Each autumn, as the days get shorter and the weather cools, chlorophyll production slows in hardwood trees and bushes, causing leaves to lose the vibrant green of summer. As these conditions overtake the map, nature puts on a brilliant show of color in many parts of the United States. The changing of the leaves follows a rough pathway from north to south, starting in early September and often lasting into November in southern locales.
Above photograph: Colorado Gold, Maroon Bells Scenic Area © Bryan Carnathan
Fall foliage season is a big draw for photographers throughout the United States, from New England and upstate New York, spreading southward through the Appalachian Mountains or across into Midwestern states such as Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, before reaching westward to Colorado, California’s magnificent Sierra Nevada, and the Pacific Northwest.
To help you plan for future leaf-peeping excursions, we recently solicited tips from several outdoor, landscape, and portrait-photography specialists.
Location, Location, Location
Conditions needed for ideal fall foliage include a warm and wet spring, typical summer weather, and mild, sunny autumn days with cool, crisp evenings, yet above freezing nights, since frost tends to inhibit the production of anthocyanin, a pigment that produces various shades of red. Conversely, if autumn daytime temperatures are too warm for a relatively long period, the colors may be less intense, and foliage season may extend later into the fall. Different tree species produce varied hues of foliage—from the brilliant reds of certain maple varieties, to the golden yellow of aspen and poplar, to the drab brown of an elm.
Before setting out on a fall photo excursion, photographer Bryan Carnathan recommends consulting a foliage map, which is easily searchable online, based on your desired location. “Knowing when and where to go is a key to capturing great fall foliage images,” he explains. “The right trees must be present, and they need to be the right color to maximize your opportunities. Fortunately, while peak foliage times change slightly from year to year, not all trees reach peak color at the same time, meaning that you should be able to find good subjects, even if you miss the perfect timing for a selected location.”
Carnathan points out that locations known for early color are usually consistent from year to year, leading him to suggest, “Maximize your season by migrating with the color. I often plan a fall photo trip to one of the early-color locations, staying closer to home during later-arriving fall color.”
California-based G. Dan Mitchell notes that the color season can last months in California’s Eastern Sierra, given the large variations in elevation, precipitation, range of north/south latitude, and other factors. He explains, “When color is absent in one location, it may be great not far away. In the Eastern Sierra, this often means going to a higher or lower elevation. While aspens can start changing color at higher elevations in the second half of September, some trees at lower elevations may be colorful a full month later.”
Author of the 2015 book, California’s Fall Color: A Photographer’s Guide to Autumn in the Sierra, Mitchell notes that the Sierra offers a range of fall foliage opportunities far greater than many people realize.
“The east side of the range is full of aspen color during the first half of October or so,” he says. “Just cross the range on any trans-Sierra highway or head up and down US 395 on the east side to find it. As the season progresses, the color works its way to lower elevations, with beautiful cottonwood color by the middle of the month. By the end of October and early November, the color takes off on the west side of the range, when locations such as Yosemite Valley can be spectacular.”
Wildlife and landscape photographer Moose Peterson also frequents the Eastern Sierra in the fall, since it is effectively his own backyard. His favorite setting is late in the afternoon and with fresh snow on the ground. “That's the real challenge,” he says. “Such a challenge that I still don't have that photo for the east side.” For successful shots, Peterson advises, “Get in close rather than farther away, and saturate the colors with exposure, and not a slider in post.”
Study the Light
According to Alaska-based outdoor shooter Dan Bailey, “Every location has its own unique look: Western Regions have yellow aspens, the east coast has the oranges and red sugar maples, and the southeast has a brilliant mix of colors too.”
Bailey recently spent time photographing in northern Minnesota and was blown away by the amazing colors there. “They’ve got such a wide range of trees, and the weather had been ideal for fall foliage displays, so it was a real treat for me to photograph up there,” he notes.
Regardless of the locale, a key piece of advice he offers is, “Pay attention to the light. Learn how to use the light to your advantage, based on the specific factors of your scene and location. Any type of light and weather can make for great photographs, as long as you understand how to make the most of the conditions,” he explains. “If you’ve got good light and clear skies, then early morning and late afternoon are usually the best times to get the most brilliant light. However, overcast light can work well if you’re shooting inside a deep forest, especially during midday, when there can otherwise be a lot of contrast.”
Adds Mitchell, “The direction of the light also makes a huge difference. Front-lit aspens can be somewhat drab, but if you move around so that they are side-lit or back-lit, the colors can glow.”
