A Guide to Photographing Fall Colors

Ah, autumn! A season that paints nature in a symphony of reds, oranges, and yellows (alright, maybe I’m romanticizing it a BIT much!).

This season, at least if you live in a place where trees actually change (and I’m thankful that I do), brings about a myriad of incredible photography opportunities.

And that is exactly what we’re going to cover in this article: capturing those gorgeous fall colors.

So, grab your camera (or rather, your reading glasses) and let’s dive in!

Let’s Talk Colors

Before we get to deep, let’s talk about color theory itself. I’m not the type of photography who obsesses over all the weird nitty-gritty details of color theory itself, but I do think it’s important to know the basics.

Contrasting Colors

First, we’re all well aware of how to use contrasting colors in other parts of photography: so use them while photographing autumn as well!

Shooting portraits? Consider having your subject wear green to contrast against the fiery red leaves in the background.

Complementary Colors

On the flipside, take a gander back at your color wheel and try to find hues that complement the dominant colors of your scene!

Found a patch of trees that are particularly vibrant orange? Try to get the sky in the shot to capture a nice complementary rich blue!

blue lake and yellow trees
Use complementary colors! Pair colorful trees with crystal blue lakes or skies.

Post-Processing

On the subject of color, never be afraid to add in some flair in post-processing!

It’s easy to accidentally overdue it, but pushing up your saturation or vibrance slightly can do wonders to bring out the natural beauty in a scene. Otherwise, try using a color mixer tool to enhance/tweak only certain colors (like turning green leaves to be more orange, for example).

Just remember, the aim is to enhance, not overpower.

Different Lighting Conditions

So, color is one thing, but as we photogs all know, the time of day you shoot at makes a huge difference in how your photos turn out.

Whether it’s the golden glow of early morning or the soft diffusion of an overcast day, the right lighting can elevate your autumn shots to new heights.

Golden Hour

Golden hour. We all love it.

The first and last hours of sunlight are pure gold (pun absolutely intended) for photographers.

The soft, diffused light during these times casts a warm, ethereal glow, making fall colors truly pop. Not to mention, backlighting subjects is easier than ever as the light isn’t as “strong” as mid-day.

tree in water at sunset
Golden hour makes everything more beautiful.

Overcast Weather

On the flipside, don’t be disheartened by a cloudy day! Overcast skies, although they may seem gloomy, offer incredible diffused lighting, reducing harsh shadows and evenly illuminating the glorious fall colors.

Not only that, but cloudy days can also add an element of drama to your photos!

lake with autumn trees
Overcast clouds can even out colors and soften an image.

Mid-day Challenges

Finally: let’s talk about mid-day sun. It’s always the worst condition to shoot in if you’re looking for even lighting, however, it has a lot of artistic potential.

The light is harsh, casting strong shadows which can sometimes washout the vibrant hues of autumn. With a bit of proper compositional technique (more on that in a sec), however, you can take those hard shadows and make them beautiful.

road with autumn trees
Shooting during mid-day sun can be a bit of a challenge.

Composition Techniques

Now, composition: how you frame and compose your shots.

Even the most gorgeous of locations can only be captured if you have an eye for good composition. So… let’s talk about it.

Leading Lines

Nature is full of lines – paths, rivers, tree lines.

Use these natural leading lines to guide the viewer’s eye through the image, drawing them to whatever your subject is, whether that’s a fiery red maple tree or a person prancing through the leaves.

Framing

Frame your shots using branches, archways, or other natural elements. This not only adds depth but also emphasizes the main subject, be it a tree in full autumn bloom or a serene lakeside view.

One of my favorite techniques is to shoot wide open, lock in my focus, then slightly move my camera behind some leaves. This provides an easy out of focus “frame” for my subject.

Use leaves, branches, etc. to frame your subject.

Foreground Interest

Don’t just focus on the distant trees. Incorporate fallen leaves, pinecones, or other elements in the foreground.

This adds depth and layers to your image, making it more dynamic. Just remember to make sure you lock your focus in on your subject!

Reflections

Finally, reflections on lakes, rivers, or puddles can double the beauty of an already incredible shot.

Look for still waters to capture a mirror-like image of the vibrant foliage, creating a symmetrical composition.

fall colors on lake
What’s better than fall colors? Fall colors plus a lake!

Technical Aspects

So, once you have an understanding of both color and composition, you’ll have to make sure the technical aspects (aka boring aspects) of your pictures are solid.

Depth of Field (Aperture)

First off: depth of field. Want to highlight a specific leaf or branch? Use a wide aperture such as F1.8.

Want to get a sweeping scene in focus instead? Stop down to F8 or above.

maple leaf
A wide aperture can be used to create subject isolation and background blur.

