Happy Autumn Equinox! The colors associated with this time of year really excite me. Let’s discuss the top five items to consider when photographing fall foliage.
The previous shot shows a wildlife viewing enclosure situated among the trees. The photo was made outside of Bar Harbor, Maine when we were there hiking in Acadia National Park. The skies were overcast, acting like a huge softbox with diffused light allowing me to shoot pretty much all day. On sunny days, early morning or late afternoon and early evening offer the best light for capturing the warmth of fall colors. The side lighting in the morning and evenings can make for some interesting shadow effects.
If you must shoot in bright sunlight, you may want to consider shooting more intimate landscapes or closeups rather than expansive, wide angle shots. I carry a pop-up softbox I can use to place over smaller items to diffuse the light. I’ve included a link to an inexpensive option below. I also use a reflector to block direct sunlight if needed. This item has come in handy on several occasions. Both of these are affordable and collapse for easy transporting.
You have your big 3 locations in the USA; the New England states; the Colorado Rockies; and the upper Midwest of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. To be honest, I don’t get many opportunities near my home in Texas to capture fall foliage. I have been lucky enough to find a couple of good spots that I can share.
One is Lost Maples State Natural Area, northwest of San Antonio. With its protected stand of Uvalde bigtooth maples, you can be treated to spectacular fall colors. Mind you, autumn usually comes to central Texas in November–giving your New Englanders plenty of time to enjoy your own colors before trekking down south. To ensure you will see the colors, check their fall foliage report on their website https://tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/lost-maples.
Another place I have found fall colors is Block Creek Natural Area. Again, colors vary based on weather conditions but Sharron and Larry Jay have created a great setup for photographers.
I use Matrix metering for everything, regardless of sunshine or clouds. I’m constantly checking the histogram to make sure no highlights are being clipped. Oversaturated reds blow out really quickly. I’ve also found that yellows in bright light are often clipped. I use exposure compensation as needed to eliminate clipping in the histogram. Good light on nice colors is going to look good on the camera, so don’t force it.
Light reflecting off the leaves may throw off the auto white balance, so use the appropriate manual setting for your shots or find an object in your frame that can serve as a neutral reference. If you shoot RAW, then you can probably correct this later.
The temptation of wide shots, of entire forests or mountainsides may be hard to resist. However, variety is important. Shoot the panoramic landscapes, but also remember that beauty can be found in the details.
Macro photography is a great way to explore the colors and textures of autumn, while also using unique points-of-view.
Another way to get closer is simply switching to a longer telephoto lens, or zooming to a longer focal length with a zoom lens. Telephotos are great for isolating parts of subjects, and they usually will throw your backgrounds beautifully out of focus. Try focusing close with that telephoto lens — with many of today’s zoom lenses, you can fill the frame with a single large leaf.
Out-of-focus backgrounds are a photographic effect you can heighten, or reduce, by controlling your aperture: wider apertures will result in a shallower range of focus, and softer backgrounds. Smaller apertures will increase the range of focus, resulting in sharper backgrounds. You’ll need to make the creative choice depending on what, and how much of the background you want to see in the image. This is a perfect reason to switch to your camera’s Av (aperture-priority) exposure mode, if you’ve been using fully automatic exposure up to now.
Take the time to consider the background, and experiment with more dynamic ways to make your main subject stand out.
Don’t forget the power of wide-angle lenses. A standard zoom lens, such as an 18–55mm lens, can produce some spectacular results — especially if you move in close at its widest setting and focus upon one object in the foreground. A low-hanging branch with leaves can suddenly become a broad burst of color and detail, if you move in and focus upon the nearest leaf.
One of my favorite things to do with photography is to create impressionistic motion-blurred images. Although wind often creates problems when photographing autumn foliage, I try to use it to my advantage. So if it starts to blow too hard for sharp shots, I switch gears and go for motion blur.
Look for opportunities to take fall photography of wind-blown foliage using long exposures of 1/2 sec or more. These images often work best if some portion of the scene is not moving, such as a solid tree trunk surrounded by wind-blown autumn foliage. You may consider using a tripod to ensure that stationary objects are rendered sharp in your photo during the long exposure.
No wind? No problem! Create your own motion blur by moving the camera during a long exposure to create interesting abstract blurs. This technique works well when photographing forest scenes with lots of color. About 1/2 sec to 2 sec of exposure time usually works best with this technique.