Tune In To Fall Wildlife Photography

Fall changes are an opportunity to connect with wildlife in your neighborhood

Finding photographic opportunities with local wildlife is not so difficult in spring or early summer, with their characteristic bounty of bursting life, but what about the fall season? What happens when so many of our colorful songbirds have departed for southern climes, fox families have dispersed, and deer and turkeys have gone into hiding with the approach of hunting season?

This fall, try a new approach. Let your photography be driven first and foremost not by your search for a compelling subject but by your attention to color, to light and to wind. Set the stage, and then see what shows up. If you plan it right, any subject can become compelling in the right conditions.

Image of a salamander in fall

Redback salamander among autumn leaves.

Color

Is there a particular deciduous tree or patch of trees where you regularly see birds? Keep note of those spots and watch for when foliage is at or near the peak of color. Go at first light, when birds are typically most active, and park yourself nearby, concealed if possible. Perhaps you’re in a pop-up blind or a car, or maybe you’re just sitting quietly at the base of a tree. Be silent and patient and willing to really wait for a bird to appear among the colorful leaves.

Look for reflections of colorful foliage in the water of local lakes and ponds, and photograph Canada geese or ducks moving through the color.

In places where leaves have fallen and are covering the ground like a blanket, look for creatures resting, moving or foraging through that color. A squirrel, salamander or small insect set against vibrant autumn leaves can make for a stunning photo.

Light

Check sunrise time, and on a clear morning, get out there before the first rays of light hit. Walk or drive around looking for a subject to photograph in that first hour of light. Try the same at the end of the day, and photograph during the hour before the sun sets. See how the quality of the light at either edge of day has the amazing ability to elevate your photo of a commonplace subject, whether it’s a pigeon or a squirrel, to something really special.

Be on the lookout for special light after storms. You know the soft pink or orange light that sometimes suffuses the atmosphere afterward? If you can, drop everything and rush out in that light, no matter what time of day it is. Even a normally drab bird or animal will look ravishing in it.

Image illustrating fall wildlife photography

A wood duck drake flies across a pond reflecting fall colors.

Wind

Is there a strong wind predicted in the local forecast? That’s a great time to head out to photograph birds in flight. Birds of prey, in particular, are known to use the force of strong winds to stay in place on the wing while looking below for prey. Red-tailed hawks, kestrels, rough-legged hawks and northern harriers are among the species that employ this technique. If you have a car, check farm fields and open hilltops for these birds. Airports can also be a good place to find them.

Even if you can’t find raptors harnessing the force of the wind to enable hover hunting, note that any bird flying into a strong wind will be slowed down by it. This means you’ll have an easier time locking focus, and you can get some good practice on honing your flight skills, even if you just come upon gulls. An added bonus is photographing any birds in flight against a background of trees with colorful foliage.

Tune In

More than anything, try to use this time to tune into the changing of the seasons, the patterns of weather and the rhythm of the days. There is a profoundly comforting aspect to aligning yourself with the elements. The knowledge that life is cyclical and that seasons are sequential has the ability to ground us with a sense of stability and permanence that can see us through tough times. I really believe that nature photography now more than ever has the power to be meditative and healing. Those of us with a passion for this pursuit are very fortunate.

As conservationist and writer Rachel Carson described it so well, “There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature—the assurance that dawn comes after night and spring after the winter.”

Melissa Groo is a wildlife photographer, writer and conservationist. She believes that photography can be both fine art and a powerful vehicle for storytelling and education, and considers herself a “wildlife biographer” as much as a wildlife photographer. Passionate about ethics in nature photography, Groo is represented by Nat Geo Creative, a contributing editor to Audubon magazine and an Associate Fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers. She advises the National Audubon Society on ethical photography, and has also counseled National Wildlife magazine and NANPA (North American Nature Photography) on guidelines for ethical wildlife photography. She also serves as a member of NANPA’s Ethics Committee. In 2017, Melissa received the Katie O'Brien Lifetime Achievement Award from Audubon Connecticut, for demonstrating exceptional leadership and commitment to the conservation of birds, other wildlife and their habitats. She also received the NANPA 2017 Vision Award, given to a photographer every two years in recognition of early career excellence, vision and inspiration to others in nature photography, conservation and education.