Tips for eye-catching fall color photography anywhere you travel

by Oct 2, 2017Photography

10 simple tips for capturing eye-catching fall color photography anywhere you travel. Photographer Rick Saez shows you how to take stunning fall color photos.

For a photographer, fall is the best time to be traveling back roads, paths and wooded areas in pursuit of color. After all, fall color photography is all about capturing autumn’s dramatic landscapes in images that leave the viewer in awe. To get the best images — ones that convey the emotion of seeing the depth and intensity of color fall offers — you can’t simply point and shoot because then you are just relying on the colors in front of you for your success. Instead, you need to take into account lighting, composition, and camera accessories such as filters. But you don’t need to be an experienced photography professional to do this. With these 10 simple photo tips, you will be on your way to capturing fall color photos of your own that stand out from the ordinary travel snaps.

Location, location, location

The old real estate adage applies in fall color photography – location, location, location. You can do a quick web search and find plenty of resources that will tell you where and when the best times are to capture peak fall colors. I find that many of these locations have been “discovered” – meaning overrun — so I like to camp to be able to stay a bit more off the beaten path.

You don’t always need to go to New England, either; there are many terrific remote locations in the West and Midwest and around the world. In the United States, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan are three Midwest states that boast great fall colors. I also love the Rockies of Colorado as well as the mountains of Washington, Oregon and Utah.

Do a little research online and you will find websites, maps, networks, and hotlines devoted to fall color times, places and current conditions. Many city chambers of commerce and state or country tourism boards provide information too.

Fall colors Bishop Creek Canyon aspens.

Beautiful aspens in Bishop Creek Canyon in Southern California.

Explore your surroundings

Once you find a location, I always like to get there the day before I plan to shoot or early that same day and do some exploring. Like in landscape photography, capturing great fall color images takes a bit of patience. Arriving onsite early gives you ample time to take a look around, get the lay of the land, and figure out what the light will (or might) do. This is also a good time to look for some nice compositions, for example with buildings or water features you might want to include in your images. I generally explore the area a bit and make notes in a field notebook or on my phone about the images I plan to capture. This helps me visualize and plan my shots to come prepared to go to work when I arrive.

Fall colors in Sabrina Basin.

This shot in Sabrina Basin, near Bishop, Calif., took some planning!


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Mind the light

Light is the key element in all photography genres, and I feel it is super important when shooting fall colors. Everything you know about light in photography — side light, back light, reflected light, etc. — is important when shooting in the fall. In the fall, however, shade or overcast skies are best. The colors in fall are more saturated than other times of year. While many think overcast light or shade will decrease these colors, the opposite is actually true. An overcast sky is perfect because it softens the light thus increasing the saturation of the colors. In fall, I shoot a lot in Bishop Creek Canyon outside of Bishop, Calif. This is a very narrow canyon, and some of the best light is when the sun is below the canyon reflecting off the rock walls. As the sun was setting but still above the canyon rim in front of me the last direct light was hitting these aspen trees. The rocks in front of me were in shade creating a nice contrast.

Using the light in Bishop Creek Canyon for fall colors.

Sunlight hitting the tree tops in Bishop Creek Canyon for a very nice and colorful effect.

Unleashing unlimited compositions

I find that there are more composition options available in fall than at other times of year. I frequently work a scene for hours in the fall. Water provides reflections, great contrast against colorful backgrounds and, if there is a breeze, you can capture beautiful long exposure shots blurring the colors reflecting off of a lake or stream. Brightly colored reds, yellows and greens of the leaves offer nice contrasts against newly fallen snow or the light bark of an aspen tree. Tight compositions capturing the variety of colors in a stand of aspens or a tight shot of a single aspen leaf contrasted against the green grass make for compelling images. Using filters (see below) allows you to use slow shutter speeds and get stunning silky smooth streams and creeks with exploding colors from aspens and willows in the background.

Fall colors on Bishop Creek.

Bishop Creek looking silky and smooth.

Capturing multiple variations

Working a scene enables me to capture multiple variations of each shot. I like to capture at least four images for almost every photo I make — wide, tight, horizontal and vertical. In fall, I also move around a scene a lot more and capture multiple angles. With so much color and contrast available this is simple to do. The changing light creates more variety as well. A scene can change dramatically as reflected light turns to shade and increases color saturation.

Convict Lake scene 1

Convict Lake in Mono County, Calif., is beautiful from any angle.

Convict Lake scene 2

But by playing with a different angle, the same scene takes on an entirely different look.

