Autumn—one of my favorite times of year—is coming on quickly here in eastern Oregon: The nights are cooler, and each morning, the air has a hint of crispness in it. As a photographer, this change in the weather brings with it the anticipation of fall foliage, and I find myself itching to head out to shoot. I have been scoping out locations, planning my time, looking for the peak windows, and getting my gear ready. I have also been chatting with Ben Long and Hudson Henry about the best approaches for capturing fall color. Among us, we have a few tips for getting the most out of your fall-foliage shots.
Hudson: Let light dictate your scene
Hudson has found himself in some amazing places during autumn, but he also finds inspiration in his home area of Portland, Oregon. Here are a few of his tips for getting the most out of fall color:
- When I photograph fall colors, I let the light dictate my subject choice and composition. Overcast days are wonderful to work with fall color. Under clouds or fog I can shoot in deep colorful woods without the pesky highlights and shadows that get in the way on blue sky days. Just be sure to keep that dull grey sky out of the frame.
- Puffy white clouds with blue between soften the highlights each time the sun passes behind a cloud, while allowing me to include the blue and white of the sky to offset the other fall colors I am photographing. On bright sunny days, I use a long lens to look for small details in shadows and reflections while avoiding any direct sunlight or sky in the frame.
- I rarely leave my polarizer behind, but I always want it for fall colors. Polarizers don’t just add contrast to the sky and help control reflections, they also make fall colors more intense. This is especially true in a misty, wet forest of color. The polarizer cuts through the wet shine on the leaves allowing me to capture more saturation.
- Finally, I’m not at all above carrying a particularly lovely leaf specimen to place in just the right spot in the frame. Props have been a part of photography since the dawn of the art, and if it helps me capture the image I’ve envisioned, then I’m all for it.
Ben: Vistas are nice, but close is good too
Ben, who lives in San Francisco—where he says “there’s never really fall color”—has a few simple notes:
- Don’t always go for the big vista—colored leaves are beautiful in closeup and in their variety.
- Trunks and limbs can make for nice, high-contrasty, graphic lines across fields of color.
- If it’s very windy, be careful with shutter speed. Or, turn shutter speed to your advantage and play with blur.
Other compositional tips
- Don’t forget about the ground. Sometimes—especially when it’s overcast, or with a light rain—the best place to shoot can be at your feet. Whether to add some foreground to an already interesting scene (for example, a carpet of color in front of a stand of trees), or to create an interesting composition of fallen leaves in a puddle, there plenty of other opportunities to show off autumn’s splendor.
- A corollary to the last tip: If you end up missing the peak colors, don’t despair. Leaves—and color—linger long after they’ve fallen from the trees. You’ll often find great compositions in the simplest of places. Look to small evergreens that have trapped fallen leaves, or go out in the morning after the first few frosts; you’ll often find the last, lingering color in unusual places.
Finding peak fall foliage color
It’s always a bit of a guessing game as to when the peak foliage will hit. Sometimes, depending upon where you live, you’ll have a good sense of when you’ll find those peak colors, and you’ll live close enough to zip out on a short expedition. If you want to travel, the big question is, “When?” Twenty to 30 years ago, I had to consult the Farmer’s Almanac to get a sense of when it would be best to head up into Vermont, and even then, I often missed out, either past peak, or shortly before.
Thanks to the Internet, dialing in the right time for hitting peak color is easier than it ever was (if you’re living in the continental US, that is). Every year, SmokyMountains.com publishes the Fall Foliage Prediction Map, an interactive heat map that shows expected peak foliage colors across the country.
“The 2018 Fall Foliage Map is the ultimate visual planning guide to the annual progressive changing of the leaves. While no tool can be 100% accurate, this tool is meant to help travelers better time their trips to have the best opportunity of catching peak color each year.”