Autumn is a great opportunity for all photographers to make some really colorful and outstanding photographs. There are few subjects as universally inspiring as fall foliage. If you give the trees some dramatic lighting and think carefully about framing and composition, you’re on the right track to making a great photo that doesn’t just rely on pretty colors. Below are several tips on how to capture your best fall foliage.
Make sure to also check out next week’s post where we will give you locations in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. to see and photograph fall foliage!
The temptation to capture wide shots of entire forests or mountainsides may be hard to resist, but variety is the spice of life. Macro photography is a great way to explore the colors and textures of autumn, while also using unique points-of-view. Another way to get closer is switching to a longer telephoto lens or zooming to a longer focal length with a zoom lens. Telephotos are great for isolating parts of subjects and can throw your backgrounds beautifully out of focus (bokeh). A simple, minimalist composition can be just as evocative of the season as a complex scene. Try getting close to a single leaf and using a wide aperture, like f/2.8 or f/4 to achieve a shallow depth of field that isolates fine details.
When it comes to photographing fall foliage, you can use sunlight to make those fall colors as bright and vivid as you want them. One of the ideal times to shoot is during golden hour, generally during the first half-hour right after the sun rises in the morning and the last half hour just before the sun sets at the end of the day. During these times, the quality of light is ideal for autumn landscape photography as the sunlight is naturally warm and golden-hued. The angle of the sunlight is also lower and more directional, helping create enhanced textures and shapes. The quality of golden hour sunlight is more diffused with a contrast that is less likely to overexpose in the highlights/underexpose in the shadows. Hazy and overcast lighting can bring a completely new set of photographic opportunities. These forms of lighting are diffused and will render your colors in soft shades without shadows. Fall colors can look even more saturated during or right after a rainstorm and moody skies can offer a perfect contrast to the colored foliage. Use a macro lens and look for details such as raindrops clinging to leaves. If you position a leaf between your camera and the sun, the back lighting will illuminate it all the way through, making it appear to glow and revealing the details of the veins. If the sky is visible between the leaves, try it on the blue sky day for a beautiful color contrast.
The secret to metering any lighting situations is to fill the frame with the light you’re trying to photograph. This can be accomplished three ways: first, you can move closer to the subject to fill the frame, but this can be difficult if you’re framing some trees with a distant mountain in the background.
The second method is to use the longest focal length on your zoom lens – or a long telephoto prime lens – to crop your frame tightly onto your main subject, and meter it in isolation from distracting elements in the scene that may otherwise confuse your meter. Use Auto Exposure Lock (AE Lock) to hold that exposure in place, then reposition the lens, zoom out to the correct focal length for the best composition and capture the picture.
The third method is to use Spot Metering to help you isolate exposure on one critical area of a scene and lock it in with the AE Lock button. Place the center area of your viewfinder on the part of the scene you want to meter from, then press the AE Lock button to hold that reading. Using Manual exposure mode, adjust the aperture or shutter speed until the meter scale in the viewfinder reads proper exposure.
To deepen the tones and make the colors stand out more, underexpose your image slightly. The easiest way to do this is to locate your exposure compensation (+/-) button and dial it down somewhere between -0.5EV and -1.0EV.
Playing With Color
Once you find the perfect scene for your photos, consider how to capture the colors and make the most of them in a way that compliments your overall image. The camera’s white balance settings will help to create different tonal effects. If you’re photographing during golden hour, you may not want your camera’s auto white balance to eliminate the light’s yellow-orange tone, which is what it will try to do. However, if you set your white balance to “daylight” your pictures will retain the sun’s warm glow. Try different settings in different lighting situations to find the best color balance. Switching from Auto White Balance (AWB) or Daylight to the Shade or Cloudy modes will add a warm, golden hue to your image. Remember that contrast can help colors stand out; the warm tones of autumn leaves will be enhanced with the subtle inclusion of something cool (blue or blue-green) in the frame. For example, the most vibrant sunlit reds and yellows against the blue sky can create a strong color scheme.
Photographing leaves can be especially difficult on a windy day and windless conditions are critical for achieving mirror-like reflections of autumn color in water; but an uninterrupted mirror can create too static of a picture. Instead, look for rocks or logs in the water to break up the reflection and to provide a visual anchor to strengthen your composition. Fall often brings cool and moist condition – a great recipe for fog, morning dew and striking sunsets and sunrises. Also, keep capturing images when peak color fades; sometimes, you can make the best fall photography when the trees stand bare and fallen leaves carpet the forest floor. Post-peak also offers a great time for you to look for scenes of streams and waterfalls with rocks covered with leaves. If an early snow or frost comes your way, you can also show the transition between autumn and winter. It may help to use a polarizing filter to darken skies and increase contrast with clouds; a polarizing filter can reduce reflections and cut through glare, strongly enhancing color. Polarizing filters also act as neutral-density filters, reducing light without shifting color, which allows you to use longer shutter speeds.
When you find a great autumn location full of dramatic colors, it can be easy to become overwhelmed by the color and forget everything else. Fall colors don’t create a good landscape photo on their own, they simply add an element of color. The composition should be strong even when turned black and white, so remember your basic rules of landscape composition: create a focal point and use lines & shapes to create balance and harmony. To create images that stand out from the rest, compose them with thought and purpose and never be afraid to try a different angle.