Classic Fall Color

Capturing the best of autumn takes a combination of skill, preparation, timing and equipment
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Some classic compositions and techniques, plus an assortment of the right gear, will help you achieve the best results.
1) A reflection like this makes an impact. Here, a misty morning adds an intriguing element to the shot.

Traveling locally can have its advantages, as you can revisit the area if you aren’t satisfied with the results. Going further or even cross-country requires planning in both travel and equipment, however, and these ideas may help you plan your strategy for capturing the vibrant foliage of fall.

2) Tight compositions on a cloudy day are a good choice for emphasizing the colors. Shots like this often benefit from a polarizer to reduce any glare from the sky and to saturate the colors.

When you arrive at your destination, chances are, you’ll be overwhelmed by what you see in front of you. Many photographers will argue that the first light is the best of the day. If that’s what you like, go for it, but the autumn season has more than enough color for me to photograph from around 7 to 8 in the morning to just before noon, especially on a bright fall day. You can experiment with sidelighting or backlighting for some impressive results. Out West, the aspens absolutely light up with this type of illumination. In my part of the country, New England, the red maples combined with darker pines always are worth a second look. We get days with brilliant blue skies accented with large, cumulus clouds. You’ll see examples in this article, with most taken in concert with a polarizing filter to bring out the best of both worlds.

Take Advantage Of Nature’s Softbox
I like the sense and depth of color on an overcast day, and welcome the occasion to go outside and look for patches of patterns in the trees and the groundcover without distracting shadows that just seem to confuse everything. Mother Nature provides us with a giant diffuser to soften the light while at the same time allowing the colors to come through with a soft saturation not possible with bright sunlight. To add to the mix, a light drizzle can boost the saturation, and with the use of a polarizer, can get rid of those annoying reflections. As another tip, when shooting on a cloudy, overcast day, try to leave the sky out of the photo by composing tightly on the subject. With no color to speak of, a gray sky is seldom an asset to a radiant color photograph.

3) Look for abstract possibilities like reflection in rippled water.

Think About More Than Just The Colors
Fall is a good time to set your goal on a project or self-assignment. For instance, one of my favorite subjects is waterfalls or rolling streams, and at this time of the year, and with an overcast sky, a waterfall can look like salt being poured from a box. How to do it? Make sure you have a good, sturdy tripod, use a cable release and employ the slowest shutter speed you can by stopping the lens down to ƒ/16 or ƒ/22. On a sunny day, I use a Singh-Ray Vari-ND filter that dials in any density up to eight stops of light to slow the motion of the falls. On a dreary day, I often don’t even need the Vari-ND filter. I simply turn the ISO value down to 50 or 100 and use a polarizer to control the light coming into the camera.

Lens Choices For Fall Color
The use of many of the fine optics today also enters into the picture. For taking in a vast expanse, wide-angle lenses are a natural. For shooting up and into the trees, they offer a unique perpective, and for shooting down to include both the groundcover and trees, they’re ideal for scenes where you want sharpness to extend from inches to infinity. With a wide-angle, I can draw attention to a colorful palette in the foreground, or I can place something else in the foreground and make use of the vibrant colors in the background.

I always take along a true macro lens, as lulls in the day’s shooting can be heightened by stretching out the legs of the tripod, getting down and dirty on the ground and exploring for fallen leaves, acorns or patterns formed by a combination of both.

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4) Fog gives fall colors a painterly look.

In the accessory department, you can find close-up attachments for occasions when the added weight of a dedicated macro lens may not be desirable. I use a Canon close-up attachment with a 77mm diameter on my Nikon 70-200mm lens to make a useful zoom macro. For macro work, I like to use a right-angle finder or, if you have one on your DSLR, a swiveling LCD is incredibly convenient.

Telephotos are a great friend to have outdoors, and the newer zoom telephotos can add a couple of different ingredients to your photo story or trip. Using a longer-than-normal telephoto, like a 300mm or 400mm lens, can help isolate parts of a colorful forest into interesting shapes and colors, as the flattening effect of the telephoto combines all the colors. Again, use a good, sturdy tripod, a cable release, and if your lens isn’t stabilized, raise the mirror before the shutter goes off for blur-free photographs.

Zoom telephotos offer the convenience of staying in one place while you play with the forms, patterns and colors in front of you. However, don’t let this lead to complacency; make sure you move around after a few shots. You can create an interesting effect by using a slow shutter speed (from 1⁄10 to a full second) and zooming as the exposure is being made. This will result in colorful streaks on the final image that radiate from the center outward.

