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Lepp On Fall Color

As the days shorten and the leaves turn, Tech Tips offers up some advice for getting your best shots of the season
This Article Features Photo Zoom

Above and right: Sometimes you have to leave the beaten path to capture a subject that everyone else has already done. How do you make it your own? The iconic Crystal Mill, built in 1892 at Colorado’s remote Sheep Mountain, is located on a difficult four-wheel-drive road, but lots of folks have photographed it, for obvious reasons. Lepp’s HDR capture emphasizes the tonal details in the fall scene. Contrasts abound: water flows, old wood rots, fall color amazes, and the sky is Colorado blue. Three composited images at three different exposures: Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 17-40mm at 17mm, ƒ/11; 1⁄180 sec., 1⁄750 sec., 1⁄45 sec.; ISO 200.

Relax. It doesn’t happen on just one day. The autumn season is fairly short, but like 5:00, it’s always fall somewhere! In Alaska, beautiful color (with large mammals in their prime) can be photographed in August and early September; in Colorado, it’s great in late September and October; in Northern Patagonia, fall color peaks in April. It’s mostly about altitude and latitude. We’ll talk about attitude later.

Still, you can’t set your clock by fall’s appearance in any location; many variables affect the onset and duration of fall foliage. Rainfall and temperature conditions experienced during the preceding seasons determine the quality of fall foliage, and even within a particular geographical area, different species show their color at different times. The eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California has some of the most diverse fall color I’ve seen. On the mountaintops, the color of aspen and willow usually peaks in the second week of October. At lower elevations, the beautiful cottonwoods make their statement several weeks later.

But hurry! It might not be there tomorrow. With all their robust appearance, autumn leaves are really hanging by a thread. If you see it today, don’t put off capturing it, because a big wind or rainstorm can wipe it out overnight. I remember arriving for a seminar in New Jersey a few days early; I photographed a small park about 25 miles from New York City that had fantastic color. The next day, a nor’easter blew through and the color was erased. I had to tell my seminar participants that they should have been there yesterday (neener, neener). Still, when you find a good location with foliage in prime condition, check it again in a few days’ time, because it could get even better.

Look close to home. You don’t need to change hemispheres to find great color. Some of my best recent autumn images have been taken near my home in Bend, Ore. Over many decades, the city’s park landscapers have chosen trees that greet spring with flowers, give shade generously in summer and say farewell with a huge variety of great colors. Maples, aspen, birch and willow seemingly appear out of nowhere for two weeks in fall, lining streets in all shades of purple, red and yellow. When photographing in your community, you may have to shoot tight to eliminate distractions. Telephotos extract the best areas of color while eliminating streets, power lines and buildings.

The advantage of photographing close to home is that you can keep tabs as the peak color arrives. Not having to travel far (price of gas) is also a good thing. And while we tend to think that photographing in botanical gardens is mostly about flowers, many have areas, such as Japanese gardens, for planned maximum impact in the fall. The Japanese gardens in Portland and Seattle, and even in Victoria, British Columbia, are within a day’s drive for me.

Use that fickle fall weather. Photography is about the light (duh!), and fall colors change dramatically with its angle and strength. Full sun can bring out colors, especially when trees are backlit. I schedule my fall color classes to put the students in particular locations at a time of day when the sun will be behind the tree-lined ridges. It’s like having the light coming through millions of colored pieces of yellow, orange or red glass. Fall color looks great against brilliant blue skies, preferably with dramatic white clouds, but if you’re given a sullen gray sky, don’t despair. Overcast conditions heighten saturation, and you can always enhance the skies in post-capture software. Yes, you can. I give you permission, if that helps.

The combination of overcast and wet leaves can be an added bonus for saturated color; just be sure to protect your camera and lenses from the moisture. Expanded ISOs make attaining good exposure easy, even on a dreary day. After the rain, you might be rewarded with fog settling in amongst the colored valleys. Or, if you can photograph immediately after a snowfall, you have a combination of color and drama that can make for contest-winning images, even when the scene might have been ho-hum on a sunny day. You’ve seen these images in calendars; now make them your own.