Carnathan recommends, “Arrive well before sunrise and stay well after sunset to ensure the best part of the day is not missed. Sunrise and sunset situations can offer great lighting and sky color, while the shorter daylight hours of fall make it possible to be out both early and late, while still getting an adequate amount of sleep.”
Colorado-based Matt Payne likes to take advantage of a cloudy day to bring out the most in his fall foliage scenes. “Especially in the late afternoon, this can help create diffused lighting and really make the colors pop,” he says. “And, if you are lucky, clouds can aid in making for a beautiful sunset!”
Yet Payne’s most insightful tip involves situations when the light or conditions are not perfect. “Don't be afraid to get creative,” he counsels. “Some of my favorite photographs were taken because I was forced to look for something else to shoot, due to less than ideal conditions.”
Mother nature is unpredictable, and Payne counts changing weather as among the most difficult challenges to heed. “Just recently, I was photographing fall colors in a remote area in Colorado and was faced with a rare lightning storm, which pushed me off a high ridge,” he recounts. “The very next day I woke up to 3 inches of snow on my tent, and then I had car trouble. The conditions can change rapidly and you must be prepared for all types.”
Mitchell points out, “Because Sierra Nevada weather transitions away from summer and toward winter during aspen color season, photographers should keep an eye on the conditions. When the wintery weather comes in, be cautious and aware of your level of skill and knowledge. Snow can produce beautiful photography conditions during aspen season, but unprepared photographers may be cold and might even get stranded.”
On a more positive note, Carnathan says, “Weather that the general population may deem as poor, also means that the crowds stay home.” Such conditions also eliminate harsh shadows, in favor of lighting that remains consistent all day long.
“The soft, often-dim lighting provided by gray, overcast skies is perfect for intimate scenes, including those with flowing water,” Carnathan notes. “When it is wet outside, some of the landscape—including some tree trunks—becomes very dark, making brightly-colored leaves stand out dramatically from the surroundings.”
This is a perfect opportunity to pop a circular polarizer onto your lens to further enhance the color saturation of wet foliage, rocks, and other subjects.
Foliage as a Backdrop
Ohio-based wedding and portrait photographer Chad DiBlasio loves to include foliage and fall color as “accents” surrounding his portrait subjects. “I have the privilege of living near the Appalachian foothills, so we have a lot of trees and fields and water sources,” he says. “I can drive 10 minutes in any direction to find serene settings full of leaves.” Among his favorite go-to locations are several parks and a large arboretum close to his home, “with a large variety of different trees and colors that I adore,” he says.
Since his primary subject is people rather than simply landscape, DiBlasio suggests, “Try to involve the ‘story’ with the colors. People love foliage photos for the raw beauty of nature, but there is always some ‘life’ that we can include in our photos, especially when incorporating portraiture. I love talking with clients about what is happening in their world that can be reflected in the photography in addition to capturing the colors,” he explains. “I think this gives so much more depth to images.”
During this time of year, DiBlasio prefers early morning shoots, as the sun is coming up. “The changing weather makes for foggy mornings which gives scenes a stoic, reflective moodiness,” he notes. “I think these conditions really reflect how I feel during the fall.”
Process and Technique
DiBlasio likes to keep to his ISO in a low range, between 100 and 400, and he often uses a longer lens to emphasize the compression between his subjects and beautiful color in the background or foreground. “With my preferred style, I also like to use lower f-stops of 1.4 to 2.8 to reflect how we ‘see’ typically with our eyes,” he notes.
Bailey usually shoots in Aperture Priority mode, using the EV +/- dial to fine tune his exposures. “If I’m shooting a grand landscape, I’ll use a wide depth of field,” he says. “Other times, I’ll use a shallow depth of field to accentuate a specific, and often closer, element within the greater scene.”
For grand scenic shots, Payne prefers an aperture of between f/9 and f/13 at ISO 100, but for more intimate scenes, a shallow depth of field at around f/4 can really accentuate a subject such as a single leaf or a tree that looks fantastic.
Carnathan most often works at ISO 100 for the lowest possible noise levels. “If the light is not changing rapidly, you will probably find my cameras in full manual mode,” he says. Using shutter speed as his primary variable for exposure adjustments, he points out, “When photographing from a tripod, I often use the camera’s self-timer combined with mirror lockup to initiate the shutter release, most often choosing f/8 or f/11 for my aperture if I want the entire scene in focus.”
