Techniques For Fall Color Photography

No matter where you live or travel this fall season, try these 10 creative techniques to make your best autumn images yet

As a Vermont-based photographer, there is no better time of year to be prowling the back roads than late September and early October. In fact, there is no place I would rather be, and I plan my entire schedule around being home for this amazing time of year. If you have never experienced an autumn season in New England, you definitely should add it to your bucket list. For those who can't make the pilgrimage to New England, there are many other fantastic locations throughout the U.S. and abroad for great fall color. No matter where you live or travel this fall season, try these 10 creative techniques for fall color photography to make your best autumn images yet.

Tip 1: Vibrant red maple leaves illuminated by early morning back-light in the green mountains, Middlesex, Vermont
Tip 1: Vibrant red maple leaves illuminated by early morning back-light in the green mountains, Middlesex, Vermont.

1. Backlight For Foliage That Pops

Light is the medium we use to paint our photographic masterpieces and is a critical component to their success. While sidelight is great for revealing texture and definition in the landscape, my favorite light for autumn foliage is often backlight. Since the red, orange and yellow leaves of autumn are translucent and light passes through them when backlit, the result is often an explosion of luminance and color.

All too often, people shy away from shooting backlit subjects. Yes, the light can be intense and contrasty, but the payoff of bold vibrant color that pops is well worth the attempt. When shooting backlit scenes, it's important to watch for lens flare, taking care to shade the front element of the lens with a lens hood, your hand or perhaps the bill of your cap. Watch your exposures, as often you'll need to open up a bit using exposure compensation if shooting in aperture priority.

Tip 2: A long exposure creates a swirling pattern in the surface of a small stream in Groton State Forest, VT.
Tip 2: A long exposure creates a swirling pattern in the surface of a small stream in Groton State Forest, Vermont.

2. Long Exposures For Ethereal Waterscapes

More often than not, when shooting forested streams and waterfalls, the combination of smaller apertures for depth of field, low ISO for quality and a polarizer to cut glare yields a slow shutter speed—often multiple seconds. Embrace these slow shutter speeds to create ethereal images of flowing water.

During fall color, one of my favorite techniques is to find places in the stream or at the base of a waterfall where fallen leaves have collected. Look for slower currents or swirling eddy lines that are full of colorful leaves to use as foreground elements in wide-angle images, or to zoom in on as the primary element in an intimate composition. The combination of slowly swirling leaves and a long exposure creates a beautiful vortex of color. You'll have to experiment with the length of shutter speed by adjusting the ISO and/or lens aperture to get the desired effect, as the speed and direction of the current, as well as volume of leaves, can greatly influence the look of the swirl.

Tip 3: A longer focal length was used to isolate a riot of vibrant red maple leaves wrapped around some spruce trunks near Danville, Vermont.
Tip 3: A longer focal length was used to isolate a riot of vibrant red maple leaves wrapped around some spruce trunks near Danville, Vermont.

3. Long Lenses To Isolate Color

Use longer focal-length lenses to isolate patterns, shapes, textures and areas of particularly intense autumn color. I love to use focal lengths in the neighborhood of 200–400mm to "optically extract" interesting compositional elements and really direct the viewer's eye to exciting things that would otherwise be lost in the chaos of the grand landscape. I also like to use a visual element such as a collection of tree trunks to anchor the composition around a strong graphic shape.

Using a long lens to isolate portions of a hillside ablaze in autumn color can also extend your productive shooting hours. Often, the distant landscape is getting some interesting or flattering light, even in the middle of the day. When shooting with a long lens, it's important to use a sturdy tripod, a cable release and mirror lock (or shoot in live view) to ensure sharp images. Longer focal-length lenses are more prone to picking up slight vibrations caused by sloppy user technique or wind. Try to maximize your shutter speed as much as possible, and when shooting on windy days, remove the lens hood since it's liable to catch more of the wind.

Tip 4: A wider aperture of f2.8 for shallow depth of field was used to create this softer more ethereal rendition of red maple branches and white birch. Acadia NP, Maine
Tip 4: A wider aperture of f2.8 for shallow depth of field was used to create this softer more ethereal rendition of red maple branches and white birch. Acadia National Park, Maine.

4. Shallow Depth Of Field

In our world of hyper-detail and high-definition televisions, computer monitors, tablets and smartphones, getting maximum depth of field in nature and landscape photos has become ubiquitous. However, we don't always need every part of an image to be in sharp focus from near to far.

