Autumn provides photographers with an abundance of colors and amazing light, which is why autumn is one of the best seasons for portrait photography. It offers up magical, colorful, even nostalgic photos like this one:
But while fall portrait photography can look amazing, capturing the best shots isn’t always easy. Yes, fall backgrounds look awesome and fall light is breathtaking, but you shouldn’t just aim your camera and hope for the best.
In this article, I’ll share my top fall photography portrait tips. And by the time you’ve finished, you’ll be able to create stunning images like a pro.
Sound good? Let’s dive right in.
1. Prepare your equipment and check the weather
Preparation is the key to any successful shoot – fall portrait sessions included.
Of course, ensuring your camera batteries are charged, your memory cards are clear, and your lenses are clean seems like a no-brainer, but it’s often the fundamentals that we overlook.
Pro tip: When clearing cards, double check that you have downloaded everything, then use the in-camera Format function to clear your images. Don’t delete photos via your computer – otherwise, you risk card writing issues down the line.
Also, make sure you check the weather. In many parts of the world, the weather can change quickly, so it pays to stay informed. If you’re doing a paid session, you may have to schedule far in advance and you’ll simply have to make the best of a bad weather day – but if your fall portrait photoshoot is more informal, keeping an eye on the weather can make a big difference. At the very least, it’ll keep you from venturing out into the cold, only to find that your session gets rained out within minutes.
By the way, if you and your subject/model are up for it, autumn portraits in the rain can look gorgeous. But you’ll need to protect your equipment (try a simple rain cover), and make sure you wear a jacket.
2. Get out when the light is best
Light can make or break a fall portrait, so this tip is critical. You can shoot autumn portraits on overcast days, especially if you’re after a moody, nostalgic look. However, I personally prefer the warm light of sunrise and sunset.
Now, dragging your family out of bed for a photoshoot is always going to be tough, so I recommend skipping the morning light; instead, aim to start your shoot about an hour before sunset. The low sunlight will be flattering, plus you might get a beautiful sunset to include in the background (or to use for fun autumn silhouettes).
By the way, make sure you look up sunset times for your local area before scheduling a shoot. You might be surprised to realize how early it gets dark, and you want at least a good hour of shooting before the sun goes down.
3. Choose the right clothing
Make sure everyone dresses appropriately. It’s getting colder, and if everyone stays warm – including both the model and the photographer! – you’ll have one less thing to worry about.
Also, it may seem lovely and warm outside, but believe me: it gets cold pretty quick when the sun starts to go down. And advise your subject to bring a change of clothing. It can be wet and muddy, and you certainly don’t want to end the session with an accidental tumble.
As for clothing colors and aesthetic: In the fall, getting this right can make a huge difference to your images. Ask your subject to wear natural tones that will either blend in or complement the colors of the leaves and trees. For the photo below, my son wore a dark red sweater, as we knew the area had very vivid reds in the trees:
My daughter wore black and white, which is a timeless combination that blends in well. Also, my son wore a gray hood worked well with my daughter’s clothes.
If you do have multiple subjects, try and avoid clashing patterns or colors. Discuss clothing choices in advance, and consider coming up with a color scheme that everyone can follow.
Also, avoid t-shirts or sweatshirts that have dominant logos. These can be very distracting, plus they can date an image.
Again, ensure there is one (or more) changes of clothes available. This will not only provide variety in your images, but also deal with any accidents in the wet and possibly muddy conditions.
4. Choose your location wisely
In autumn, you want to find the best colors and textures available, which often means heading to a botanical garden or a beautiful forest. Pay attention to the foliage, and feel free to check out a foliage predictor map; certain areas, depending on their elevation, will turn before others, and the more fall color, the better.
Also, note that fall conditions can change really quickly. Leaves turn over a couple of days, and it often won’t happen until later than you think (which is where a fall foliage map comes in handy!). You also need to check that the leaves are still present (a heavy wind can take them down overnight, so if you find a good place to shoot, don’t dawdle!).