Shutter Speed

The rustling of leaves or a gust of wind can be captured or frozen. A slower shutter speed can capture the motion, giving a dreamy effect, while a faster one can freeze the moment, showcasing every detail.

Typically, if you want to make sure everything is sharp, you’ll want to shoot with a fast shutter speed (to avoid motion blur from wind on leaves/etc.).

women with leaves
Use a fast shutter speed to freeze motion.

ISO

Finally: ISO. While shutter speed and aperture are the “creative” part of the exposure triangle, ISO acts as the “oops I need more light” setting.

Although a lower ISO ensures better clarity, sometimes you might need to bump it up in low light. Remember, it’s about getting the right balance between noise and exposure.

Finding Locations

Now, all this knowledge of color, exposure and composition doesn’t mean anything if you don’t find the right locations to capture!

The backdrop for your autumn shots can make all the difference. From popular spots to hidden gems, let’s explore how to scout the best locations for capturing the essence of autumn.

Research

Before heading out, do your homework.

I generally have a pretty deep knowledge of my surrounding area, but if I’m in a new location I’ll check: forums (I usually use the city/region’s subreddit) and also Google Maps.

Heck, on Instagram you can actually type in location filters and it’ll show you photos taken in that region.

Explore Your Local Area

That being said, don’t feel like to you have to travel somewhere extravagant to capture beautiful colors!

Don’t overlook the beauty in your backyard. Local parks, nature trails, or even tree-lined streets can offer stunning autumnal scenes. Sometimes, the best spots are quite literally out your back door.

colorful trees by house
Sometimes epic fall colors are just right in your neighborhood!

Check Foliage Reports

It’s not just about where, but also when. Monitor the foliage reports for your area.

Visiting too early might mean green trees, while too late could mean bare branches. Aim for the peak color period to capture the full splendor of the season.

My state has a fall color tracker, and I’m sure many other states/countries/regions do as well.

map of wisconsin fall colors
Check if your state/location has a fall colors map!

Advanced Techniques

Alright, now you know all the basics, but let’s touch on a few more advanced techniques before ending this article.

Using Polarizing Filters

Enhance those blue autumn skies and reduce glare from wet leaves with a polarizing filter.

It can also help saturate the colors, making the reds, oranges, and yellows of fall even more vibrant.

I’ve always liked K&F’s filters (just be sure to choose the right filter size).

Not sure how to find your filter size? Either look your lens up online or check for a little icon on the front of the lens. It looks like a circle with a line through it. That’s your filter size.

lens filter size
Typically, your lens’s filter size will be somewhere around the front element.

Panoramas

Prefer to capture vast sweeping vistas over more intimate details? Panoramas are your answer.

While some cameras have built-in panorama modes, you can also just shoot a bunch of pictures then stitch them in Photoshop or Lightroom.

panorama of autumn
Experiment with panoramas for a different perspective!

Macro

Autumn isn’t just about wide landscapes, though.

Dive into the minute details with macro photography. Capture the dew on a leaf, the intricate patterns of bark, or the delicate veins of a fallen leaf. It’s a microscopic world waiting to be explored.

Long Exposure

Next: consider working with long exposures. Find a nice creek meandering through a fiery orange forest? Shoot a long exposure!

Long exposures can create a dreamy effect, adding a touch of surrealism to your shots. Use a tripod (I use this mid-tier off-brand), set a slow shutter speed, and let the magic unfold.

waterfall in autumn
A long exposure can add “motion” to water.

“Deleting” Crowds

Depending on where you are in the world, popular fall spots can get insanely crowded! If you’re unable to visit during off-peak hours (early mornings or weekdays), there are some methods you can use to remove crowds from your pictures.

The first option is shooting a super long exposure (although you’d need an ND filter to allow for long shutter speeds). This technique isn’t perfect, but it should “remove” a lot of fast-walkers from your pictures.

Otherwise, take some time in Photoshop and remove them! Adobe’s removal tool has gotten frighteningly powerful in recent months, and I’ve had no issues deleting entire people from my frames with one click. It’s incredible.

waterfall in new york
Spending just a few minutes in Photoshop can turn in a crowded, chaotic scene into a peaceful nature shot.

Conclusion

So yeah, that’s really all you need to know about fall colors. To reiterate:

  • Understand color theory and complementary/contrasting colors
  • Aim for golden hour, but know how to work with overcast or harsh light
  • Use leading lines, foreground interest, etc. for interesting compositions
  • Understand the exposure triangle (aperture, shutter speed and ISO)
  • Use Maps & forums to hunt down local autumn hotspots
  • Polarizers, panos, macro, and long exposures as advanced techniques

If you enjoyed this read, feel free to delve into some of our other articles such as always capturing sharp photos or how to edit in Lightroom.

Now get out there and capture autumn’s beauty!