Try using larger apertures to create images with shallower depth of field. Out-of-focus or softer portions of the frame are important areas of negative space and should be carefully considered when composing. Ideally, these areas will complement, if not help, to draw the eye toward details and shapes that are key subjects within the photograph. Images with shallow depth of field or soft focus can also help to create an aesthetic and mood that is quieter and more contemplative. This can be a highly effective technique when shooting autumn forest scenes in soft diffuse light.

Tip 5: With a shutter speed of a half second the camer was moved up and down during the exposure to create a more painterly, abstract image. Acadia NP, Maine
Tip 5: With a shutter speed of a half second the camer was moved up and down during the exposure to create a more painterly, abstract image. Acadia National Park, Maine.

5. Move That Camera

Another fun and creative technique worth experimentation is moving your camera during the exposure. Panning, rotating and racking your focus (manually rotating the focus ring) during a moderately long exposure can result in otherworldly, impressionist representations of the landscape. I like experimenting with the technique when shooting in the forest, using the vertical lines of tree trunks as strong graphic elements to anchor the composition.

The technique basically entails slowly moving the camera up or down during the exposure. You can do this handheld or with minimal tension on your ballhead. My advice is to experiment with shutter speeds in the neighborhood of ¼ second, as well as varying the speed of your camera movement. The amount of blur is completely subjective, but the slower the shutter speed, the more blur you'll achieve, and a faster shutter speed might result in too much detail. Another tip is to put your camera on continuous shooting mode and hold the shutter release down for a sequence of shots during one up or down panning movement.

Tip 6: Exposure compensation and further brightening of tonal values in post processing create a soft, pleasing high key representation of this aspen grove. Acadia National Park, Maine.
Tip 6: Exposure compensation and further brightening of tonal values in post processing create a soft, pleasing high key representation of this aspen grove. Acadia National Park, Maine.

6. Creative Use Of Exposure Compensation

One of the biggest hang-ups new photographers have is getting the "right" exposure. In our digital world, getting a good exposure is simple. My preferred method is to use aperture-priority mode combined with the exposure compensation feature to tweak the results to my liking or preferred aesthetic. Once I've dialed in the appropriate aperture needed for depth of field, I use the histogram (during playback or in live view) to evaluate whether there is good information in the critically important highlight and shadow portions of the frame. I can also tell quickly if the dynamic range of the scene requires using a grad ND filter or perhaps bracketing for a manual blend in postprocessing.

These readings are just starting points and determined objectively by a machine, not by you, the artist. Try mixing things up by adding a significant amount of brightness to the scene for a more high-key presentation, allowing portions of the image to clip to white or near-white. With the right subject, the result can be a mystical, light and airy image.

By contrast, try reducing the exposure significantly to allow portions of the frame to go into deep shadow, helping to isolate the available light and autumn color for a more mysterious, dark and moody image. Just remember, viewers of your work will never marvel at what a great histogram you've made, just how fantastic the resulting image is.

Tip 7: Autumn color refects in the pool of fallen leaves to produce a lovely intimate image with lots of color and visual interest. Acadia National Park, Maine.
Tip 7: Autumn color refects in the pool of fallen leaves to produce a lovely intimate image with lots of color and visual interest. Acadia National Park, Maine.

7. Reflections

For many autumn foliage shooters, a still pond with a colorful reflection during the golden hour is the holy grail of early October. While these wide-angle landscapes are not to be missed, there's also something to be said for getting in tighter and isolating portions of the reflections for more abstract presentations.

Additionally, a great way to extend your shooting hours on a bright sunny day is to head to a river or stream and look for reflections in the shaded portions of the landscape. Position yourself in the shade immediately opposite a hillside of fall color in bright sun and you'll be amazed how good the reflected color can be. Look for still pools of water for sharp, mirrorlike reflections, or use a long lens to isolate rocks and sections of current that are picking up the reflected color from above. Aside from creating wonderful abstracts and vignettes, the combination of warm tones coming from the reflected color and the cooler tones in the shade make for a dynamic contrast and images with a lot of energy.

Tip 8: A wide angle perspective exagerates the foreground leading lines and sense of depth in this Autumn forest scene, Smuggler's Notch State Park, Stowe, Vermont.
Tip 8: A wide angle perspective exagerates the foreground's leading lines and sense of depth in this autumn forest scene, Smuggler's Notch State Park, Stowe, Vermont.

8. Get Low And Go Wide

If you want your images to look different, then you've got to photograph differently! I can't remember where I first heard this helpful reminder, but it's one I keep in the back of my mind every time I head out to photograph.

