Fall Photography Tips
1. Anticipate the moment.
This may seem like a concept more suited to sports and action photography, but being able to anticipate the best time for photographing fall color is incredibly important to getting great images. And it starts much sooner than you might expect. When you’re looking for a location, take into account sunlight, temperature, and water. While leaves will generally begin to change color at the same time every year, sunny days and cooler nighttime temperatures will speed up the process. This is because both sunlight and cold will break down chlorophyll, the green pigment that masks the yellows, oranges, and reds inside a leaf. However, the other pigments are equally susceptible to sunlight and cold, so if temperatures drop too low and a freeze occurs, the length of fall color displays will be significantly diminished. As for water, the amount of moisture present in the soil can actually determine what color a tree displays. You can read more about the science behind this here. The important thing is just to know your surroundings and pay attention to the weather so you know what to expect.
2. Control the color.
Colors pop best in high contrast lighting, and unfortunately, we don’t get much of that here during the fall. The Northwest’s customary overcast days provide a soft light that is great for portraiture, but produces duller colors. For maximum color impact, try to go out on a day with some sunshine, and remember the first rule of landscape photography: get up early or stay out late. Low-angle sunlight will add depth and texture to a scene, and give your images more “ooh and aww” power.
If the weather just isn’t cooperating, you can create your own contrast. Adjust your position to frame your subject against a naturally contrasting color. For example, a red leaf against the dark bark of a tree, or an entire red-leafed tree against another that is still green. You can also contrast highlights against shadows. Always remember to look at things from different angles to find the most interesting point of view.
3. Show the elements.
Fall isn’t just about color. Thematically, it is about change. A new look to the landscape is just part of the picture. What about the weather? Is in windy? Is it cold? Beyond these more obvious points, what has changed in the behavior of animals? Of people? Finding ways to include these other elements in your photograph will help tell a story, and add another dimension to your image beyond just pretty colors. We may think of fall as a time to slow down, but the season is actually full of activity: migratory birds heading south, students returning to school, and of course, the autumn harvest. There is opportunity for storytelling everywhere.
4. Support your vision.
Okay, you knew eventually I had to bring up gear, right? It doesn’t matter what camera you use, or what lens you put on it, when it comes to landscape and nature photography, nothing is more important—and I mean nothing—than a tripod. A tripod allows you to take advantage of photography’s greatest trick: altering time. By now, the quintessential image of a waterfall transformed into a soft, misty cloud is a well-established photographic cliché—yet it is still immensely beautiful to look at, especially when surrounded by the yellows, oranges, and reds of autumn. But water isn’t the only thing affected by a slow shutter. Think about where else there is motion. The wind through the leaves of a tree, or the clouds in the sky, perhaps?
A tripod’s most important function goes beyond helping you control time, however: it simply makes you think more. When you show up to a location and all you do is point and shoot, you are not allowing yourself enough time to truly take in the scene. The time it takes to set up a tripod, position it, and adjust it, is all time spent thinking about your image. It is more work, yes, but working harder usually equates to better results. Don’t rely on luck. Use a tripod. Unless you plan on, say, climbing a tree to get a new perspective, I suppose ;-).
5. Filter the light.
Like a tripod, working with filters can sometimes be annoying. But there are three types of filters that are all but necessary to capturing great color. First, the trusty polarizer (CPL). While you may think of polarizers as only being useful when you have a body of water in the frame, plenty of objects besides water will reflect light in unsightly ways. Namely, leaves. Leaves are highly reflective, and a polarizer will allow you to control those reflections and dial in the color you want to see. On a sunny day, it will also increase contrast in the sky, which will help your colors pop.
Secondly, a neutral density filter will help you achieve the aforementioned time-slowing effect by reducing the amount of light passing through the lens, thereby allowing for a slower shutter speed. And lastly, a graduated neutral density (GND) filter will even out exposures across the frame. Variations of the GND exist to help with different scenes, whether it’s the common bright sky/dark ground scenario, or a sunset scene with a bright stripe of light in the center of the frame, but darker top and bottom areas.
Hopefully these tips help set you on your way to creating some beautiful fall photographs. If you have your own tips, feel free to add them in the comments. And actually, here’s a 6th tip: stop reading this and get out there and shoot!