It’s that time of the year again. The days grow shorter, the air chillier, and the world around turns all shades of golden and crimson. Before you know it, your Instagram feed is brimming with beautiful photos of colorful foliage. It’s autumn, a favorite season for many and one that takes a special place in every landscape photographer’s heart. In this article, I want to share with you my 5 tips for photographing autumn colors and tell you everything you need to know to create amazing fall images.
Tip #1: Timing Is Everything
I tried placing these in priority order, and undoubtedly the most important one is choosing the right time. Although autumn lasts for three whole months, there’s only a short window when the foliage is at its most spectacular. That’s the best moment for photographing autumn colors, and you need to be on your toes to catch it.
It doesn’t last long either. Soon after, the leaves begin to fall down, and in a blink of an eye, it’s over. Typically, you have about a week to get the most out of this bright and colorful burst. Two, if you’re lucky. I witnessed this first-hand on my recent trip to Allgäu when I took the photo below. I was back at the same spot just a week later, and the view was nowhere near as spectacular.
Just when this window is going to occur is, unfortunately, anyone’s guess. A lot depends on where you live and what the climate is there. But even then, all you have is your best guess. Mother nature is never predictable, and things change every year. The only advice I can give you is to simply observe. Once the trees start turning yellow and red, everything will happen rapidly. You’ll have to react quickly, so hopefully, you have your plan thought through beforehand.
That said, don’t despair if you somehow missed that window. As I’m reminded every day, autumn is a beautiful season throughout. There will be foliage on the ground, there will be color still, and there will most certainly be superb opportunities for a killer shot.
Tip #2: Choose the Right Mood
There are, broadly speaking, two most common types of autumn pictures. Both require certain light conditions and a specific approach. The first one is what I call the moody shots. These are typically taken on an overcast day when the dull and lackluster sky contrasts nicely with the vivid colors of the trees. If this is the look you’re after, try to go out around noon on a cloudy day. The sky acts like a giant softbox filling the entire scene with soft and even light.
Then there are pictures taken on a sunny day. As the sun illuminates the leaves, it creates an intricate interplay of light and shadow. The resulting mood is much more cheerful and elevated. Obviously, what you need a bright clear day with lots of sunshine. For those, I suggest shooting in the morning or in the afternoon, close to the golden hour. It’s when the light is soft and dreamy, making the photos rich and vibrant straight out of the camera, with little processing required afterward. Depending on the location, midday could sometimes work too, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Usually, the light will be too harsh and difficult to work with.
Which style you go for will depend on your preference and the weather conditions at hand. As you can probably tell, when photographing autumn colors, I personally gravitate towards the sunny weather. I just love the glowing, vivid look I get in these conditions. However, it’s not always that mother nature cooperates. If the grey sky is all you’re given – no worries, you can still take incredible photos. You just need to approach them a little differently.
Tip #3: Work on Your Composition
In photography, composition is king. A technically flawed shot with good composition will almost always trump the one that’s clean and crisp but not composed well. This is why mastering composition is vital, and photographing autumn colors is no different in this regard. Now, there are no strict rules to follow. There are guidelines, but in the end, everyone has their own style. What’s important is that your photos stand out. Here are a few simple techniques I personally like to use to achieve that.
Think about your subject. Forest scenes are almost always busy and cluttered. You need to concentrate on what it is you want to highlight and eliminate the unnecessary noise around. A good idea is to simply let the light guide you. Follow it, look for natural contrast, and you will find an appealing subject almost effortlessly. Then, think about how to best showcase it.
Another little trick is to have a human presence in the frame. Our eyes are naturally drawn to other people. A person in the image will easily make the photo more interesting or help balance out the composition. By the way, this works in all types of landscape photography, so always keep it at the back of your mind.
Finally, use natural framing to your advantage. It is a powerful compositional tool and will help draw the viewer’s eyes to where you want them. Roads and paths, tree trunks or branches, even shadow areas can all be used as framing elements in the shot.
Tip #4. Location Location Location
Luckily, for photographing autumn colors, you don’t need to travel far. Chances are, you can do it a walking distance away from where you live. All you really need is some trees, so head to your local forest or a park in the neighborhood. Of course, if you have something more ambitious in mind, by all means. There are many famous destinations all across the globe that attract photographers in flocks during the fall season. Patagonia, Iceland, Japan, and Italy, to name just a few.
No matter where you go, try to scout the location beforehand. You’ll learn how the scene is lit, what hours are ideal for shooting, and all the other little things that will save you a lot of time when you show up with the camera. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with just following your gut feeling. In fact, that’s how I took most of the images in this article. And yet, a premeditated shot often has a lot more potential. Plus, it’s just a great pleasure for a photographer to first envision something and then execute on it.
Tip #5. Go Easy in Post-processing
This is something I don’t see a lot of people mention when talking about photographing autumn colors. What I discovered working on my own photos is that it is super easy to go overboard in post-processing. Especially if you’re like me and lean towards the sunny and bright images. These are so vivid and full of natural contrast that you quickly start losing details when trying to add more. Be gentle with those sliders and when you’re done, walk away from the computer for a bit. Your eyes get used to what’s on the screen, and often you won’t notice you overdid it until you take another look later.
Selective editing is another technique I use a lot when post-processing autumn images. The basic idea is to emphasize the subject and draw attention to it. I won’t go deep into the topic, but luminosity masks or even simple vignetting are quite handy for that. This allows separating the background from the area of focus, resulting in simple, clean, and powerful images. Once again, subtlety is essential. Too much of something is rarely a good thing. There you go, a free bit of life counseling from yours truly – you’re welcome.
Bonus Tip: Gear Doesn’t Matter
In my opinion, for photographing autumn colors gear just isn’t overly important. That’s why I made it a bonus tip and won’t go into too much detail on it. If you follow the advice I’ve given above, I guarantee you’ll have fantastic results with any camera. Having said that, I still feel there are a couple of things worth mentioning.
As a lens of choice, I recommend a 24-105mm, simply because it’s the most versatile option. In photographing autumn colors, you just never know what focal range you’ll need. Some of the images in this article were shot using the wide-angle lens, others with a telephoto. So unless you’re ready to bring your entire arsenal, it makes sense to pick a lens that ensures the most freedom of choice.
Tripod is really optional in most cases. Unless you have water in the frame or go for something specific, you probably won’t need it. As a landscape photographer, I often tend to bring it just in case and then regret lugging it around. What might indeed come in handy, is a polarizer, especially if you photograph the moody rainy autumn landscapes. In those conditions, a polarizer will make the colors pop even more, which is exactly what you want.
My very last tip is simple – head out, practice, and enjoy photographing autumn colors. It’s a splendid season with lots of beauty all around. Hopefully, this article helps you capture it on camera for your personal collection or to share with your friends. If you enjoyed it, check out my Instagram and Youtube to see what else I’m up to. Or, stick around and browse other articles on this blog for more travel and photography advice. Cheers and happy travels!
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