Who doesn’t love the fall? Fall foliage, pumpkins, corn mazes, mountains, apples, lakes, hay bales – the list is infinite. Photographing fall foliage is a rewarding experience, as it presents very unique opportunities when capturing the stunning displays of color.
Just remember, the colors of autumn change quickly. Be ready to go in all weather situations – layer up and stay dry. It is easy to find a beautiful image with any kind of light during this season. Most of these techniques can be captured on any camera, but there are some advantages to using certain lenses and equipment.
Fall is my favorite season and presents some crazy challenges in a variety of lighting conditions. Here are 10 best fall photography tips to create beautiful fall photographs. We’ll review in lighting conditions, tools and techniques, and location scouting.
1. Overcast light / Heavy cloud cover
Think of the clouds as a diffuser – they are filtering out all the harsh sunlight that a bright, blue sky brings. The clouds cast out all the dark shadows and highlights, resulting in the brilliant, saturated color of the leaves. It may be cloudy all day – more time to create more images! Don’t forget about the blue hour (before sunrise and after sunset); when the sky will cast additional cool tones of blue or violet, really allowing the bright foliage to pop!
Raquette River, Long Lake, New York (Adirondacks). Canon 10-18mm, f/13, ISO 100
In opposition to an overcast day, sunlight can have a dramatic effect on autumn colors with the right composition and technique. The direct lighting will increase shadows, expanding the tonal range of an image.
Try going out at golden hour, which is 1/2 hr before and after sunrise and sunset. The rays of sunlight will cast an golden glow across your image, transforming it into a warm and beautiful scene.
3. Mist and Fog
Mist and fog can create mystery and mood in your photos. Cold nights bring on misty mornings and the fog can take on many color palettes as the sun rises and sets. Make a plan to photograph a nearby pond, lake or river, or even at higher elevations as the fog rises through the mountains. Just stunning! As fall approaches, the days get shorter and sunrise begins later – get out there early to capture it – no excuses!
Silver Lake Morning Fog (near Finger Lakes, NY). Canon 18-135mm, f/11, ISO 100
4. Secondary Sunsets
A secondary sunset can occur after the sun dips below the horizon. In many situations, the actual sunset might be meh with few clouds and colors, but sticking around for another 15-20 minutes can make a tremendous difference, yielding a stunning display of colors. Light levels will drop, and the colors emitting from the horizon could paint the landscape in a very different way.
Use a tripod and a long shutter speed to get enough light. The clouds may create magical effects over the vibrant foliage.
Silver Lake Secondary Sunset. Canon 18-135mm, f/13, ISO 100
5. Polarizing Filters
A polarizing filter is a must-have tool for photographing fall colors. The purpose of a polarizing filter is to reduce reflections. Your sunglasses are probably polarized.
You can see through the water with polarized lenses, another reason to photograph waterfalls with these filters. They also make it easier to see through fog and rain and reduce haze.
In bright sunlight, the light can bounce over foliage, creating a dull, flat look. The polarizing filter will reduce these reflections and allow the real color to come out.
Altura makes very reasonably-priced filters that are highly rated and I personally use them. I love this bundle, which includes a Polarizing filter, UV Filter, and ND4 filter for long exposures. Check them out on Amazon.
Don’t forget to clean the lens and filter frequently to avoid spots – and extra editing to remove them in post.
6. Shutter Speed – Go Slow and Bring your Tripod
The autumn colors provide great opportunities to get creative and slowing down your shutter is a fun way to experiment. Capture falling leaves, silky smooth waterfalls and rivers, and long dreamy clouds over the landscape.
A tripod is a must-have item. There are many options depending on your camera and weight, but it really pays to get a strong, sturdy tripod that you can setup in rocks, water and will withstand some wind. It will also give you time to compose your image. I have a couple of tripods, one for my home studio and one for my vehicle.
I’ve had my MeFoto tripod for over five years and it’s been through water, rocks, mud, sand, wind and falls and it’s still sturdy as heck and supports a 400mm lens. Check them out on Amazon.
The K&F Concept tripod is my newest addition – i love the flexibility it offers and it is also very sturdy and extends rapidly and solidly. It’s also cheaper than the MeFOTO tripod.
There are lots of great options for camera phone tripods. I would go for this sturdy Aluminum tripod, which also includes a remote for selfies!
7. Beautiful Bokeh
Create stunning images by positioning your subject fairly close to you with the background off in the distance. The colorful foliage will create unique opportunities depending on lighting conditions.
Photograph a colorful branch in the foreground with mountains in the background. Make it a point to include some Bokeh in your fall images!
My favorite bokeh lens is the 50mm lens, which is also a fast lens and very affordable.
The 50mm f/1.8 typically sells for $125 US for a major name brand (Canon or Nikon), but there are other options. Check the latest price on Amazon for this sweet bundle.
8. Bring it with you
One of the great traits of fall is that you can take the foliage wherever you go – or at least part of it. Grab some colorful leaves and position them in a unique way. For example, place them on some rocks in the foreground of a waterfall. This will create a strong focal point.
Now get really close to the leaves and capture them with a wide-angle lense. I use the Canon 10-18mm. It’s not the best or the worst or the cheapest, but is definitely a fun lens and great for sharp images front to back and also to get awesome sunburst effects. Here’s the latest price on Amazon.
Buttermilk Falls, Long Lake, NY. Canon 10-18mm, f/13, ISO 100
9. Change Your Perspective
Sometimes subtle changes are the most impactful on your photography. Change your vantage point. Get on the ground and get some closeup leaves on a road, bridge, or deck.
Look up to get colorful tree tops and bright blue sky. Look down to capture a leaf in frost or in a puddle.
Grab the wide angle and head to the forest or a big tree on a sunny day. Capture a glimpse of the sunlight by stopping down the lens to a small aperture (f18-f22). Hold it steady or better yet – use that tripod! Catch beautiful sunstars – so fun!
Location, Location, Location
10. Research Locations
Depending on location, Autumn color is a short-lived season where every style of photography can come into play. There can be peak foliage one week and an early winter storm can blow all the leaves away, completely changing the look in a short time. The key is to be prepared and have a few ideas ready to go.
While it might be convenient to photograph changing fall colors outside your house, you might want research the locations you plan to visit beforehand. The reason for this is foliage timing. Even small elevation variations can drastically influence how early or late fall colors will appear.
For example, we begin to see fall foliage at High Point State Park in Sussex County, New Jersey, by late September. However, if you take a drive to the Catskills in New York State (about 1.5 hrs north), the foliage peaks by early October. In the Adirondacks (about 4 hrs north), colors begin to change in early September and peak around the end of September.
Weather conditions such as heavy rain, drought, wind, snow squalls and freezing temps can all affect when trees will change their colors and how long their leaves will remain on them.
There are many resources to check fall foliage reports. Here are a few worth checking:
Hiking the AT through High Point State Park, NJ. Canon 18-135mm, f/8, ISO 200
Fall is a fantastic time to great unique and beautiful images. The change of weather creates unique lighting opportunities. The same location in a different season may be drastically transformed.
Take a vast mountain landscape or a single brilliant leaf; The beauty of fall can transform it all!
Don’t forget to bring a tripod, your polarizing filter, a nifty fifty and a wide-angle lens. Dress for the weather, layer up, be prepared, and most of all, be awed with Autumn!
What’s your favorite fall photo tip? Let us know in the comments below!
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