If you're most comfortable shooting autumn landscapes using your 70-200mm zoom lens, then make this the year you get low and go wide. There are lots of opportunities to shoot fall color with your 16-35mm. Some of my favorites include shooting straight up through a colorful canopy against a blue sky while the tree trunks radiate out to the corners of the frame. Once the color change has migrated down to the forest floor from the upper reaches of the canopy, look for colorful saplings, ferns and fallen leaves to anchor a wide-angle composition with a foreground filled by vibrant color.

My favorite time to shoot wide-angle stream shots is when autumn has passed its peak and the majority of leaves have dropped, coating stream banks in vibrant color. My advice to anyone new to the exciting world of wide-angle lenses is to get really, really close to your subject for compositions that put the viewer there, in the scene.

Tip 8: Strong backlight and a small aperture of f18 used to create a sun star. Acadia National Park, Maine.
Tip 9: Strong backlight and a small aperture of f18 used to create a sun star. Acadia National Park, Maine.

9. Add A Sunstar

These days, the landscape photographer's equivalent mantra to "more cow bell" is "more sunstar". All kidding aside, I love adding a sunstar to backlit scenes that might require an additional element of interest or something to get the eye moving deeper into the frame, and this is no different during fall foliage season.

There are several key considerations when making sunstars. First, just because you can doesn't mean you should. The sunstar should be an integral part of the composition. If it doesn't benefit the composition in some significant way, leave it out. Secondly, you need the sun behind a hard edge within the scene, allowing just a smidge to peek out for the most elegant and clean burst. The softer the edge (like clouds or foliage), the more diffuse the rays will be. You'll also need to use a rather small aperture, like ƒ/16 or ƒ/22.

Unfortunately, not all lenses produce sunstars with the same aesthetic, so test yours to determine whether you like the results. Lastly, be careful of unwanted flare showing up in other portions of your frame. If it does, try positioning the camera to hide more of the sun or shoot another frame while using your hand or thumb to block the light. You can blend in the non-flare portions of this frame using a layer mask in Photoshop.

Tip 10: Autumn foliage and birch trunks near Jay, Vermont
Tip 10: Autumn foliage and birch trunks near Jay, Vermont. (Left) A straight B&W conversion in Lightroom with no color luminance adjustments. (Center) The original color capture. (Right) B&W conversion in Lightroom with color luminance adjustments to increase brightness of reds and darken greens to create separation and contrast.

10. Summon Your Inner Ansel

I know, it sounds like a sacrilege to even suggest shooting black-and-white images of fall foliage, but seriously, the results can be quite breathtaking. As in all black-and-white digital photography, I suggest you shoot in a RAW format, which by default is capturing a full-color image. Your black-and-white conversion should be done in postprocessing where you've got more latitude for making adjustments. By having all the color information, we're able to adjust contrast in our black-and-white images by working with the luminance of each of the colors present.

When shooting a forest scene during late spring and summer, most, if not all, of the vegetation is a fairly uniform shade of green. When adjusting the luminance of the green channel in Adobe Camera Raw, we are unable to create much separation between the various types of vegetation. By contrast, when the leaves put on their respective autumn coats, the colors are quite varied. Instead of a uniform green, there can be oranges, yellows, reds, and purples. Now we're able to make contrast adjustments with the luminance sliders in Adobe Camera Raw based on a variety of colors. For example, you can easily create separation and contrast between a vibrant red maple and its neighbor, a beech, which might still be green or starting to turn its characteristic yellowish orange. The beauty of considering black-and-white during fall foliage season is that you literally can have it both ways—vibrant color on one hand and a dynamic grayscale image on the other.

See more of Kurt Budliger's photography at kurtbudligerphotography.com.

5 Comments

    Thanks for the article Kurt and all the good comments, especially the extending the shooting hours. Heading up to the Eastern Sierra next week and hoping for some good streamside and Aspen images.

    Having just returned from my first trip ever to Vermont to see The Fall foliage, your article and creative techniques really hit the spot Kurt! This is especially true for the close up shots of trees and enclosed landscapes you predominantly use to illustrate the various techniques. The dry Summer & prolonged mild weather capped the anticipated splendor this year, but there were nontheless many photo opportunities, especially of the composition scale you illustrate. No doubt my shots would have been greatly enhanced by conscious application of the techniques you mention, but realizing their value and application after-the-fact has made them really sink in, for use in other places and circumstances…and, hey, why not return to Vermont next Fall…? Loved the place and its people.

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