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Photographing Fall Foliage

Fall colours can be very different from place to place. Some areas will have a very short colour-changing season of a week or less, while elsewhere it can last nearly a month. Every location will produce different colours, depending on the type of flora and other factors such as climate and soil.

The hillsides of New England, which attract thousands of photographers every year, are famous for their dappled assortment of species producing different shades, ranging between reds and greens.

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia, by Anne McKinnell

The Sierra Mountains of California and Nevada, on the other hand, are known for their vast yellow forests of Aspen and Birch.

Do some research into your area to find out when the leaves are expected to change so you can make the most of this opportunity. A quick Google search will help you find the best areas for autumn foliage in your vicinity.

If you’re planning a photo expedition, you can use services such as Flickr and Panoramio to see what different areas look like at different times of the season, simply by searching tags for the time and place you’re considering.

Whatever the Weather

No matter how the weather behaves when you go out shooting, you can get great shots in any type of light. If it’s sunny, you have plenty of light to work with, but you may get harsh shadows and glare that can diminish the colours. To conquer this, try using a polarizing filter, changing your angle of view, or shooting when the sun is low in the sky.

If the sky is white, simply leave it out of the composition. The soft light of a white sky day is perfect for photographing the smaller details which will be free of bright areas and harsh shadows.

Fall in New Hampshire by Anne McKinnell

A rainy day might seem like a wash-out, but water actually brings out colour like nothing else. The best time to shoot is right after it stops raining, especially as the sun peaks through the clouds to illuminate the saturated landscape.

If there’s a sudden cold snap, you might find some frost forming on your foliage. If you brave the cold, you can capture some amazing textures, particularly in the early morning when the air is crisp.

Techniques

Backlight

If you position a leaf between your camera and the sun, the back lighting will illuminate it all the way through making it appear to glow and revealing the details of the veins. If the sky is visible between the leaves, try it on the blue sky day for a beautiful colour contrast.

Backlit Maple by Anne McKinnell

Reflections

Photographing leaves can be especially difficult on a windy day. On these occasions I try to find reflections of the fall colours and create a more abstract image.

Fall Reflections by Anne McKinnell

Perspective

Leaves that have fallen on the ground are excellent subjects. Try getting a squirrel’s point of view for a unique perspective.

Mushroom and Maple Leaf by Anne McKinnell

Try looking straight up into the trees to emphasize their tallness and magnificence.

Fall Trees by Anne McKinnell

Waterfalls

Combining the beautiful colours of the fall leaves with a silky smooth waterfall can be magical. Try using a long exposure to blur the water as it cascades past the fallen leaves.

Fallingwater Cascades, Virginia, by Anne McKinnell

Close-ups

A simple, minimalist composition can be just as evocative of the season as a complex scene. Try getting close to a single leaf and using a wide aperture, like f/2.8 or f/4 to achieve a shallow depth of field that isolates fine details.

Autumn Oak Leaves by Anne McKinnell

Camera Settings

  • Depth of Field: Decide how much of the picture you want to be in focus, and use your aperture to control the depth of field.
  • Underexpose: To deepen the tones and make the colours stand out more, underexpose your image slightly. The easiest way to do this is to locate your exposure compensation (+/-) button and dial it down somewhere between -0.5EV and -1.0EV.
  • White balance: If you’re photographing during the golden hours (just before sunset or just after sunrise), you probably don’t want your camera’s auto white balance to eliminate the light’s yellow-orange tone, which is exactly what it will try to do. However, if you set your white balance to “daylight”, your pictures will retain the sun’s warm glow. Try different settings in any given lighting situation to find the best colour balance. It is particularly important to get this right if you’re shooting JPEG files, but if you use RAW format, the white balance can be perfected in post-production.

Fall Umbrellas by Anne McKinnell

Composition

When we find a great autumn location full of dramatic colours, it can be easy to become overwhelmed by the colour and forget everything else. Fall colours don’t create a good landscape photo on their own, they simply add an element of colour. The composition should be strong even when turned black and white, so remember your basic rules of landscape composition: create a focal point, and use lines, shapes, and forms to create balance and harmony.

To create images that stand out from the rest, compose them with thought and purpose, and never be afraid to try a different angle.

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Anne McKinnell
Anne McKinnell

is a photographer, writer and nomad. She lives in an RV and travels around North America photographing beautiful places and writing about travel, photography, and how changing your life is not as scary as it seems.

You can read about her adventures on her blog and be sure to check out her free photography eBooks.

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