Capturing stunning autumn landscape photos might seem difficult, but it’s actually pretty easy – once you know a few simple 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’m going to share eight 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, give this article a read; I guarantee it’ll be worth your while.
1. Use a lens with a long focal length
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 better to go in the opposite direction and shoot with a longer focal length. A 70-200mm f/4 lens is ideal, though you can also shoot with a 100-400mm lens, or even one of those monster 150-600mm options.
You see, a longer lens can really help simplify the scene and make the shot about more than just the colors. A long focal length lets you emphasize patterns in the leaves, plus it compresses 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, but then hunt for the part of the scene where the pattern breaks and include it in your composition. Consider including negative space to help isolate your subject.
2. 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 foregrounds and intricate patterns, a narrow aperture makes sense (for instance, the image featured in the next tip, with the river in the foreground and leaves in the background, was shot at a narrow aperture).
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 trunk is 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.
3. Make fall color the secondary subject
Fall colors are great, so it can be tempting to make them the primary subject of your photo. In other words, you’ll probably want to make the image all about the fall colors: their beautiful hues, the texture of the leaves, the pattern of the trees.
But to make your photos more unique, look for other primary subjects, such as streams and waterfalls, that are accented by the fall colors. This will also give your fall landscape photography more depth and complexity, plus it can really draw in the viewer, as the eye sweeps from the beautiful foreground to the stunning fall backdrop:
So before you take a shot, ask yourself: What could I highlight other than the fall colors? How could I combine the fall colors with a foreground subject to get a great result?
By the way, this is one time when a wide-angle lens is the better choice in fall landscape shooting. The wider field of view lets you capture an interesting foreground and a beautiful backdrop (but make sure you’re using a narrow depth of field, otherwise you’ll lose the colorful detail in the trees!).
4. 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:
5. Be patient
A decent camera and a telephoto lens is great for fall photography, but patience is the best tool in your camera bag.
Specifically, the autumn landscape photographer must learn to wait for two things:
- Great color
- Great light
Now, I don’t mean to suggest that you stay inside until autumn colors hit their peak. You can capture beautiful shots at the beginning of the color change by focusing on lone reds among a sea of green, and you can capture dramatic shots at the end of the color change by emphasizing the moody browns and the last of the colorful leaves.
But make sure you pay careful attention to the changing leaves. Try checking a local foliage predictor. And then, when the fall color peak really comes, make sure you spend plenty of time outdoors capturing the autumn beauty.
And as for the light…
While fall colors are wonderful, they can be even more stunning when combined with the right light. For instance, a small patch of sunlight on a mountain peak, or dappled light hitting a sea of yellow trees, is often the difference between a good image and a great image. Unfortunately, the light rarely does what you want exactly when you want, so if you find a beautiful composition, be ready to hunker down and wait for the perfect light.
Pro tip: The best light is often short lived, so think through your settings and composition in advance. When the light hits, be ready.
By the way, while beautiful sunlight plus dramatic clouds often works great for fall photos, if you’re focusing more on the colors and less on the wider landscape, I recommend heading out on gray, overcast days. The sky will act as a huge softbox, and you’ll get beautifully saturated colors (plus a wonderfully moody, gloomy feeling!).
6. 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.
7. 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. I found some nice, bright, well-lit trees, but I shot them against 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!).
8. 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 the fall colors with the 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, a narrow aperture will create a starburst effect if you shoot through the forest toward the sun.
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.
In fact, 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.
Table of contents
- 5 Tips for Setting the Focus in Your Landscape Photography
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- 8 Tips for Fall Landscape Photography
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES