Ask just about anyone what the best part of autumn is, and I’ll bet you’ll get this reply: it’s the color.
Autumn rivals spring as the most brilliant time of the year, when color is everywhere and inspiration can be found in something as simple as a fallen leaf. With so much beautiful fall foliage all around you, it’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of “these photos will just take themselves,” but don’t. There are some great ways to bring out the best in those beautiful fall colors, and here are a few tips on how to do that.
Know where to go
I have personally made the mistake of driving around my local area with my camera in mid autumn, believing that fall photo opportunities are everywhere. Unfortunately, I quickly discovered that just because there's beautiful foliage along my commute doesn't necessarily mean that any of it is worth photographing. Distractions like parked cars, buildings, pedestrians and busy streets can make even gorgeous fall colors look a little dull.
Even if you plan on sticking to your local area you're probably going to have the best luck if you know in advance where all the good spots are. Contact your local tourist center, or even a local photography club and ask them where you should go. Chances are there's going to be a good place somewhere in your local area where you can spend the day getting pictures—if not, consider a road trip. Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin are all famous for fall foliage, so if you live in the US and an autumn vacation is in your budget, consider one of these states.
Flickr can also be a great resource for finding fall foliage, just to do a quick search for autumn colors, fall leaves, or something similar using your region as an additional keyword. Then take a look at the GPS data or the photographer’s description to determine where he made the photograph. Now, I'm not advocating that you copy anybody's work—that's next to impossible with something that changes as quickly as the autumn leaves anyway—but this will give you a great idea about where you can go to get the best photos.
Believe it or not, there are also apps that can help you with this, depending on where you live. If your area is famous for its fall foliage, have a look at the app store for your device and see if there are any that feature a guide to fall foliage (for iPhone, for example, there’s one called “New Hampshire Foliage Tracker”). Some apps also let users report good spots to view fall colors—“Foliage Leaf Peeper” for the iPhone is another example.
Another thing to look for is a place where you can get above the fall foliage. Long shots of any forested area are beautiful at any time of year, but during the autumn it can be particularly powerful to look down at all of those brilliant colors from a scenic overlook or other elevated location. Once you're down amongst the trees, another thing to look out for is water—the, stiller, the better. Still water beneath all those autumn colors will produce amazing reflections, for double the impact. Even faster moving water can create interesting shapes, so don’t discount those reflections in streams and rivers just because they aren’t perfect mirror images of the trees.
Use a polarizing filter if you have one—a polarizing filter will help separate any clouds from the bright blue sky, and it will also make colors appear more saturated. Remember that to get the best out of your polarizing filter, you need to be standing at a 90 degree angle to the sun. That means you should keep the sun on either on your left or right side, rather than behind you or in front of you. Side light is generally best for bringing out details anyway, so this is a good idea even if you don't have a polarizing filter.
Speaking of light, aim for shooting at either end of the day, when the light is soft and more even and has a natural, warm glow to it. As a general rule, the closer the sun gets to its apex the more undesirable qualities the light will have—you’ll start to get hard, black shadows, burned out highlights, flat colors and a general loss of detail.
The nice thing about autumn is that you should also get plenty of overcast days, which can also be good for photographing the changing colors. Some photographers swear by a nice, cloudy day because the clouds help filter the light, creating a softbox-like effect over the landscape. This can actually help give saturated colors—such as those you’ll see in the foliage—a boost as well. Just be careful not to include a lot of sky in photos shot on an overcast day, unless there are some breaks in the clouds and you’ll get something other than unbroken white. A cloudy day with some open patches of sunlight is the ideal lighting situation for fall photography.
Err on the side of underexposure. If your camera has a highlight indicating setting, otherwise known as the "blinkies", make sure you turn it on. You don't want to over-exposed your photos, because overexposure can result in a dull, boring sky, and equally dull, boring fall colors. Overexposure will take the rich tones out of the oranges and make them appear flat and lifeless. So if you must choose between the highlights and shadows, always go with the shadows.
Remember that you're shooting landscapes, and like nearly all landscapes you'll have to be thinking about depth of field. Use a small aperture (large f-number) and adjust your ISO upwards if you can't maintain a fast enough shutter speed to shoot hand-held. Alternatively, of course (and what I recommend), bring a tripod. With your camera mounted on a tripod it doesn't really matter how slow your shutter speed gets, so you'll be free to shoot at low ISOs and small apertures without fear of camera shake. This may be necessary anyways, especially if you're shooting on an overcast day, since natural light will be limited. Just keep in mind that tripods go hand-in-hand with remote releases—you'll need one so you can release the shutter without having to touch the camera. If you don't own a remote release (or you can't find yours, which is usually my problem), you can also use your camera’s self-timer feature. Set it to count down from five seconds. That should be enough time for the vibration to stop before the camera releases the shutter.
Do keep in mind that shutter speed will matter on blustery days, or when there is moving water in an image. If the wind is bending the tips of the trees they will render as blur, and moving water will take on that soft, misty appearance.
Of Fire and Wind by Flickr user Joe Dsilva
Shoot the details
I know all of those oranges and reds can be spectacular, but the only way to shoot them is not necessarily from afar. Try getting close to your subject, and shoot a few individual leaves. Make sure you use a wider aperture so that you blur out some of the more distant parts of the tree, in favor of getting a tack sharp image of a scattered few leaves. This is a great thing to do if a road trip isn't something that you can do right now—you can make fall foliage look great even in a strip mall, provided that you get close enough to it so you're able to crop out all of that man-made clutter in the background. If you have a macro lens, you could get closer still—try shooting the details of a single leaf for an abstract take on the season.
The colors of fall aren't just in the branches of the trees—they're on the forest floor as well. Late-season crops like pumpkins and apples can also add some brilliant color to your fall photos, so don't think that foliage is the only place to find great images this time of year. Pay attention to those little splashes of color that are all around you. If you need even more inspiration, attend a local harvest festival or other autumn-themed event—these places are guaranteed to be full of fall colors.
Good ol' days of fall by Flickr user shutterbugamar
Let's say you get home after a day of shooting and you discover that, well, those brilliant fall colors are quite as brilliant in your photos as they were in real life. Provided you got the exposure right we can do a little cheating in post processing to fix this problem—no need to return to the scene and reshoot. Just open up the hue/saturation tool in post processing and adjust the red slider towards the saturated end (the left). You won't need to do much—in fact if you do do too much, you'll end up with an image that really doesn't look very realistic. So make just enough adjustments to make the colors really start to stand out, and stop before it becomes obvious that you've made any changes at all.
Enjoy the season—it’s a beautiful time for walks in the woods, even without your camera. Remember that this time of year color is everywhere, so don’t spend so much time shooting leaves and trees that you forget to find beauty in other places. Zoom out, zoom in, go wide, go macro—try new things and different angles. Try to keep the mood of the autumn season in each of your photos, and you’re almost certain to have a successful outing.
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