Fall is a great time to get outside and take advantage of the annual display of colorful foliage throughout the northern hemisphere. But before you fly back east or hike up a mountain, make sure you’re well prepared with the right equipment, a good plan and most of all the know-how to ensure you’ll make the most of the brief opportunity to photograph colorful fall foliage. Here are five tips to maximize color and increase the odds of autumnal photographic success.
Time Your Visit
When planning for a shoot in a place you may be unfamiliar with, there’s no substitute for research. Sure, if you’re shooting across town you’ll know when the leaves have reached peak color just by looking out the window, but as weather and elevation affect the color change—and make it different every year—you’ll want to do some research to determine if you’re planning to visit at just the right time. For a trip to the Rockies, for instance, you might find that color typically peaks in mid-October at the higher elevations, but a particularly hot, cool, dry or rainy summer could push dates forward or back. Google is certainly your friend when it comes to researching peak color in a given locale, and there’s a great fall foliage prediction map on the Smoky Mountains website at smokymountains.com/fall-foliage-map.
Useful as these tools may be, nothing’s a substitute for local knowledge, so try to get in touch with someone who can tell you when things are heating up. Look to the social media posts of your favorite wildlife and landscape photographers for a better idea of what they’re seeing and where, and don’t hesitate to reach out to local park rangers or travel bureaus via telephone. Don’t forget that time of day matters too. When the sun’s position early and late will impact your shot—which they always will—you can find out this and more with an application such as The Photographer’s Ephemeris (photoephemeris.com), which allows you to plug in a location, date and time to see where the sun will be and help you plan for a shot early or late so you can put that sun at your back or in your face as the composition you envision dictates.
Polarize For Color
At one time I operated by an overly simplified rule of thumb when it came to taking pictures outdoors: always use a polarizer. And while that might sound like reasonable advice, it’s actually an overstatement that ignores a drawback that can occur with polarizers. A more accurate approach is to think, “I should usually use a polarizer,” because every once in a while the polarizer removes too much glare, or deepens a blue sky a bit too much, or makes an image look overly contrasty in an inauthentic way. On a sunny day, with the camera aimed 90 degrees from the sun, a circular polarizing filter will deepen the sky to a dark blue—and this is often a great complement to a colorful landscape.
At any angle, and particularly useful when photographing foliage, that same polarizer will make the color of the leaves come out even more than it does to the naked eye. Why? Because the polarizer eliminates glare and reflection, so if the leaves are shiny or damp, their reflections might block some of the color of the foliage from coming through. The polarizer cuts the glare and lets the color come out. Best of all, while some folks think of polarizers as only useful in bright sun, they work wonders on overcast and gray days too. That diffuse light from above can still create color-blocking highlights on the surface of leaves, and a polarizer can eliminate it so the color comes through. So while polarizers are especially useful for photographing fall foliage, they aren’t required 100 percent of the time. If you feel like your image looks better without the polarizer and with a little bit of shine, or reflection, or a less contrasty look, go for it.
Choose The Right Vantage Point
Sometimes the perfect place to focus on foliage is from under the tree itself. This affords you the opportunity to surround yourself with 180-degrees of color. This works particularly well on cloudy days when the light is omnidirectional and diffuse, but for a more traditional look at the changing leaves, you’ll want to find yourself outside of the canopy looking in. And that means getting up to a higher view. With a bit of planning—either by familiarizing yourself with the location in person ahead of time or by researching routes and topography online in advance of your trip—you’ll be able to find an elevated vantage point that will allow you to take in an expanse of color. After all, what’s a bolder, better fall foliage shot than a vast landscape of vibrant colors?
An easy way to get up to a higher view is to plan a drive or a hike up a mountainside. But smaller bits of elevation—even a gentle rise or an otherwise inconsequential knoll—can provide the subtle height advantage necessary to get your camera at or above the treetops, which makes it easier to include multiple trees in the frame for maximum color. And if you can’t get higher, at least pick a place with an unobstructed view of the trees. Where can you find such a place? Across a lake or a river is the perfect place to look as the water not only provides an unobstructed view of a stand of colorful trees, but the water’s reflective surface also provides for more interesting foregrounds.
The older I get, the more highly I think of Robert Capa’s advice to get closer. (He famously said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough you aren’t close enough.”) In practice, especially when it comes to a subject such as colorful fall foliage, truer words were never spoken. First and foremost, it can be tempting to back up and get wide to show a large landscape with fall color. This works well if there’s an abundance of color that fills the frame—like a view of a whole forest or a vast, large-scale landscape. But if you’re targeting one specific image element, or if the color simply isn’t strong enough to justify the wider view, consider getting closer to the subject and fill the frame with that strong color. That way, the foliage won’t get lost in a larger scene that might be competing for attention. Taken to the extreme, this “get closer” advice also serves as a reminder that pulling out one’s macro lens is a great way to make interesting pictures of colorful leaves—whether they’re clinging to branches or have fallen to the ground. An extreme close-up enabled by a macro lens is a great way to fill the frame with color by filling it, literally, with one single leaf.
When I write that “weather matters” for fall foliage photography, please don’t misinterpret that to mean that you must go out on a sunny day. Quite the contrary, in fact. One of the best things about foliage photography is that it can be done in any weather—from evenly overcast to contrasty, bright sun. But you’ve got to understand how the two distinct scenarios will affect the subject in different ways. First, on a bright sunny day, you’ll want the sun at your back if you want to emphasize color. Shooting into the sun—which is a great way to make interesting images and emphasize texture and shape—doesn’t do as great a job at bringing out the bold colors that frontal light will. You’ll also have strong shadows and high-contrast scenes on sunny days, which means shadows become a compositional element and enable you to set off brightly illuminated subjects in the foreground against dark shadows in the background.
Conversely, on an overcast or gray day, the light is omnidirectional and comes from everywhere—and it’s even with minimal contrast. This opens up a world of possibilities when shooting deep in the woods, for instance, or for scenarios where you’re beneath the canopy shooting out (as opposed to outside looking in). The soft, even illumination of an overcast day will also afford you the opportunity to emphasize subtlety—such as the tiny differences in tonality among leaves that have largely turned the same color. Best of all are storms—not because you want to be out shooting in the rain, but because storms always come to an end. And when they do, there’s a break in the clouds and the sunlight comes through to present great opportunities for photography. The air also has been washed clean and the leaves are wet and shiny, which adds another opportunity for interesting images. In short, make sure you’re thinking about your compositions and expectations based on what the light provides, and don’t be afraid to wait out some weather.