Autumn photography is popular among landscape photographers. Autumn is the time when nature goes crazy with colors.
Another good thing about autumn photography is the days get shorter. You no longer have to wake up in the middle of the night to photograph at sunrise. Here in Norway where I live it also is a reminder of the dark and cold period coming closer.
What you will learn:
- Best time for autumn foliage
- Where do the colors come from
- How weather influences
- Camera settings
- Composition tips
When is the autumn most colorful?
1. Timing is important
The time when the autumn colors are at the peak can be slightly different from year to year. It is dependent on the weather during the summer.
- If the summer was hot and dry, you can expect the autumn colors to peak earlier.
- If it was a wet summer it is likely the autumn will be prolonged and the color peak will come later.
- If the early autumn is windy, the leaves will fall earlier.
In general, the autumn colors in the Northern hemisphere is at its best sometime between end September to late October/early November.
To get the most out of your autumn photography, you need to plan ahead. Planning is even more important if you have to travel to a specific destination to photograph.
2. Autumn colors and weather influence
What colors can you expect where you live? The variation of colors depends on the type of trees growing where you live.
The weather conditions prior to and during early autumn will also influence on the colors. I find it interesting to know a little about what makes the different colors. This knowledge can also help you to decide when and where to go to photograph fall folios.
It is the Chlorophyll in leaves that make them look green. Red and blue light is absorbed by chlorophyll making the reflected light from the leaves appear green.
During summer with warm weather and sunlight the production of chlorophyll is maintained through the Photosynthesis keeping the foliage green. When the weather cools down the production of chlorophyll stops.
Carotene is another pigment found in leaves. Carotene absorbs green and blue light. This makes the reflected light from carotene appear yellow/orange.
Carotene is more stable than chlorophyll and stays in the leaves after the production of chlorophyll has stopped. As the autumn progress less and less chlorophyll is produced, and the leaves become more and more yellow/orange.
Birch and Hickory are typically getting yellow leaves in the autumn.
Some trees get a beautiful red color during autumn. This red color is caused by anthocyanins another pigment found in leaves. Anthocyanins absorb blue, blue-green, and green light, making the leaves looking red.
In some trees, the sugar concentration in the leaves increases during autumn. The sugar reacts and forms anthocyanins. As anthocyanins increase the leaves turn red.
Red maple and red oak are trees famous for their red autumn colors.
Low temperatures and bright sunshine destroy the chlorophyll. If the temperature is above the freezing point, the sunlight is bright, and the weather is dry, the formation of anthocyanin is increased.
Therefore, you can expect the best autumn colors when dry and sunny days are followed by cool and dry nights.
Here in Europe where I live we don’t have the same fabulous red autumn colors as we see in the US. The US is unique for the beautiful autumn colors. There is a fall foliage map tracking how the foliage changes during the autumn throughout the US.
Autumn photography in different weather
In most landscape photography, you want to avoid photographing on a cloudy day. You want good light. In most situations, overcast weather produces low contrast photos. But for autumn photography it is different. Cloudy weather is perfect. When it is overcast, glare from the leaves will be reduced, and the colors get more vibrant.
It is not like you can not photograph autumn leaves if it is sunny. In bright sunlight, you should put a Polarizing filter in front of your lens. The Polarizing filter will reduce glare, and you will get the saturated colors you want.
Mist and fog can also be good. When the landscape is covered by fog, it does not look like the best condition for autumn photography. It is. For the bare eye, it might look bad. But you can do a lot with such an image in your editing software. By increasing the contrast and saturation, you can bring out a lot of the colors of the leaves.
Camera settings and lens choices
6. Telephoto lens
In landscape photography, the typical lens of choice is a wide angle lens. Give your telephoto lens a try as well, when you are out enjoying autumn photography. Zoom in and photograph the colored patterns. Compress the scene and isolate one of the colors - like one single tree. This simple composition is always working.
6. Macro lens
Autumn photography is not all about colorful trees. Don’t forget to look down. As the autumn progress, you will find more and more of the colors on the ground. It is time for some intimate landscape photography.
A normal focal length or macro lens is a good choice to photograph what is on the ground. Many of the plants on the ground also have beautiful colors in autumn. Not only can you photograph fallen leaves but there are mushrooms, moss and autumn blooming heathers that also can be great subjects.
8. Setting white balance
I always recommend you save your images in the RAW format. This way you keep as much image data as possible. Saving in RAW is an advantage when you post process your images later.
If your camera does not have a RAW setting, you can warm up the colors by setting the White Balance to the “Cloud” or “Shade” setting. Give it a try to see what works best with your camera. With RAW, you can adjust the white balance on your computer.
9. Aperture and shutter speed
As mentioned already a cloudy day is great for fall foliage. But clouds mean less light.
As you want to ensure a good Depth of Field you want to use a small aperture (high f-number). With a small aperture, you will have to use longer shutter speeds.
When you photograph from a tripod, the shutter speed is not so much of a problem. If the wind is still, and the leaves don’t move, you can shoot at any shutter speed you want.
If there is movement in the leaves, it is better to increase the ISO slightly. Increasing the ISO allows you to keep the shutter speed as short as possible to avoid blurry images because of moving leaves.
If it is blowing, take advantage of this and make some creative motion blur photos of the leaves. The effect can be amazing.
To get more saturated colors, you can underexpose your images 1/2 to 3/4 stop. If you save your images as JPG, underexposing is a nice little trick when photographing autumn leaves.
If you save your images as RAW files, you can do the editing later with the same results.
11. Filters in autumn photography
Always use a Polarizing filter on sunny days as I have explained earlier in this article. The Polarizing filter will make the colors more saturated.
Don’t let the colors mesmerize you -
think composition to
Autumn photography is about photographing trees and forests. When you photograph in the forest, it is a challenge to make a clean and simple composition. You need to check your composition carefully before clicking the shutter. The most common problem is unwanted branches sticking into the frame.
13. Did you forget a main subject?
It can also be quite challenging to make a compelling composition when there are too many trees and branches. Competing elements will confuse the viewer. You should always have a main subject in your composition. Don’t think the first composition is the best. Move around and try different angles.
If you happen to shoot on a sunny day, you should take advantage of the light. The best light for autumn photography is sidelight in the morning or afternoon when the sun is at its lowest. On an overcast day, you can photograph all day long.
Try shooting against the sun through the leaves. This is a challenging situation exposure vise, but the effects can be stunning. Set you aperture to the max f-number available on your lens. This way you will get a “star effect” around the sun.
The effect is even better if you try to hide the sun partly behind a branch or a dense part of a tree. To avoid silhouettes you have to dial in at least +1 exposure compensation.
16. Complimentary colors
Take advantage of complimentary colors. Yellow leaves against a blue sky are eye catching. Similar is red leaves against green foliage. Complimentary colors are known to create a more dramatic eye catching image.
17. Add some water
Colorful trees reflected in water is another idea for autumn photography. Photographing near a lake will for sure make some great photos. You are dependent on no wind to get the most out of the reflections.
Autumn is a fabulous time for landscape photographers. Unfortunately, the beautifully fall colors don’t last for long. You better hurry out before it is too late.