A variety of lenses will give creative results. In any landscape project, lenses are important creative elements. The scene may seem to dictate an appropriate approach, from fisheye to extreme telephoto, but it can be very rewarding to play with different perspectives. Wide-angle lenses can give a unique point of view in confined spaces, such as within woods; point a fisheye straight up for a surreal effect, through backlit leaves. Macro lenses achieve that close-in, intimate look at patterns of leaves and colored berries. I often use telephoto lenses to extract colorful groups of trees from a grand vista, or to capture a multiple-frame panorama or a GigaPan that can be printed at wall-filling proportions. I typically prefer the panorama to a wide-angle capture of a big view unless I particularly want the distortion the wide-angle brings. A panorama comprised of several images at 50mm will give you a more natural perspective while matching the angle of view offered by a wide-angle lens. I know it’s more work, but it’s worth it.

Composition counts, even with great color. Fall color can be the subject or the backdrop, but every photograph needs a center of interest. Incorporating natural features such as streams, ponds, waterfalls, cliff faces or even iconic human-made structures can add drama to the final landscape. To make your compositions stand out from the crowd, seek overlooks that take in a great breadth of the scene, or, if you’re really serious about the grandscape, consider hiring a small plane to get aerials of a large expanse of color. Look for wildlife subjects. They don’t have to have antlers or horns; even smaller mammals and birds among tufted grasses and reeds can give life to a fall color photograph. Water is a wonderful contrast to, or mirror of, fall color; my favorite is streams or small waterfalls rendered silky with long exposures. Colored leaves that have fallen on rocks or stumps are iconic. Just don’t place a bunch of leaves in the scene too perfectly with all of them facing up. It looks phony and everyone has already seen it, anyway. And speaking of that….

Try different techniques to spice it up. You could say that if you’ve seen one colored leaf, you’ve seen them all. I don’t think that’s really true, but I do think that it’s gotten to be very difficult for photographers to find unique fall subjects and perspectives. One of the ways we keep photography fresh in the digital age is by learning and applying new digital techniques to leverage creative power. We can revisit old, favorite subjects and show them in a new way. Try HDR to open up the dark areas of the composition, enrich the sky or even take it over the top with outrageous, saturated color. Put stacking to work to get unlimited depth of field either in landscape or macro captures. Panoramas and GigaPans really convey the enormity of a scene with high-resolution projection and big, big prints.

Move it! Like it or not, the photographic world is in motion. Use it! Telling the story of fall in a time-lapse movie can add great interest to a slideshow of stills. You’ll need a beautiful setting and movement—clouds billowing in the sky, leaves falling, a stream, a sunrise or sunset. If you can photograph the same location repeatedly over several days or weeks, you might even document the entire event in a time-lapse, from the first change of color to the peak and on to the last falling leaf. You can shoot straight time-lapse with the camera anchored to a sturdy tripod, and if you’re interested in taking it to the next level, add a simple motion device like the Radian from Alpine Labs or even a motorized slider.

Need to work faster? Try a video approach. Straight video takes less time than time-lapse, but incorporating video into your digital slideshow works the same way. It’s a break from the norm, and it brings your audience into the scene. You’ll need to try different angles, capture the falling leaves, waterfalls, eddies of swirling leaves, animals grazing through tall grasses. If it moves, it lends itself to video.

Tell a story. Whether video or stills, great photography tells a story. The narrative may reveal itself serendipitously as you photograph a place over time, or you might write and direct it yourself, considering in advance all the elements that, when assembled, will help your viewers experience everything you want to tell them about a subject. The story of fall might be revealed in a wall of images including landscapes, medium extractions and close-ups, for example. You can do the same with a multimedia show that you might take to your camera club or other audience. Or, loop a series of images on your big screen at home via Apple TV, or make a computer screen saver with a variety of shots that remind you throughout the winter just how grand autumn really was.

Follow George Lepp‘s exploits, see his latest photographs and be part of the discussion on his Facebook page: Lepp is part of the OP Blog at

One of North America’s best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers and a leader in the field of digital imaging and photographic education, Lepp is the author of many books and the field editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine. One of Canon’s original Explorers of Light, Lepp finds inspiration in advancing technology that fuels creative innovation and expression of his life-long fascination with the natural world.