Fall Photo Basics

Posted on by Steve

So, ready to shoot some fall color are ya? Not so sure where to start? Well, take a gander at the 10 tips below and you’ll be well on your way to snagging yourself some wall hangers!

1. Timing is EVERYTHING!

I’ve said it before, but it’s even more important for fall color – shoot when your subject looks best! A quick Google search for “Fall Color Report” will provide an avalanche of links with helpful information. I personally like both the Weather Channel’s  fall color report and the Foliage Report website.

Just FYI – Sometimes I find that the best colors seem to be just a day or two after what the websites list as “Peak Color”. Not sure why, but (again, sometimes) it seems like their “peak color” still has a lot of green foliage in it – I like to try and get as many reds and oranges as I can, so I wait juuuussst a bit (again – usually a day or two – hesitate too long and you’ll miss it – D’oh!).

Another big thing to look for is a “leaf drop” map. You know you still have time if there’s peak color but LOW leaf drop. On the other hand, you know you’re missing out if there’s moderate to high leaf drop with peak color. The Foliage Report site mentioned above has maps for both color and leaf drop and is exceedingly helpful.

For this shot I had to keep checking for over a week before the trees were “ripe”!

One word of caution – strong winds and rainstorms are not your friend. If you have a place in mind and you’re waiting for the right moment to pounce with your camera, it’s always a good idea to watch the weather for the area you’re planning to photograph. I’ve timed trips for perfect fall color – only to have all the leaves scattered before I arrive.

2. Use a Polarizing filter.

This is my secret weapon for getting great fall color (and great color in general). A lot of people think of a polarizer as a filter that makes blue skies bluer (LOL – the only thing I don’t use it for), but its main purpose it to take away reflections.

Even though you normally don’t notice it, vegetation – leaves in particular – tend to reflect a lot of light. When you photograph this reflection, it “masks” the color of the object under it. By removing the reflection, you allow the true color to show through – you know, like all those brilliant reds, yellows, and oranges.

To see a real world example, you needn’t go any further than a pair of polarized sunglasses. We’ve all been driving along in the car and did the whole “with and without” sunglasses thing. Polarized sunglasses always seem to make the colors pop – and it’s all because they eliminate the little reflections present on leaves (and rocks, vegetation, etc).

Oh, and no – there really isn’t a photoshop way to duplicate the effect no matter what you may have read on the internet. If you photograph the reflection instead of removing it with a polarizer, you never captured the underlying color information to begin with, so no way to recover it.

3. The color isn’t (usually) the subject.

A big mistake people make when shooting fall color is getting all caught up in the color and forgoing everything else.

Hey, I’ve been there and done that myself – only to be disappointed when I reviewed the images on the computer. So, nowadays I tend to treat color more as an added element of the photo instead of the end all and be all.

So, my #1 job when seeking out fall color shots is to find a really great scene first – and then try to setup a composition that uses the colorful vegetation to enhance what would have been a great photo even without the color.

Had I been there in summer, I would have done the same composition – autumn just added some color:

4. Wet leaves are AMAZING!

Sure, shooting on a nice, sunny day can be fun, but you’re far more likely to find me trudging through the woods looking for fall lanscapes in wet, foggy, or drizzly conditions.


No, no, it’s not because I’m a bad weather masochist or anything. Ever pick up a colorful rock from a beach that’s been in the water? Ever notice it doesn’t look so hot after it’s dried off? Same thing applies to leaves. Shoot ’em when they’re wet, add a polarizer, and you’ll find yourself cranking the saturation slider DOWN in photoshop!

5. Shoot under cloud cover.

I know, another blow to sunny days, but the soft, diffused light that an overcast sky provides can really give you some incredible colors. A bright sunny day can easily overcome the punchy colors your trying so hard to capture (and even a polarizer can be hard pressed to save you), whereas an overcast day allows for a larger palette of subtle colors to come through.

You know, more of a moody photo than one that smacks you across the face and yells “SUNNY DAY!!!”

This, like many of of the shots in this article, is under soft cloud cover

6. Get great sunlight.

Of course, there’s always room for some sunlight – you just need to leverage it to your advantage.

First, start off when the sun is low – the “golden hour” that’s often mentioned in photographic circles. We’re talking one hour after sunrise and one hour before sunset. The angle of the light is much better, rendering textures that a high sun conceals. The light is also much warmer in color, augmenting those warm colors in the foliage and causing ’em to pop even more.

