How to Photograph Fall Color: Part One

Fall Color Photography

fall color
Fall color quickens a photographer’s heartbeat and cause us to anticipate getting outdoors to capture it while it lasts. Here are photo tips that will help you succeed in bringing home the fall color you saw.

Fall Color on Sunny Days

The sun’s light has warmer colors toward the ends of the day and it’s stronger yellows help emphasize autumn foliage. I suspect that there are far more photos shot near sunset than at dawn, but getting up early can be well worth losing (or postponing) those last 40 winks. Winds tend to be light or non-existent in the early hours if a weather front isn’t moving through. The first benefit of still air is less airborne dust to interfere with capturing the full impact of autumn color. The second is motionless leaves, so that you can use longer exposures without seeing blurring due to leaf movement, and longer exposures permit smaller apertures for greater depth of field. (This is all explained in the articles titled Exposure: Speed, Aperture, and ISO Simplified and Depth of Field Preview: What You See is What You Get.

Leaf colors are harder to capture as the sun gets higher in the sky because the foliage reflects more light. A circular polarizer will help neutralize the excessive reflection and will darken the sky. Compare the two photos below shot just seconds apart from each other. The one on the left used a polarizer; the one on the right did not. The effect is strongest if the sun is at a right angle to the line between the camera and the scene or subject, but a polarizer will provide some help even if you can’t align yourself at the ideal angle. If your lens lacks threads just hold the polarizer so that it almost touches the front of the lens and rotate it until you see the maximum effect. If you’re shooting in a manual mode remember that the polarizer will reduce the effective brightness of the scene by about 1.5 stops.
autumn colorfall fall foliage
Another way to capture fall color in the sun is to put the foliage between you and the sun. Both of these photos were made with the camera pointed toward the sun to reveal foliage color, leaf structure, and shadows of other leaves.
autumn colorfall fall foliage


Photographing Autumn Foliage on Cloudy Days

It seems that almost everyone prefers to be out photographing fall color when skies are blue, but bright day photos can be disappointing and not match up with how we remember the scene. This is because film and digital cameras simply cannot handle the range of brightness that our eyes will manage. Our eyes will work over a relative brightness range of about 1000 to 1, but cameras operate in a range of about 32 to 1. This means that our eyes will see detail in shadows that a camera simply can’t record, so photos that have sunny and shady areas often do not look right. Usually the shadows are too dark, but if they’re not, then the highlights will be burned out and impossible to recover by editing.

The maples in large opening photo were photographed under clouds, and so were the next two images. Notice how the light is even and dark shadows are minimal or nonexistent.
autumn colorfall fall foliage
Neither of those photos show the sky because I framed them that way to exclude the gray sky. If your position and lens keep you from eliminating the sky when you shoot, then you can remove it by cropping. The original is on the left; the cropped copy is on the right. Which do you prefer?autumn colorfall fall foliage


Autumn Color in Reflections

Glass and water offer a different way to show fall color. The first image comes from the Baptism River on Lake Superior’s North Shore and shows only the reflection and not the trees themselves. The second uses the old stump to show the clarity of the lake water and point toward the reflections on the opposite shore.
autumn colorfall fall foliage

Composition for Fall Foliage

The success of the two previous pictures (and all of the others) comes in part from using these rules of composition covered in earlier posts. Composition is just as important in capturing fall color as it is for photographing anything else and I encourage you to review and practice what you learn until it becomes second nature.

Be sure to check out Part Two of this series on photographing the fall color. And please use the comment form below to ask questions, make suggestions, and tell us how you went about capturing fall color.

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