This post has been updated and re-released to reflect recent gear recommendations.
Fall is my favorite time of year to be a photographer. The vibrant colors of the changing season combined with fleeting nature excites me every time. It can be a challenge to transfer your experience of this incredible season to the camera sensor, though. The feeling of being there can overwhelm the senses and when you return home it can be disappointing when you do not feel as though you captured the essence of what you saw in person. With a few techniques and timing the weather correctly, you can create photos that reflect your vision and really show off fall color in your work.
Polarizers and Fall Color Photography
The easiest way to make the autumn leaves really stand is by simply using a circular polarizer. This will help cut the reflections off the leaves, letting the vibrant colors come through. Without a polarizer the leaves can be dull from the reflected light. When you give the polarizer a twist, you will suddenly see autumn in all of it’s glory.
[su_box title=”Recommended Polarizers” style=”soft”]There are a number of ways to get a filter on your lens. The most common is to find a round filter in the same diameter as your lens’ front element and screw it on. Another is to get a matte box and slip in a square filter. If you’re interested in using Canon’s new full frame mirrorless system, the adapter for that system has a polarizer built right int! Check out a few polarizing filter options below:
Storms and Drama for Fall Color
Dramatic weather can be your best friend when photographing fall colors and waiting for the right moment is key. During storms, the leaves can be quite dull with the overcast skies but if you wait for the sun to peak through a crack in the clouds, the leaves will be brightly illuminated – a beautiful, stark contrast to the surrounding storm-filled skies.
The absolute best time to be out is right as a storm is clearing. This can be hard to time but if you pay careful attention to the forecast, and the changing conditions around you, there is opportunity to capture incredible weather conditions like low clouds swirling around a peak as the first sun rays of the day grace the mountain.
[su_box title=”Ready to Go Gear” style=”soft”]If you’re expecting any storms in your area this fall, it’s important to be ready at a moment’s notice or to be willing to following the clouds a bit. This means having a lightweight, but sturdy, tripod is key. Carbon fiber checks off both boxes: easy to carry, tough to destroy.
Effective Backlighting When Shooting Leaves
Front-lit leaves are flat and uninspiring but when the sun is behind the leaves, they suddenly glow as if illuminated from the inside. Also keep an eye out for dramatic shadows created from the trees – these can be used as leading lines to the subject you want attention placed on. Fall color isn’t just about “color”. It’s really about the dance of color and light.
Capturing Fall Color Reflections with Your Camera
Find a lake with deciduous trees along its shore on a calm day and you have a winning combination. It can be hard to achieve such a photo, so keep an eye on the weather to find an exceptionally calm day. If wind is all you have to work with, make the best of it.
You can do this by using a telephoto lens and focusing on the reflections of the trees. Combine this with a slower shutter speed to create abstract images of the reflections.
[su_box title=”Recommended Telephotos to Pair with Your Wide Angle” style=”soft”]Wide angle lenses are the gold standard in landscape photography but, like with the water reflections example, it’s handy to have a telephoto with you. Here are some recent releases that aren’t too heavy to carry compared to most other long lenses:
Catch Falling Leaves with Your Camera
This is a great technique that can only be achieved on a very windy day. If you have ever walked through a forest in the fall on a windy day, you know the magic feeling of the leaves falling around you. Capturing this scene can be a challenge, though. One picture does not convey the feeling of falling leaves, you only see a few in a single exposure. I captured the image below by setting my camera to burst mode, and firing off 30 shots in a row. Later, I combined these in Photoshop using Auto-Align and Auto-Merge or Blend to bring them all into one shot, which captured the feeling rather than just a moment. You can really capture the essence of fall color with some added creativity.
Creative Panning for Fall Color Photography Effects
Set your camera to a slow shutter speed (around 1/4th second, but play around) and pan you camera while taking the photo. You will end up with an abstract, painterly rendition of the fall. Try panning up and down, left and right, zoom your lens during the exposure, turn the camera, change your focus, let your creativity flow!
[su_box title=”Panning Support Gear for Photos, Video & Time-Lapses” style=”soft”]There are some amazing tools now that will easily add dynamic flair to your projects:
How to Snow to Show Color
If you see snow in the forecast, do all you can to get out into field! Snow contrasted against the fall colors is a stunning scene.
The snow helps to simplify the scene and makes the fall colors stand out. Typically the ground is still fairly warm in the fall so the snow will melt quickly. Therefore, you need to be there right as the storm is ending to capture the best images.
Use Different Lenses – Not Just Wide Angles
Any and all lenses are viable so play around with, each to boost your creativity. Extreme telephoto can be used to focus on a set of particularly interesting trees. Use a fisheye and point it straight up in a stand of tall trees. Take a macro out into the woods for a peaceful day looking at the small details in the forest.
[su_box title=”Lenses for Macro Photography” style=”soft”]It’s not just about the big expanses out there. It’s also about the little things. Bring a macro with you. If the weather doesn’t cooperate, at least you won’t walk away completely empty-handed:
Incorporate Water into Your Shots
Water can add dimension to fall color photographs, particularly waterfalls. Try doing a vertical panorama to capture more of the fall colors surrounding the waterfall.
Contrast Different-Colored Leaves
Look for areas that are changing at different rates. The contrast between the colors give your photographs character. Fall color can be about so much more than just firey red.
Complement with Sunset Colors
The pink skies of sunset can complement the color palette of fall nicely. Look for clouds around sunset, along with clear skies to the west. The clouds will light up and make your photographs stand out. Using Skyfire can greatly help you predict when an a great sunset will occur. It shows you what looks like a heat map of where clouds will light up in the US and Europe. This can also be found in The Photographer’s Ephemeris app.
Work with Areas that are Past Peak
When the leaves begin to fall, you are left with patches of barren trees. Most photographers put their cameras away for the winter but this is some of my favorite times to be out. Drag out that big telephoto and focus in on these barren patches that still have fall color all around them. The contrast between fall and winter, life and death, is incredible.
Post Processing to Maximize Color
Try this trick: In Lightroom go to the Camera Calibration tab in the Develop Module, slide up the Saturation slider for only the Blue channel. This will often make your yellows appear to glow. If your blues become too saturated, go to the HSL panel and lower the saturation for only the blues.
With all these tips in mind, grab your gear and get outside to capture some fall color!