Look for compositions where you can showcase the light. In conditions like this, I’m usually looking for side light options or even backlight opportunities.  (Backlight can really make the colors of the leaves pop!)

Keep in mind that no matter what you’re trying to photograph, I very seldom (read: almost never) come across a scene that looks better at mid-day – those first and last hours of light will, 99% of the time, make your subjects look better than mid-day light ever could.

7. Look for color contrasts.

Another great piece of advice is to keep an eye out for color contrasts. A patch of yellow trees in a sea of evergreens, a single red leaf on a mossy log, or even a green tree in a batch of red ones.

The yellow leaves stand out against the deep greens in this photo

8. Remember to try different focal lengths!

When it comes to fall colors, it’s tempting to try to include everything you see. However, wide angle isn’t the only tool in your arsenal.

Try all the focal lengths at your disposal – as well as varying distances from your subjects. Maybe a closeup of a red leaf is more compelling than the entire tree. Perhaps a wide angle of a stream is just right. Or maybe zooming in on a group of trees on a hillside makes the best photo.

My advice it to use your lens to include everything that adds to your photo and crop out everything that doesn’t. Look at every part of your composition and decide if that area is adding to the shot – or taking away from it. Let the landscape dictate your focal length.

9. Try adding water

OK, I’m a waterholic and I freely admit it. I love flowing water in my shots and I happily use it with fall color every chance I get.

From flowing streams, to lakesides, to waterfalls, I’m game. In most cases, I’m still taking the exact same shot I would have otherwise captured, I’m just using fall color to enhance the scene.

This stream in the Smokies just begged for a photo!

Also, keep an eye out for fall color reflected in the water. Sometimes the reflection combined with a good subject can be pretty magical.

10. Don’t forget the critters!

Most mammals are looking their best in fall, so make sure you take advantage of it. Naturally, you don’t have total control of where you’re going to find an animal, but I promise you, they do sometimes find themselves surrounded by fall colors.

So, in addition to your wide angle, grab that telephoto and see if you can get a critter in the colors!

Sometimes, they do cooperate!

There ya go – happy shooting and maybe I’ll see you out there!


PS – Let me know what you think of this article in the comments :) Thanks!

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14 Responses to Fall Photo Basics

  1. Bill says:

    Thanks for the tips on Fall colours. They will come in very handy.

  2. Barb S says:

    Thanks for the tips please do not stop!

  3. weebit says:

    Thanks Steve these tips are appreciated very much. There I was thinking a sunny day is all you need.

  4. Jean says:

    I have learned a lot about digital cameras from your newsletters. Please don’t stop. I usually print tips so that I can use them later.

  5. Pam says:

    Keep the tips coming and maybe I can become a very talented photographer like you!

  6. Mattie says:

    The first and third pics are your best ever. The first one is cause of the unusual colors…. yes you timing was right… and the third cause it is most unusual.

    • rick says:

      mattie, you’re right;these photographs are very beautiful but far from being steve’s best. check out his site ( backcountry gallery ) you will be even more impressed.

  7. Sally says:

    thanks for all the great ideas / tips i am in florida so we dont get much of the fall colors but some of yoor tips will still com ein handy and i look forward to seeing more of your photos

  8. Julie says:

    I really enjoy your writing style, so engaging. It’s refreshing to come across someone with such obvious talent (your photos are mesmerizing), being able to share their knowledge without being condescending. Thank you for that.

  9. Bill Mihalovits says:

    Thanks for the tips and great wallpaper. A quick question: do you use any of the automatic exposure features of your camera or do you manually set the exposure?

    • Steve says:

      Hi Bill –

      Thanks for the nice comments. I shoot a combination of apature priority (with exposure compensation as needed), and manual exposure.Probalby 60-70% manual in fact. Once you get used it it, it’s pretty fast.

  10. Bill Mihalovits says:

    Thanks. Do you use the camera meter or a handheld? Also, do you set the exposure using a gray card or some other means?

    After many, many years I’m finally able to pursue photography as a serious hobby again but some things have changed (dSLRs, no more dinosaur pictures, etc.)

  11. Keith Williams says:

    How do you uninstall the calendar?

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