Photographing in late fall can result in unique images that capture the change of seasons

If the leaves have already fallen, then that color can sometimes be found on the ground. If this image were made at the height of color (with leaves still on the branches), we wouldn’t be able to enjoy the lovely filigree of bare branches in this image of maples in Zion National Park, Utah. Photo by Charles Cramer.

I love to photograph in the fall—colorful foliage, beautiful light (with the sun at a lower angle) and usually pleasantly crisp temperatures. What’s not to like? When planning a fall trip, it’s important to go at the right time. There are various websites that track color changes, and they often supply dates for prime color in previous years. I usually plan on going slightly past the predicted height of color. I don’t want to arrive early and find lots of green, and if I’m late for the color—that’s fine with me!

Another advantage of going late in the fall is the possibility of having two distinct seasons in one image. Fall foliage with snow can be wonderful—I joke that I should charge double for these! Here’s an image of the Eastern Sierra above Bishop, California, with a dusting of the season’s first snow. The snow barely reaches the lower elevation of the aspen—which I like because the whiteness of the snow at the top balances the bright yellows of the aspen.

Many of my best images were made past prime color. For example, this image was made late one October in Acadia National Park, Maine. I find having just the one isolated group of red leaves much more interesting. This image is almost a black-and-white, except for the red and some subtle green at the bottom. This image also has a “bonus” for those who look very carefully—a few tiny red leaves that have blown off and become stuck in the branches of the trees behind.

One fall, I traveled to the San Juan Mountains in Colorado. It’s like the aspen have a convention there every fall—with amazing color. This was late September, and the colors were near prime. But my favorite image of the trip happened on the way home driving across Boulder Mountain in Utah. This mountain is also covered with aspen, with color that usually peaks three to four weeks earlier, so almost every tree was now bare. But, I found my foot suddenly applying the brakes as I drove past a small grove in fog! I love fog, as it can give great depth to an image by separating near trees from the background trees. And, to my surprise, there were a few very young aspen that still had a little color. This image is also somewhat monochromatic, which can make the splashes of color seem more dramatic.

Avoid Oversaturation

One approach to interpreting fall color would involve having strongly saturated colors throughout the image. This can be pretty impressive—initially. I find many people in my digital printing workshops go overboard with saturation. It almost takes a class “intervention” to convince some that less saturation might be more effective. I compare it to a song on the radio that you hear and immediately love. But, hearing that song repeatedly may cause one to come to despise it. Aggressive images with bold saturation can be seductive. But will they still feel that way after a month? Late season fall images allow for more localized color, and perhaps less tendency to overdo the saturation.

In 2013, I went to New England, even though my schedule prevented me from leaving until October 21—usually way past prime color. I was too late for certain areas, but I still found much to photograph. I do love bare trees, and they were everywhere. This scene in Grafton Notch State Park, Maine, combines many bare trees with patches of strong color. The patches of color can form an intriguing pattern, which wouldn’t be the case with color everywhere.

A good snow in Yosemite Valley, California, is an amazing sight, but it’s becoming increasingly rare. In 1985, I asked Virginia Adams (Ansel’s widow) about the frequency of snowstorms there, and she replied that it snowed much more often in her youth in the 1920s. However, I regularly teach an early November workshop in Yosemite, and have experienced an early snow on several occasions in the last five years. Yosemite is quite a monochromatic palette, especially with snow, so having fall color is a plus! In this image are several of the wonderful black oaks in El Capitan meadow, with Cathedral Rock in the background. There’s hardly any color in the scene except for the yellows. I have a Yosemite Valley snow scene made one February, and it looks like a black-and-white print. But, upon closer inspection, very subtle colors can be discerned. I find many like the great subtlety of this print. In my travels in late fall over the years, I’ve experienced similar early snows at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Zion and New England. For a Californian like me, who rarely sees snow, this can be a thrilling experience.

Charles Cramer‘s prints are available through fine photographic galleries like the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite. He teaches digital imaging for the Ansel Adams Gallery Workshops, John Sexton Workshops and his own program. He has been profiled in many magazines, from Sweden, to the UK, the U.S. and China. He’s also included in the books “Landscape: The World’s Top Photographers” and “First Light: Five Photographers Explore Yosemite’s Wilderness.” His work can be seen at