Quick Tips for Surreal Fall Photos
Many photographers wait an entire year to photograph the vibrant colors of autumn, and that first sign of foliage signifies the beginning of a mosaic journey through nature. Although the foliage season is short, the opportunities to capture a stunning autumn portfolio are quite diverse. Below you’ll find some helpful tips for photographing the fall color.
This is a previously published post that has been updated extensively with new fall photography tips and information.
The Difference of Light
The role that light plays in your landscape photographs is always important, but the colorful autumn season has the ability to amplify the power of natural light. Previously uninspiring scenes are now ablaze with fall foliage, and creative opportunities flourish with every tree that changes color.
Overcast lighting can greatly saturate your colors, which makes even the most dismal day a vibrant show of autumn foliage. The softening of highlights and shadows allows you to focus more intently on the smaller details within your frame as your scene is not overpowered by more direct lighting.
Water also acts as a color amplifier, so those dewy overcast mornings provide the perfect scenario to capture scenes overflowing with rich tones and vibrant textures.
Direct sunlight provides a completely different, but equally powerful scenario. As the days grow closer to winter, the sun’s position gradually becomes lower in the sky. By autumn, there is a considerable difference from the summer light, which translates to longer shadows and more profound direct lighting. Highlights and shadows are enhanced by this lower angle of light, and autumn scenes explode with texture.
The golden hours – the time around sunrise and sunset -creates an incredibly powerful environment for foliage photography. The sun is at its lowest angle in the sky during this time, which produces an atmosphere rich with bright highlights and deep shadows. When combined with the vibrant colors of autumn foliage, you have a brilliant mosaic of color and tones.
It’s important to note that while the golden hour light provides a prime opportunity to create a stunning photograph, it does come with the need for a more specialized workflow. The sharper angle of the sun increases the disparity between your brightest highlights and deepest shadows. This difference will often be too great to capture within a single frame, which results in over and underexposed areas and loss of important data. In my eBook The Golden Hours, I describe several methods to overcome these exposure limitations so that you can capture the entire tonal range and create a powerful autumn image.
Finally, the twilight hours before sunrise and after sunset – also known as the blue hours – is another fantastic opportunity to capture a highly-colorful autumn scene that would otherwise be overwhelmed with the intensity of daylight.
This 300 second exposure taken under moonlight diffused by clouds greatly saturated the color of these leaves, and the recent rain shower amplified the color to its maximum vibrancy. Since foliage color begins to fade as soon as a leaf drops from the tree, I knew that this opportunity would be gone by morning as the leaves would begin to dry, curl, and desaturate.
Many landscape photographers use polarizers to eliminate reflections in the water, but it also has the power to reduce glare on foliage. This photography essential can be particularly helpful during the golden hours where the reflective highlights can wash out the color you intend to capture.
While it may come natural to look for those grand autumn vistas, you can also find an equally powerful show of autumn in more confined areas. Your local park or backyard can hold hundreds of simple compositions – especially when using a wide aperture to help minimize a busy background and make your subject stand out. There is much beauty in even the most simplest elements of nature, and the fall foliage provides a plethora of opportunities.
Using shallow depths to isolate small pieces of autumn can also contribute to the creation of bokeh, which is a constant pursuit of mine. Living in Maine, the autumn color provides ample opportunity to create a watercolor canvas of blended earth tones for a truly unique image.
However, there is much more to the creation of bokeh than simply using a wide aperture – light, distances, and focal lengths all have an important role to play. Click here to read more on where bokeh comes from and how to create it with your own camera.
If you plan on traveling for the autumn foliage, much thought is put into the timing of your trip so it coincides with peak foliage. This can be especially discouraging if you need to reserve your trip months in advance. While many photographers relish to be in the midst of peak foliage, there are still plenty of opportunities to capture stunning autumnal scenes before and after the height of color.
The image above was taken well after the official “peak” foliage past as the rusty-gold oak trees are typically the last to turn. While the more vibrant reds and oranges had long fallen, I was still able to create with past-peak colors.
In contrast, this early-peak foliage presented a unique opportunity to focus on the smaller detail of autumn in the absence of the grand vistas of color. By using a wide aperture, I was able to isolate my focal point and create an autumn image within a predominantly green environment.
It’s important to note that foliage can vary greatly depending on your altitude and the type of tree. A region can be experiencing all stages of foliage at different elevations, so the potential of color combinations can be quite vast just within one community.
Perspective is Key
While shooting at standing height can create a perfectly adequate autumn image, you’ll create a more engaging portfolio if you explore different perspectives. In particular, I find laying flat out on the ground to give me plenty of unique compositions of fallen foliage – it creates a more three-dimensional environment, and adds depth and texture that is often lost at higher vantage points.
Look Beyond the Color
The color of autumn certainly enhances your environment, but don’t let this powerful focal point distract you from other opportunities. Seek out strong shapes and layers, and explore other scenes that present themselves despite whether or not they have interesting foliage.
Tall grass will traditionally turn into fields of gold during the late summer, which present a unique opportunity to photograph warm vistas like this seaside field. Although the foliage was mostly green, the golden hues caught my eye for an alternate autumn scene.
Using an ND filter (or a smaller aperture) to slow down your shutter speed can be a surreal way to capture movement. Streams of water, passing clouds, or wind blowing the fall foliage in a tree are all examples of where a slow shutter can create a unique image.
This 40 second exposure combined with an aperture of f/1.4 created a surreal environment on this windy autumn afternoon.
With the same aperture at 15 seconds, the windswept grass and reflected light blended together for a smooth, gradient transition of tones and colors to an otherwise highly-detailed subject. If I photographed this at a deeper depth of field and without the assistance of an ND filter, it would create an entirely different atmosphere.
By spending a bit of time to plan your autumn shoot, you can create a stunning fall foliage portfolio. Work with your surroundings and make conscious decisions on how you want to set up your image vs. shooting from the hip – focal length, aperture, shutter speed, and perspective can make a huge difference to your final image.
The important message to take away from this article is that there are ample opportunities to capture autumn foliage no matter what kind of weather or light you’re experiencing. Day or night, overcast or golden, grand or minimal, peak foliage or muted – the opportunities to photograph the autumn season are vast and only constricted by the boundaries you place on your own creative freedom. The photograph you planned to capture may not play out well in the field as nature dictates our light and atmosphere – and that’s okay. The examples in this article are meant to prepare you for whatever environment you find yourself in this fall, and allow you to adapt to the unpredictable temperament of nature.
If you’re interested in learning some of these methods that I use to capture these photos, I’ve written a series of ebooks that you can read more about here.
For more inspiration, make sure to check out our collection of fall foliage photos: