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.
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 (see my story, 9 top tips for taking amazing landscape photos), 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!