The Most Effective Ways to Show Fall Color in Photography

The Most Effective Ways to Show Fall Color in Photography

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 year. It can be a challenge to transfer your experience of this incredible time of year to the camera sensor (or film). 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.

Polarizers and Fall 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.

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Storms and Drama for Fall Photography

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.

Finding Solace

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.

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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.

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Capturing 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.

An exceptionally calm afternoon gives mirror reflections in Rowdy Lake

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.

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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.

Tranquil Tempest

Creative Panning for Fall 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!

Abstract Aspen 2

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.

Autumn Encore

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.

Aspen Crescendo

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.

Aspen Leaves on Charcoal

Incorporate Water into Your Shots

Water can add dimension to fall photographs, particularly waterfalls. Try doing a vertical panorama to capture more of the fall colors surrounding the waterfall.

Nellie Creek Falls Pano

Contrast Different-Colored Leaves

Look for areas that are changing at different rates. The contrast between the colors give your photographs character.

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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 Epehmeris app.

Autumn Cornucopia

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 colors around them. The contrast between fall and winter, life and death, is incredible.

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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.

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Capture that fall feeling and post your results in the comments below!

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David Kingham is a nature photographer and leader of photo tours at Exploring Exposure. His travels can be followed on Nomadic Destiny: Finding Purpose on the Road. Originally from Colorado, Kingham lives and travels full time around the American West, pursuing his passion for landscape photography.

6 Comments

  1. These are great tips! I love the macro shot of the drops on the leaves. That one really makes me want to delve deeper into that kind of stuff.

    Reply
  2. Beautiful pictures! Thanks for sharing your experience!

    Reply
  3. OMG I saw these gorgeous photos and recognized the aspen shadows one right away and got all pre-mad thinking this blog stole David Kingham’s photos! Joke’s on me, he wrote this. Good to see your work again David!

    Reply
    • LOL! That’s kind of awesome. He’s very recognizable indeed. 🙂

      Reply
  4. as one who died a lot of sunrise/sunset photography, I’ve been fascinated with the way backlighting can take a mundane scene and add condidersbke drama. I particularly liked your tip of using the shadows cast as leading lines – that particular photo you used to illustrate that point is sublime!

    Reply
  5. Beautiful colors in these photos!

    This post brought me to your business. I am always looking for lenses to try. And I am located right next to you guys in Burlington MA. Hope to test out some lenses soon.

    Reply

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