For my most recent shoot, I searched online for arboretums, which often feature collections of interesting trees like this one:
One more quick tip: Use social media for location tags to see what other people have photographed over the last few days (at or near the same location). Instagram, Twitter and even Trip Advisor also work well. You may find a great location that you would never have considered otherwise.
5. Use the right aperture (and settings)
In fall portrait photography, your ISO should stay low to prevent noise, and your shutter speed should sit at 1/125s and above (I consider 1/60s to be my absolute minimum, assuming my lens or camera doesn’t include image stabilization).
But it’s your aperture that can really make a difference. I highly recommend you experiment with different apertures; that way, you can create beautiful blurred backgrounds, as well as backgrounds that emphasize the color and texture of the leaves.
To get a super blurry background, set your aperture to its widest option (i.e., the lowest number, such as f/4, f/2.8, f/1.8, etc.). For me, this is generally f/2.8, though with a kit lens that comes with your camera, you should be able to shoot at around f/5. Here’s the type of effect you can expect with a wide aperture:
If you want greater definition in the leaves, try focusing on your subject but increasing the aperture to f/8:
And if you want everything in focus, from the subject in the foreground to the leaves in the background, you can increase the aperture to f/16 or even f/22. Be careful when shooting at f/22, though; your shutter speed will be significantly lower so you’ll probably need to increase your ISO, plus you’ll get image softening due to diffraction.
I always shoot in RAW, as it allows me that extra flexibility when editing. With modern cameras, JPEGs are very versatile, but I still recommend you capture RAW files if possible (some cameras allow you to capture a RAW and JPEG at the same time, which is a good option if you’re attached to JPEGs).
As for your camera’s White Balance setting: You can always leave it on Auto, but I like shooting in Cloudy White Balance for fall portraits. It warms up the colors, and while you can always adjust later on if you shoot in RAW, it’s helpful to get an accurate preview of the final result.
6. Aim to capture emotions and natural smiles
The best portrait photos tend to look natural, which requires natural poses, but also natural expressions.
Now, when it comes to encouraging natural expressions, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. For adults, I generally recommend you get your subject comfortable in advance by talking with them, asking them about their life, etc. You can also try making them laugh, though this can be tough, or you can give them something to do (e.g., play the violin) and photograph them once they’re fully engaged.
For children, you can use props, you can tell jokes, or you can ask them to run toward you as fast as they can. You might also ask the parents for ideas, as they know their children best!
For the image below, I asked my children to laugh hysterically for no reason at all. This looked ridiculous, but as they calmed down, the smiles were more natural.
If you’re photographing more than one child, ask one to tell the other a secret. This will always get them giggling:
Another tip: If you’re photographing just one child, ask them to tell you about a subject that they love. My son will talk for hours about anything Star Wars or Marvel. And I can ask my daughter her math questions for a range of reactions.
Basically, do anything to distract the kids or get a reaction – then be ready with your camera to capture the moment.
7. Enhance the colors in editing
The best autumn portraits – including my own! – go through some sort of editing process. Now, the editing program you use doesn’t really matter; Lightroom is great, as is Adobe Camera Raw, Capture One, Luminar AI, ON1 Photo RAW, and even free programs such as RawTherapee can fit the bill.
And you don’t need to be an expert editor to make your fall portraits shine. For the photos in this article, I actually kept the editing quite simple; aside from some little exposure and contrast tweaks, I went to the HSL panel in Adobe Camera Raw and saturated my Reds, Greens and Yellows. This really brought some extra punch to the images:
Of course, editing is mostly about personal preference, so feel free to experiment like crazy. I do recommend you boost the colors a little bit, if possible; that way, you can emphasize those gorgeous fall hues.
Fall portrait photography tips: final words
Well, there you have it:
7 fun tips to enhance your autumn portraits. The next time you’re out shooting, try a tip or two – I guarantee you’ll see some great results!
Now over to you:
Which of these tips do you like best? Do you have any fall portrait photography tips of your own? Share them in the comments below!
Table of contents
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- Tips for Doing Fall Portraits
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES