10 tips for photographing fall color

In Master Photography Roundtable by Brent Bergherm2 Comments

Fall Colors

In the Northern Hemisphere summer is basically over and we’re looking forward to the changing seasons. Fall is coming and we figured we’d talk about ideas for shooting fall colors today.

I love shooting fall colors when I get a chance to do it anyway, but in my area we don’t get a whole lot of fall colors. Do you get many fall colors in Utah, Jeff?

Tip 1: Use a polarizer. Using a polarizing filter will really enhance the color. Use it even if it’s completely foggy. There’s so much moisture on the leaves that’s scattering the light and using a polarizer will cut through that. What can be interesting or frustrating is that different objects in the scene may be affected differently than other objects, so you can see some items get all saturated with color while others wash out. Usually things all work the same, but I’ve seen that happen when shooting waterfalls with lots of foliage.

Tip 2: Watch the exposure. With rich colors I find it way too easy to overexpose my images, and maybe it’s only one color that gets overexposed. I may seem rational to place yellows and bright oranges at a certain spot on the histogram but you may be making them too bright, especially if one of the channels clips which can be easy to do with fully saturated colors. Experiment a bit and if you’re shooting in raw you should have no problem if you’re within a stop or so of where you need to be. The same goes for sunsets and sunrises, hold that exposure back a bit to maintain richness of color.

Tip 3: Zoom in. Too many photos lose their excitement for lack of a significant subject that is highlighted. Fill the frame with color, then back off a bit too. I like to try and really study a subject photographically. And zooming in can really make a difference in making that color pop. Whether it’s a cluster of trees, a few leaves or some berry bushes on the mountain side, making the subject prominent is what I’m talking about here.

Tip 4: Look for contrasts. This is a season like no other. Especially if you are shooting in an area that has a mixture of trees such as aspens and evergreens. The brilliant colors next to the deep greens can really make for a great contrast of color, texture and shapes. All these things can provide extra interest in the scene.

Tip 5: Think about the lighting. If the light is rather flat go for isolation and maximizing your saturation of the subject. Zoomed out scenes can also work wonderful especially if you have some fog or other weather happening. If you have a high contrast scene such as a bright sky above a ridge of color, consider using an exposure blend so detail can be held in both areas of the image. This can be very difficult to do with trees though since the wind will be blowing the leaves along the edge where it goes from a darker area to brighter, and that will create a very challenging environment to deal with in post-production. In this scenario I’ll try and balance the exposure as best I for both shadow areas and highlights and then I’ll double process the one file and exposure blend that in Photoshop.
If the scene is harsher light, try moving to a spot that allows you to backlight the leaves. They will glow and radiate color. It can be very interesting to create leaf patterns that are backlit and they just look brilliant. The branches usually turn to a silhouette so they are a strong graphic element.

Tip 6: Water. There’s so many ways to incorporate water into your fall shots. Rivers, lakes, ponds and streams all have the ability to greatly enhance the mood of your scene.
Reflections are probably the most popular way to compose with water. Whether you’re getting a wider shot of many trees along the water’s edge or zooming in on rocks or branches that are in the water and you’re getting all sorts of color around them. Or maybe you’re simply focusing on the abstraction of the rippling water reflecting the color, and you’re really zoomed in so all you get is a sense of pure liquid gold.
Waterfalls can also be amazing with fall color around them. Experiment with different shutter speeds to render the water with more and less detail. Watch the leaf detail though, if they’re on branches they’ll likely be swaying in the wind and creating their own movement. I’ve even done some with purposeful camera movement to get the water all washed out but the brilliant colors are also just a motion of painted color goodness. 

Tip 7: Camera Movement: Moving the camera in the vertical orientation when shooting trees can really enhance the sense of motion, color and the trunks. Everything gets all blurry with motion blur, but with practice you can get some really interesting results. I say start with one second exposure and simple practice. Either be on a tripod or hand-held, it doesn’t really matter, though a tripod will usually give smoother results. Turn off any image stabilization too. Start tilting the camera up, hit the shutter button and then follow through when it stops, kind of like a golf swing. If don’t plan the follow through you simply won’t be as smooth in your technique. You’ll probably want to zoom in a bit, I like 50mm or longer. Using a wide angle lens will cause the edges to get really curved with your motion blur and then straight lines in the middle of the frame. It can be a really cool effect, but you lose the idea of the tree trunks being straight and well rendered with a wider angle lens.
Experiment with different speeds of motion and different shutter speeds. The aperture doesn’t really matter in a shot like this though it can give different results in how it’s rendered due to the depth-of-field, but it’s just not our primary concern. So I would often shoot in shutter priority for these types of shots.

Tip 8: Multiple Exposure: This one is even more challenging to get right as it requires some fancy work in Photoshop. But you can get super impressionistic with this approach. Also, some cameras support multiple exposures in camera, so play with that too. I’ll do one of two things, I’ll either pick a point to rotate around and shoot many photos with subtle movement around that spot, or I’ll just go super random with tiny movements in any and all directions. Then, when in post production, work with photoshop smart objects with a stack mode to see if that works, and if not, I’ll just do some layer blending with various opacities and what not. It requires some experimentation and some comfort in Photoshop or other layering image editing program to get these multiple exposure shots to work, but once you find something that works I say go for it. For some inspiration on this front look at Freeman Pateterson’s work http://www.freemanpatterson.com/giclees_bouquet.htm

Tip 9: White Balance: Your camera’s auto white balance may get fooled with every shot. By filling the frame with a color it’s not used to or otherwise programed for it can deliver inconsistent results. If you’re shooting raw that’s not a huge issue as you can sync it up in post-production, but I find it easier to make judgements on the little screen if I have some consistency in what I’m seeing out in the field. I usually do shoot in auto white balance, but not when I’m shooting something like fall color.

Tip 10: Explore options. Cliché shots can still be very beautiful, but we usually want to show something unique or personal in our work. We do that by staying with the subject longer and exploring it. Fall colors isn’t something we get to spend a whole bunch of time shooting since the colors are so fleeting. We might miss something in the search for other great opportunities. In so doing we might miss out on something truly unique in inspiring. Especially if you’re going out solo or with a group of other photographers, agree to slow down, focus on the experience as much as the imagery and then maybe the joy of the experience will come through in the images you make!

Tip 11: https://smokymountains.com/fall-foliage-map/ 


Jeff: NTFS for Mac by Paragon Software ($20)

Brent: Olympus OM-D E-M1 mk2 ($1,499.00)



  1. For what it’s worth: Tip 11 the fall foliage map from Great Smoky Mountains is updated pretty often. Last year I was using it to plan a trip to West Virginia and found the predictions being updated about once a week. Last year’s colors kept getting later and later in the season–things stayed unusually warm for a long time. We still missed peak color by about a week, so it isn’t perfect, especially planning a few weeks out. But it’s a very helpful tool.

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