped. Definitely experiment with moving your camera in different directions (I recommend vertical movement, but you can try horizontal or even diagonal). Also, experiment with different shutter speeds and the pace of moving your camera until you find the right amount of blur.
11. Look for elements that contrast with the fall color
Fall colors are usually bright and have textures and patterns. To really take your photos to the next level, find nice colors – but be sure to contrast them with darker elements. That way, you can create dramatic tension.
Look at the image displayed below. It features some nice, bright, well-lit trees, but they’re juxtaposed with a dark, shadowy rock face:
And it’s that contrast, that drama, that elevates the shot.
Of course, dark rocks aren’t the only contrasting element you can use in your photos. You can include sun/shade contrast (where your subject is lit by the sun but the background is in shade), you can contrast fall colors with dark water, or you can contrast bright fall colors with darker, browning fall colors (the opportunities are endless!).
12. Don’t forget to look up
The interior of a forest can be an amazing place to shoot the fall colors, but it’s often difficult to find a pleasing composition. Sometimes, you just can’t isolate individual elements and you can’t find interesting patterns. You might be ready to throw in the towel, but I’d recommend you try something else:
Look up and explore the canopy.
This works best on sunny days; images that contrast fall colors with a deep blue sky can be really pleasing.
You generally want to keep the trees sharp from foreground to background, so don’t forget to use smaller apertures like f/22. Also, if you shoot through the forest toward the sun, a narrow aperture will create a stunning starburst effect.
13. Photograph the grand scenes
I’m going to be honest here. In the fall, when the colors of my home state are going off like fireworks, it is rarely the wide-open scenes that draw my eye. However, sometimes the scope and size of the landscape cannot be ignored. It is in those rare moments that I reach for my wide-angle lenses.
And yet, my focus often remains close to me. The foreground in the autumn, perhaps even more than other times of the year, is vital. When shooting wide, I will often get low, using my background not as the subject, but as the setting for something bright, flashy, and interesting close by.
I was shooting in late August in Denali National Park. The colors were bright and beautiful, and on one sunny day, the mountains of the Alaska Range, including Denali itself, had emerged from behind the clouds to loom, white and glaciated, over the landscape. It was beautiful, and yet my focus kept falling on the colors in front of me. I didn’t ignore that dramatic backdrop, but I used it as just that: a backdrop.
When shooting wide, don’t forget about the details I noted earlier or the patterns of local landscapes. Those two are integral to the wide scene and will help you understand how the elements of the landscape fall together.
I once heard it said that wide-angle landscapes were easy. I disagree entirely; wide angles are the hardest to shoot because there is so much space for distraction. Understanding and including compelling foreground subjects, like a splash of fall color, will take you a long way toward creating dynamic wide-angle landscape images.
14. Carefully process each photo
When you’re out shooting autumn landscapes, you should always do your best to nail the shot in-camera.
But you should also make sure that you carefully review your images when you get back home – and then post-process your best files.
Why? For one, RAW files are designed to be edited. Unprocessed RAW files tend to look pretty flat and bland, whereas processed files can look far more colorful and contrasty (closer to how you saw the scene at the time).
For instance, most RAW files look better with a bit of boosted contrast and extra saturation. I’d also encourage you to remove chromatic aberration, do a bit of sharpening, and make sure the exposure and white balance both look good.
Once you’ve handled the basics, you can stop, or you can use processing to take your photos to the next level. A subtly applied vignette, for instance, will focus the viewer on the main subject. Color grading can create atmosphere and mood. Dodging and burning can add three-dimensionality.
At the end of the day, you have to decide how much editing you’re willing to do. But many landscape photographers apply some serious processing to each and every image they share (and the results are often breathtaking).
Fall landscape photography tips: final words
Hopefully, these tips will help you make the most of your time photographing the amazing colors of the fall season.
And if you found these autumn landscape photography tips helpful, print out the article and take it with you into the field; that way, you can slow down, think through your compositions, and return home with some compelling photographs.
Now over to you:
Do you have any fall landscape photography tips to share? Which of these tips was your favorite? Share your thoughts – and photos! – in the comments below.
Note: This article was updated in September 2023 by Jaymes Dempsey.
Table of contents
- 5 Tips for Setting the Focus in Your Landscape Photography
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- 8 Tips for Fall Landscape Photography
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES