Pro Tips For Dynamic Fall Color

Top professionals share their techniques for capturing the best of autumn
This Article Features Photo Zoom

Shoot Reflections In Water

Every nature photographer knows that fall is prime time. Landscapes are transformed into vibrant tapestries of yellow-orange and red, and the angle of the sun gives us some beautiful light to work with. We asked several OP contributors for their insight on getting the most out of autumn, and these seasoned pros had some great tips and techniques that can help you take your fall color photography to the next level.

Shoot Reflections In Water
Shoot autumn color reflected in water to create stunning abstract fall photos. These shots work best early or late on a sunny day. Ideally, you want reflected foliage to be sunlit and the rest of the scene to be in shade. If you have lots of yellows, oranges and reds on the trees, you'll end up with beautiful warm tones reflected in water and on wet surfaces. Objects in shade (such as river rocks and rapids) are lit only by light reflecting from the blue sky above, rendering them blue. By mixing the two types of light, warm and cool, you can get a lovely blend of colors. Experiment with white balance until you find a setting that optimizes reds, yellows and oranges, yet at the same time retains some of the blues as well. Try the Daylight setting (about 5500K) or slightly cooler (I sometimes go as low as 4500K) to get the right look. A polarizer can make your autumn reflection photos pop, but avoid full polarization, which removes reflections entirely. Partial polarization enhances the colors in your reflection scene. A telephoto zoom works best to create tight-cropped images; a 70-200mm lens often will get you close enough, although a 100-400mm is even better. Try to create compositions that feature a pleasing arrangement and juxtaposition of colors surrounding an attractive set of rapids or river rocks. With reflection photos, abstract and impressionistic images often work best, so zooming in tight on just a few key details can make all the difference. Because you're working with moving water, consider using longer shutter speeds to create motion blur; a half-second or longer will give your images a dreamy, impressionistic look, merging and swirling colors and creating a silky look in the water. Experiment freely until you get the effect you want.
—Ian Plant

Use RGB Histograms
By default, most digital cameras display a luminosity histogram, showing the distribution of tones across all color channels. This histogram is useful in evaluating overall exposure; however, it doesn't always tell the whole story. In particular, when photographing bold colors, such as autumn foliage, one or more of the individual color channels (red, green or blue) may be clipped and lacking in detail. Bright yellow foliage may clip the blue channel, bright red foliage may clip the red channel, and so on. By examining the individual RGB histograms, you'll be able to see whether specific channels are clipped and correct as necessary.
—Guy Tal

Exposure And Flash Create Saturated Color
If you underexpose red, it will become a deep maroon red; overexpose red, and it will become pink. The same goes for colors like orange and yellow. If you miss exposures on these colors, you'll lose a big part of your autumn scene. Learn how to expose scenes like this and your autumn landscapes will improve. Another trick is using your strobe in shady situations. Light adds color, so if you capture wonderful warm autumn hues in the cool light of shade, these colors tend to cancel each other out; add flash to these scenes and the direct specular light brings that color back.
—Sean Arbabi

Capture The Grandscape
Photographing a majestic landscape is often beyond the capabilities of a traditional single exposure with a 2:3 ratio. Be prepared to take several exposures to cover the width or height of the scene. Basic panorama tools—a double bubble level and a leveled tripod—will keep your captures in line. You can go even farther with a GigaPan for super-high-resolution panoramas or some of the panorama tools from Really Right Stuff.
—George Lepp

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Shoot In Mixed Light
Digital cameras have superior dynamic range compared to film. You can take advantage of this by shooting autumn scenes in mixed light. This way, you can create uniquely lit images that maximize color intensity and luminosity. Avoid mixed-light scenes in the middle of the day because the light might be too harsh for even digital sensors to handle. Early-morning and late-afternoon/evening light often works best, as the light is softer and more colorful at these times. Grad neutral-density filters and multiple-exposure blending and HDR techniques are also useful to balance mixed light. One of my favorite types of mixed-light scenes is an autumn stream or waterfall, where the stream is in shade, but some light is falling on autumn foliage in trees in the background (preferably backlit). The mix of light and shadow can create a pleasing juxtaposition of warm and cool color tones.
—Ian Plant

Good Fall Color Isn't Enough
Often when photographers see strong colors in the trees, they relax about the need for strong graphic design. Every great image needs a clean and clear composition. Look for good spacing between trees so that key shapes don't merge together. Consider using other trees, such as evergreens or trees that are still green, for better color balance and contrast. Eliminate distracting elements that don't contribute to the main subject.
—William Neill

Shoot In Midday Sun
That's right! Break the cardinal rule of nature photography. The key to creating a successful image here is twofold. Zoom into your scene and backlight the leaves and trees. The effect is almost painterly. Watch your exposure when you try this because, depending on how you frame the shot, you can fool your camera into underexposing, giving you a flat image. Bracketing is always a good idea with backlit scenes to give you options when you get back to your home base.
—Jay Goodrich

Look Through The Viewfinder And Explore The Scene
Explore many versions to fully explore your creative options! Try different focal lengths and camera positions. Aim up, aim down and all around you. For example, on the same morning in the same area, I made the backlit aspen included here and then moved into a shaded grove to produce my "Aspen Impressions" image using a slow shutter speed.
—William Neill


    Autumn in the Missouri Botanical Garden is a great time for a visit. I enjoy this area of the “Japanese Garden” also in the spring, when it seems flowers adorn almost every tree and shrub.

    Excellent vertical composition. Very good work.

    Dans la lumi̬re…

    Un chant
    tr̬s l̩ger et
    la douce harmonie
    d’une tendre
    lumi̬re, un
    souffle de
    po̩sie et encore
    l’̩motion qui
    rappelle la

    Francesco Sinibaldi

    If you’re combining flash with a daylight exposure, you may want to test your flash first to determine its color balance. Most flash units tend to be a bit on the blue side. My Lumopro and Canon flashes needed a 1/4 CTO filter to get them neutral.

    Clipping, I don’t see any clipping in the histogram, especially not on the black side of the blue histogram. It appears he is calling out a condition that doesn’t exist in the phota, and in an area where it would not occur.

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