Put your head on a swivel

Don’t forget to look behind you. I feel like my head is on a swivel when I shoot in fall. Sometimes the light changes so quickly what was exploding and washed ou in the direct sun one minute can become bathed in soft shade the next. If you don’t frequently look around you can completely miss it. Back at the car or in the motel reviewing images you see this magnificent shot your buddy captured while you were looking the other way. Many times I’ve been engrossed in a shot in front of me working and working to make a great image then stopped to stretch. Behind me is this unbelievable scene unfolding and I simply rotated 180 degrees in place and pressed the shutter for what sometimes was the image of the day.

Fall colors that were happening behind me.

If I had not turned around when the light was right, I would have missed this shot.

Pack your (must-have) tripod

A solid tripod is a must for fall color photography since it is just not possible to handhold your camera. Frequently, you are shooting at dawn or dusk in low light. Without a tripod, your images will not be sharp. Additionally using a tripod is the only way to slow your shutter and capture that silky smooth water in a stream or blur the breeze on a lake to create a beautiful collage of reflected color. Next to the camera body and lenses, this is a critical piece of equipment so be sure to invest in good quality. Carbon fiber is not a must but I find it much lighter and easier to carry on long walks from the vehicle.

Fall colors using a tripod

The only way to get this shot of reflections is by using a tripod.

Grab for the filters

My three go-to filters when shooting in fall are a polarizer, three different densities of neutral density, and a split neutral density.

A polarizing filter allows me to control light, particularly reflections and glare off water. A polarizing filter can also help you get nice deep blues in skies, which provide great contrast against a stand of aspen trees.

Fall colors with a polarized filter.

Using a polarizer filter is what makes this shot.

Split neutral density filters allow me to control light for sunrise and sunset shots. Shooting a forest of aspens at dawn or dusk as the sunlight bathes the peaks would be impossible without a split neutral density filter. This filter is split with one half dark or “filtered” and the other completely clear. In the shot of these aspens at dawn, the trees would have been under exposed if I exposed for the peak, and the peaks over exposed if I exposed for the aspens. Using a split neutral density filter, I could orient the dark side to expose for the peaks and clear side allowed enough light for proper exposure of the aspens.

Fall colors with a split neutral density filter.

Split neutral density filter allows for overall proper exposure.

Neutral density filters are available in a variety of densities. Using a very dense or dark neutral density filter allowed me to use a very slow shutter speed to blur the water in McGee Creek against the aspen and cottonwood leaves.

Fall colors with a neutral density filter.

A neutral density filter allows to use very slow shutter speeds for blur while not over-exposing.

Lenses, lenses, lenses

I shoot most of my fall images with three lenses. I’m a Nikon shooter and primarily use a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8, and a 70-200mm f/2.8. Shooting with lenses that have focal lengths of f/2.8 give me the option of shooting in low light and a variety of creative options for shallow depths of field. Shallow depths of field enable you to get backgrounds that look out of focus and have beautiful “bokeh” (the out-of-focus points of lights often surrounding or in the background of a subject). These can be quite stunning in fall with the myriad of colors. I love these three lenses as they enable me to capture great images in almost any situation. In fall, I find I use the 24-70 mm and the 70-300 more frequently than other times of year. I realize everyone does not have the budget to use $3,000 lenses. Many of the “kit” camera and lens combos available are also terrific. Shoot with what you have and can afford and, if your budget allows for upgrades, spend your money on lenses.

Fall colors in Bishop Creek canyon tight shot.

Tight shot.

Fall colors Bishop Creek Canyon wide shot.

Keep it tight. Or maybe take it wide!

Get creative

I’ve seen some magically creative images captured in fall. Zooming in and out with the shutter open or spinning the camera with the shutter open can create some interesting effects. Play around and see what you can come up with. Heck, it’s a digital world. Didn’t work? Delete! Want to learn more about taking sunburst photos? Then read Learn how to take stunning sun flare and sunburst photos.

Fall colors aspen zoom effect

Zoom effect.

Fall colors with a sun burst.

Sunburst effects give a different perspective.

Check our more of Rick Saez’s photographs at Rick Saez Photography

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  1. Anuradha Goyal

    HI, your images are simply stunning. We really do not have a fall in India but I am sure I can use these tips for landscape photography as well. I am also a Nikon Photographer but I stick to base lenses as I mostly shoot during my travels when you really do not have time to sit and photograph. You just shoot on the move. However, your post encourages me to take out all the equipment and go and shoot some pictures in my hometown.

    Do you have a post on how to get that Sunburst? If not, please do one.

    • HI Travel Tales

      Hi there! we’ll pass on your request to our photo expert, Rick Saez! and glad you enjoyed. be sure to check out our other photo-video-oriented content! YES. Hometown “photo safaris” are a great way to practice!


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