This is the 1st of your 3 free articles

Become a member for unlimited website access and more.

FREE TRIAL Available!

Learn More

Already a member? Sign in to continue reading

Autumn Light

Keep it clean and simple for the most dramatic photographs

This Article Features Photo Zoom

autumn light
Autumn forest, Baxter State Park, Maine.

Every season of the year has its special qualities for the landscape photographer. Autumn is no exception. By the end of summer, I already find myself wondering where I’ll go to photograph and how the colors will be this year. Every autumn season is different, and we all hope that this year will be the brightest and most colorful.

If we’re traveling away from home to photograph the fall colors, then timing is a big issue. Fortunately these days, the Internet offers abundant sources to research when the colors are usually best and to track their progress.

What light is best for autumn photography? When I look through my favorite fall images, I see that I’ve favored two main types of light. The soft, even lighting of an overcast day, especially a rainy one, is prime light for forest scenes. Generally, the even tonalities make it easier to see the strong colors and details of leaves and branches of most forest scenes.

This image from Baxter State Park in Maine was made in a soft rain. I used my 4×5 camera and a 4×5 film back adapted for a 2:1 panoramic format. The colors were saturated and vibrant throughout the forest, but I located this section of woods where there was an especially good variety of color as well as strong graphic shapes. The moss-covered boulders, well-defined tree trunks and freshly fallen leaves add to the quality of the image.

I made full-framed exposures as well as panoramic ones like this one. I was pleased with both, but I especially liked how the rhythm of color and design is portrayed in the narrow format. The key quality in this photograph for me is the soft lighting provided by the rainstorm. That the leaves were wet and many of them had fallen to the forest floor add impact to the image. The hanging and fallen leaves blend somewhat in the composition, which gives the viewer pause to look more closely.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

autumn light
King’s Pond with morning mist, Green Mountain National Forest, Vermont.

Another favorite lighting condition for me is backlighting. When light comes from behind colorful leaves, the glow can be magical. The best times to find good backlight are early morning or late afternoon when the sun is low in the sky. Although aiming your camera toward the sun can be a challenge, you can get great results with a little extra care. Lens flare can be a problem, so watch for that in the viewfinder. The simplest solution for flare, when inside the forest, is to use tree shadows to block the sun. The trees can become strongly silhouetted, the leaves brilliant and the issue of flare eliminated.

The photograph of the Vermont pond was made at sunrise. My wife and I drove off in predawn darkness into the Green Mountains, hoping for great light and autumn color at this pond we had spotted the day before. In spite of the fact that I had no clue exactly when sunrise was or where the sun would rise, a little luck goes a long way. A nighttime storm was just clearing at dawn, the fog lifting to reveal this glorious scene!

The wide scope of this scene required my 90mm lens (about a 24mm focal length on a 35mm full-frame format) on my 4×5 camera. I aimed the camera just far enough away from the sun to avoid direct sun, shaded my lens carefully and photographed quickly in the rapidly changing light. This morning was so special, with great color and light, that I kept making images in the area for another hour or two. Two other photographs from that morning were included in my ebook, Landscapes of the Spirit, a collection of my favorite photographs.

I hope I’ve given you ideas for your autumn field sessions. Keep your image designs clean and simple, and especially look for great light. Don’t settle for average light. Good luck and good light!

Visit William Neill’s website at to learn about his new ebook, Landscapes of the Spirit, Digital Edition, check out his photoblog or sign up for newsletter updates on his courses with

William Neill is a renowned nature and landscape photographer and a recipient of the Sierra Club's Ansel Adams Award for conservation photography. Neill's award-winning photography has been widely published in books, magazines, calendars and posters, and his limited-edition prints have been collected and exhibited in museums and galleries nationally, including the Museum of Fine Art Boston, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, The Vernon Collection and The Polaroid Collection. Neill's published credits include National Geographic, Smithsonian, Natural History, National Wildlife, Conde Nast Traveler, Gentlemen's Quarterly, Travel and Leisure, Wilderness, Sunset, Sierra and Outside magazines. He is also regular contributor to Outdoor Photographer with his column “On Landscape”.