Exploring Fall Colors

Image of raindrops on a windshield

We come inside with dewy shoes and arms full of firewood. The air shifts, the leaves fall, and the farm stands are full of crimson, browns and orange. The cooler wet weather creeps in; we light the first fire in the wood stove and walk slowly into autumn. Welcome to fall in New England.

Through the early-morning fog, we drive past ponds where mist rises; I note the time of day and slant of light. My desire is to drive back this way alone with my camera, tripod and a few hours of solitude with which to explore. If the seasonal transition of summer to fall finds you feeling adventurous and nostalgic, like me, you might enjoy stepping outside the box with your camera to photograph this shift of season with the lure of lingering colors before they fade into winter.


Lighting & White Balance For Fall Color

Not all things need to be photographed in bright sun. In the fall, sunlight is best used as side lighting early or late in the day. There are two types of light we need to be familiar with. The first is diffused light from an overcast sky. This type of light is cool and bluish. It helps to eliminate harsh shadows and brings out the strong tones and colors that aren’t visible under the sun. Diffused light is very soft and even, produces great results and allows for shooting all day long (as long as the clouds cover the sky).

The second type of light is the “golden hour” that occurs just after sunrise and just before sunset. When the sun is this low on the horizon, it gives off a warm tone that’s complementary to the fall palette. While enhancing the tones, it can lead to very saturated colors.

With both types of light, you’ll need to adjust your white balance accordingly. Getting familiar with white balance will only improve your photography. Proper white balance takes into account the color temperature of the light source. Our eyes are good at adjusting what’s white under different light sources, but digital cameras can have difficulty with auto white balance.

Understanding white balance will help you avoid color casts in your images. Color casts are unwanted tints that evenly affect the entire image. Certain subjects create problems with a camera’s auto white balance, so if the scene already has an abundance of warmth (like vibrant fall foliage shot in early-morning light), the camera will try to compensate for this warmth by creating a bluish color cast. Using presets or a custom white balance gives you more control with your images. White balance is an element of photography that’s often overlooked. While shooting fall colors, it’s important to adjust white balance so our color images are as accurate as possible.


Lens Choices

Choosing the lens that’s right for you is a personal decision that mostly depends on the type of images you seek to create. I prefer to use a long-focus zoom lens (the Sigma 18-200mm is a favorite in my camera bag) because I find it helpful while playing with composition. Long lenses are versatile. They compress the distance between objects, which results in an intimate image. A long lens also allows you to stay in one place and zoom in and out instead of moving around to find the best angle for the focal length.

I also have a Nikon 50mm ƒ/1.4 in my camera bag. This prime lens is a fast piece of glass that’s very lightweight. Its wide aperture allows me to create a shallow depth of field and helps me shoot in low light. It gives me sharp isolation and allows me to frame a scene even in the most unlikely areas. Its size makes it a convenient lens to bring just about anywhere. Each lens has its benefits in different situations. They both allow room for creativity in composition.

In any season, we must always consider composition, light, shadows, gear and mood while shooting. Fall is no different. Focusing solely on the color of the season will leave you shortsighted. The color you see around you is best framed as one component of the whole image. Fall landscapes are commonplace and popular for capturing a large-scale view. This perspective complements the vast scope of color that surrounds us at this time of year. We can capture the essence of fall through dramatic scenes, everyday scenes or the simple flavor of the season.

Patterns, Reflections And Details

There are many ways to use composition creatively. When we slow down to contemplate lines, curves and patterns, we see how they interact with color. Color allows your eye to rest on the patterns of nature. Patterns are everywhere—they can be found in the smallest of subjects or in a large expanse of landscape. Look for pleasing repetition of shape (or color) and dynamic spacing of elements within your scene. Patterns lead the eye through the frame. By filling the frame with repetitive patterns, you’re able to give the impression of size and scale. Another use of pattern is to break the pattern, or capture the interruption of the flow. Do this by finding a contrasting color in a sea of similarity. Always consider focal point and the Rule of Thirds while playing with patterns in nature.

A great way to show the relationship of color to its surrounding environment is through reflection. Reflections enhance dramatic effect. You can combine your vision and artistic eye with the natural elements of the season to achieve visually stunning images. When shooting reflections, think about the angle of the light and how it affects the reflection. Explore different viewpoints that make the reflection most visible. Reflections are effectively dramatic when light is at its best (early morning or late evening). Lakes and ponds sheltered from the wind are a great place to start playing with mirrored images. Symmetry plays a huge role in reflections. Keep in mind that an image needn’t be totally symmetrical; sometimes it’s the lack of symmetry that creates a great reflection image.

By focusing on isolated details of the season, we find the presence of strong contrasting colors. Simplicity allows the eye to enjoy color and shape without distraction. Getting in close to your subject will help de-clutter your image. When I feel overwhelmed by a large or busy scene, I begin by shooting small details. A shallow depth of field separates an object from its background. Define and simplify your composition. Make order out of chaos by focusing on dominant details.


While photographing autumn scenes, welcome inclement weather. Overcast skies, fog or raindrops all will help tell a unique photographic story. Autumn is about the change of weather. While overcast skies create the best shooting situation, remember that including something featureless (like an overcast sky) in your image won’t always add to the drama of the season. Frame and shoot accordingly when photographing a colorful forest scene with overcast skies. You may want to exclude the sky from the final composition or work it into the image in a more complementary way. When composed properly, overcast skies can provide a visual break to the intensity of fall foliage. And while we know that shooting in the rain isn’t always enjoyable, shooting (and focusing) on the raindrops through a window or windshield will create an intriguing image. Get out in the weather, and have fun!

Image of raindrops on a windshield
Capturing raindrops on a window or windshield help tell the story of fall weather and atmosphere.

I bring my camera with me everywhere at this time of year. With it slung over my shoulder, I stop for a while to shoot at the farm stand before loading up the apple cider and honey that our family requires. The sights and smells are what I crave the most. The colors are vibrant, rich and earthy. Autumn is a season too short to miss. Embrace the weather: clouds, sunshine, day or night. You can always find a photo opportunity to create stunning compositions, whether you’re exploring the mountains or simply enjoying your own backyard.

Tips For Shooting Fall Colors

1. Slow down. Allow yourself plenty of time to be in nature. Know your camera and get familiar with white balance. Get up early and embrace the weather.

2. Catch the “golden light” in mornings and evenings. Direct sunlight in midday gives overly harsh images.

3. Look for color contrasts and patterns, such as bright red trees against an evergreen background. When shooting details, simplicity is best, and a shallow depth of field will help isolate your subject.

4. Try out a telephoto lens to zoom in on patterns within the landscape. Try a wider lens when there’s a vast amount of color in a large stretch of landscape and you want to fit it all in your frame.

5. If your camera allows you to adjust saturation, increase it slightly to boost the colors. Use postprocessing tools to enrich your images, as well.

6. Shoot in any and all weather! Clouds, fog or rain can add intrigue to images.

7. Don’t forget to look in your own backyard. You needn’t travel great distances to find the beauty of the changing season.

Meredith Winn is a writer, photographer and Associate Editor of Taproot Magazine. She’s a contributor to Shutter Sisters, featured in our Point of Focus column. Visit www.meredithwinn.com.

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