Photography sometimes means finding the beauty where others see nothing, but there’s certainly no shortage of beautiful things to photograph during the peak of fall. Once the trees begin to go from a predictable green to vibrant reds, oranges, and yellows, there are plenty of photographic opportunities.
But with plenty of opportunities come plenty of photos, and the threat of taking a photo that just blends in with all the other images out there. So how do you take fall foliage photos that really pop? We’ve rounded up 20 tips to help you perfect your shots this season.
Time it right.****
Timing is big when it comes to capturing fall foliage. Too soon, and you’ll still be capturing quite a bit of green. Too late, and the wind will empty the trees of all their leaves. To complicate things further, different areas will have different peaks of their colour seasons. Plan ahead with a tool like the Peak Fall Foliage Map, or shoot near where you live so you can watch the colours change.
Try for sidelight.
Light coming in from the side often creates an excellent effect, as well as making techniques like backlighting possible. To get the sunshine coming in from the side, shoot early in the morning or a few hours before sunset. Just after sunrise and just before sunset offers a nice warm hue as well.
Shoot on an overcast day, or bring a polarising filter.****
If you can’t go out at the start or the end of the day, wait for an overcast sky if you can. A high noon sun with no clouds will leave you with harsh shadows and make capturing a great shot difficult. If you want to shoot when the sun is shining, at least bring a polarising filter with you. Then you can adjust the intensity of the blue in the sky and incorporate that into your shots.
Bring a tripod.
Landscape shots often benefit from a tripod, and fall foliage is no exception. To keep the scene sharp, a narrow aperture is necessary, but when you use a narrow aperture, you also need a slower shutter speed. To keep blur out of the shot, keep the camera steady with a tripod. It also helps to use a remote or the self-timer so don’t introduce any movement while pressing the shutter release. Tripods are also necessary to take a long exposure shot and smooth out moving water in an autumn scene.
High perspectives are often breathtaking in the autumn, showing just how much colour there is. If you can, search for a lookout point, like a hill or tall building. Sometimes even climbing a ladder, chair or standing on top of whatever’s available helps too.
Try getting in close.
Autumn offers a lot of beautiful scenes—but don’t get so caught up in the big picture that you miss the little details. Close-ups often work well for fall foliage. If you have a macro lens, be sure to bring it along. Snap close-ups of the texture on a leaf, look for a leaf that is halfway through its colour change, or look at lesser-used subjects like mushrooms and acorns.
Shoot in RAW.
To really make that colour pop, shoot in RAW so you have more possibilities in post processing. RAW editors allow you to adjust the saturation and vibrance, as well as options like white balance and exposure. Be sure to try to get it right as you shoot, but use RAW to make those little tweaks afterwards.
Look for reflections.
Reflections mean twice the colour. Lakes make an excellent natural mirror, just wait for a day when there’s very little wind. Even moving water can reflect colours though. Try shooting a long exposure (don’t forget a neutral density filter and a tripod). The blurred water won’t mirror the trees exactly, but it will capture their colour, so that rush of water isn’t white, but yellow, orange or red.
Try wide angle.
Wide angle lenses capture more of the scene, which makes them great for photographing autumn days. They also tend to exaggerate the perspective, which can work really well. A 35mm is good, but ultra-wide angles like 18mm can also work particularly well.
Wide angle lenses are popular for fall foliage, but don’t leave your telephoto at home either. Telephoto lenses can offer a lot of power. If you are able to climb to a higher vantage point, for example, using both a wide angle and a telephoto will help you capture the details of the entire view.
When the sun is behind the leaves, they glow. Just like backlighting works well for flower photography, the light passing through the leaves give them a surreal quality, and really makes them pop. Shoot with the sun behind the leaves—you’ll probably need to head out at the beginning or end of the day to do this. Try either incorporating the flare of the sun into the scene, or adjusting your position so the sun is behind a tree trunk.
Pick up an enhancing filter.
To really bring out those colours, try picking up a colour enhancing filter. These filters are designed to bring out one colour in particular. The red intensifier type can be a big asset when shooting fall leaves.
Underexpose by 1/3.
Overexposing the image will mute those bright colours, underexposing will bring them out just a bit. Don’t underexpose too much, or you’ll wind up with an image that’s simply too dark. But, underexposing by 1/3 stop can capture more saturated colours without making the image too dark.
Compose for colour.
With colour so prominent, it only makes sense to base your composition on them. Fill the frame with all complementary colours, for example. Or, use contrasting colours, like an orange tree and a bright blue sky to really draw attention to the tree. Be careful to watch out for distractions too. A single evergreen tree in with a bunch of reds, yellows and oranges draws the eye. If that green tree isn’t your subject, frame the scene differently to eliminate it instead.
Use a graduated neutral density filter for bright or dramatic skies.
While sunny days present harsher shadows, sometimes that bright blue sky just works well. Or, maybe you’re shooting with a storm on the horizon, but the sky is a bit overexposed. Using a neutral density filter will help you to capture the details in both the foliage and the sky without over or underexposing one or the other. Place the filter over your lens so the start of the gradation lines up with the horizon.
Look up and down.
There’s so much beauty right in front of you, but you’ll miss out if you don’t also glance at the ground and up at the sky. Sometimes, the way the leaves scatter on the ground can be just as photogenic as the trees. Shooting up from the base of the tree can also offer a different perspective. Keep an eye out for details, no matter where they may fall.
Go ahead, adjust the scene.
No, you can’t move that tree, but you can still adjust the scene some, providing you’re not disruptive. Move distracting branches, acorns and stones out of the way. Gather the brightest leaves that you see and scatter them in your image. For close-ups, it’s okay to gently push one branch out of the way with one hand while you shoot with the other.
Use the vibrant colour setting.
Most cameras have a few different colour settings, sometimes called film simulation. If your camera is one of them, switch to a vibrant colour setting. This simple adjustment will enhance those colours even more and is really as simple as changing one option inside your camera’s menu.
Hike a little farther.
It’s hard to take pictures that look different from everyone else’s when you’re standing where everyone else is. Take the extra effort to hike a bit farther and explore a bit further. It will show in your images. Watch for a look-out point, keep an eye out for streams and waterways, and look for trees that turn into leading lines.
Brave the weather.
The days that are the most comfortable to be outside often aren’t the best days for photos. An impending storm can make for a dramatic sky. A single shaft of light floating in through the clouds is a huge photographic opportunity you might miss if you stay inside. Make sure to consider the wind though. That will create ripples on lakes and may introduce blur as the leaves move.
Autumn presents an abundance of opportunities for landscape photography, making even plain scenes come alive with colour. But it takes a bit of forethought and strategic shooting to really capture fall photos that shine. Get ready to brave the weather, hike with a few different lenses and a tripod, and get up early for the sunrise or stick around late for sunset.
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