Use Lighting To Boost Color
With today’s TTL features, accessory flash is easy and accurate to use. I like to cut back the power to add just a bit of fill without overpowering the scene. I find that if I dial back about a 2⁄3-stop on the flash, the subject gains a feeling of luminance without being overpowering. A lightweight LED panel like the Litepanels Micro is also incredibly useful because you can see the effect as you shoot. Another solution is to carry a handheld reflector that folds to a compact size to fit easily into your camera bag.

5) Use a macro lens and limited depth of field to emphasize a color contrast. This is an especially useful tip if you’re not experiencing an overly dramatic leaf change.

Meter Settings For Best Results
Matrix metering will average the full scene, center-weighted is good when you don’t want the sky to influence the exposure, and spot metering is best when there’s a critical element in the frame that needs to be exposed perfectly. Spot also is perfect for comparing specific values in a scene and applying the Zone System to your shot.

Files And File Sizes
For the most part, I find that a large JPEG file is great for 99% of my shooting requirements. If I want to get into fine-tuning, however, shooting in RAW is a necessity. Therefore, I shoot in RAW + JPEG mode to keep all of my options open. I stay away from TIFFs simply because the files are large and they don’t give me the same options as RAW files. Finally, to assure perfect photos in the field, always use your histogram, and if your camera has the option, check out the color histogram to see if one color, like red, is being clipped. Perfect fall photos are the result of a balanced curve with no clipping at the edges.

Use A Tripod!
What it boils down to is to purchase the best tripod you can afford. Stay away from unsteady models and long center columns that make for an unsteady support in the wind. There are plenty of excellent models that are lightweight and sturdy made from aluminum or carbon fiber. You even can go for wood if you like; just make sure it’s capable of supporting your camera and a heavy lens. Along with the tripod, include a ballhead with a quick-release head that allows precise adjustments with one knob as opposed to three on the more common tripods.

When I’m photographing a colorful fall scene, I like to mount the camera last, not first. I move around looking through the viewfinder, often changing lenses to find the right composition. Then I pull out the tripod and get everything locked down. Attaching the camera first just plants the initial idea into your head that this is the only place to be. Keeping an open mind before settling down is important. Lots of professionals also will tell you to take the camera back off the tripod after getting a shot and keep looking. A great fall color scene seldom has only one photo opportunity.

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Try A Photo Tour Or Workshop
I definitely suggest workshops and photo tours. In short, it’s like hiring a guide to take you to the best places, and it’s worth the expense, especially if you don’t know the area. Traveling from one place to the other when timing is critical can be somewhat daunting, and the workshop or tour operators take care of this. They will have researched the whole area to make sure you’re in the right places at the peak of the color.

Stan Trzoniec has written over 2,500 magazine articles, with 850 magazine covers to his credit, and he’s working on his seventh book. His specialties include fall photography, American railroads, birding and the outdoors. Trzoniec’s newest books include Autumn in the Country and Digital Outdoor Photography, available from


Stan Trzoniec's Gear

Nikon D3S and D3X
Kirk L-bracket
Nikkor 24-70mm AFS-G ƒ/2.8 lens
Nikkor 70-200mm AFS-G VR II ƒ/2.8 lens
Nikkor 105mm ƒ/2.8 Macro or
Canon 500D close-up lens
77mm Singh-Ray Vari-ND filter
10 Lexar 4 GB CF cards
Lowepro Mini Trekker backpack
Gitzo tripod with ballhead
UR-1 step-up filter ring for 105mm lens
Cable release
Extra DSLR battery
77mm polarizer
Right-angle finder


    First image in article, bisects frame (oops)…
    later, suggests mirror lockup (a pricey feature in Nikons line up)…
    then throws in a few hot tips like using a polarizer, tripod, and cable release (unless your on bulb the self timer is cheaper and is one less thing to mess with or lose)…

    NHNikon sighs…

    Can you explain more on the following sentence you wrote:’Again, use a good, sturdy tripod, a cable release, and if your lens isn?۪t stabilized, raise the mirror before the shutter goes off for blur-free photographs.’

    Does it mean that I don’t need to use mirror lock up if the camera is on a tripod and I’m using an IS lens?

    If you have your camera in a tripod, you do not need the image stabilization turned on. In fact, you may get a crisper image with it off as there is less going on with the camera. New England fall color are spectacular and do not need to be overly saturated. The image with the fence and morning mist has lost some of its nice subtleties by being too saturatede.

    Reading this article about fall colors brought so darn many memories. I lived in Newburgh NY, on the Hudson river, Stormking Mountain, West Point Military academy. The entire area was great for fall photos.
    Thank you for your very fine photos.

    Thanks for the good info. I wish you had published which equipment you used for each of the shots here, especially the reflections on the river and the one with the fence and morning mist. Lovely!.

    Nice article, nice photos! But then again, should they be anything less? “His Equipment” totals around $18,000 give or take several hundred. Must be nice!?

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