Mitchell virtually always works from a tripod. “This provides a lot of important benefits,” he says. “Camera stability is one of them, but that’s not all. With the camera set on a tripod, I can more easily control my compositions and ensure that they are just right. I can also use longer exposures, which allows for smaller apertures and a lower ISO. I also like to use longer lenses for a lot of my fall photography,” he adds. “This lets me tighten up my compositions, to exclude material that might distract.”
Exposure Tip: Pay Attention to Contrast and Watch Your Reds
Bailey recommends paying attention to your contrast levels. “The most brilliant light often makes the best fall photos, but it can also create challenges for creating a good exposure,” he explains.
Mitchell points to a common problem that photographers face when shooting autumn foliage with digital cameras—blowing out the red channel, especially in sunlight. He explains, “The red and yellow colors may be brighter than you realize, and your automatic exposure system—which averages all the colors—may overexpose for these colors.” For shots that count, he advises, “stop down 1/3 to 2/3rd of a stop, and you’ll likely have better detail in those brilliantly colorful areas of the image.”
Photo Gear Preferences
The photographers we spoke with use a variety of gear—representing both DSLR and mirrorless systems.
“Frankly, you can make great autumn color photographs with whatever gear best fits your vision and your budget,” says Mitchell. “I’ve seen beautiful autumn color photographs made with smartphones and point-and-shoot cameras. More ‘serious’ photographers make great work with cameras from all the well-known manufacturers: Canon, FUJIFILM, Nikon, Olympus, Pentax, Sony, and more.”
Mitchell owns DSLR and mirrorless systems but, “When photographing fall color, I use the full-frame system most often, since my target output is large, high-quality prints,” he explains. His camera of choice is the 50MP+ Canon 5DsR, which he pairs with a wide range of zoom lenses, sometimes even augmenting his reach with teleconverters.
“Today’s zoom lenses can produce extremely high-resolution images, and they allow me to precisely crop in-camera, thus maintaining the full resolution of the original shot with little or no cropping in post,” notes Mitchell. His favorite focal lengths, in order of frequency of use, are the Canon 70-200mm, 24-70mm, 100-400mm, and the 16-35mm. Additionally, he sometimes carries a 26MP FUJIFILM XPro3 mirrorless with a couple of zoom lenses, “as a lighter alternative to the full-on system when I want or need to minimize bulk and weight—for example, when backpacking,” he says.
Bailey shoots with a FUJIFILM X-T3 mirrorless using prime lenses. “For landscape lenses, I often go with a trio of primes that cover my wide, middle and telephoto range,” he says. “On my most recent trip to northern Minnesota, I carried the FUJIFILM XF18 f/2, XF35mm f/2 and the XF50mm f/2. The XF90mm f/2 is another favorite lens, and I’ll even use the XF100-400 f/4.5-5.6 to capture distant landscapes and isolate specific parts of my scene.”
Payne, who also shoots mirrorless, likes the Sony a7R IV, due to its light weight and high megapixel count. “I do a lot of backpacking and hiking for my photography, so minimizing my weight is important,” he says.
He pairs the camera with a versatile telephoto, such as the Sony FE 100-400 lens. “It offers a great range of focal lengths for the shots I tend to take,” says Payne. Yet, for bigger scenes or more creative wide-angle views, he uses the Zeiss Loxia 21mm lens, noting, “I am in love with the sunstars this lens creates! I also use the Sony 24-105mm f/4, the Sony 55 mm f/1.8, or the Sigma Art 14-24mm f/2.8,” he adds. “But, the number of lenses I use generally depends on whether I'm doing a long backpacking trip or if I'm shooting close to my car.”
When he’s out in the field for an extended time, Payne also carries an Anker PowerCore battery pack, which can give his camera battery a boost even while he’s shooting. He notes, “This pack has enough power to run my camera for weeks at a time." Lastly, “A nice tripod is essential for stability,” says Payne. “I use a lightweight carbon fiber Feisol Tournament 3442. I find it to be a nice combination of lightweight and stable.”
Carnathan, also a Canon shooter, usually carries two Canon EOS R5 bodies. His lens choices include the Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8 L IS USM, Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8 L IS USM or Canon RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1 L IS USM telephoto.
To reduce reflection and glare, he frequently covers his lenses with a B+W XS-Pro HTC Kaesemann MRC Nano filter. For stabilization, he uses a Really Right Stuff TVC-24L Tripod with a Really Right Stuff BH-40 Ball Head. Finally, to carry it all, he uses a MindShift Gear BackLight 26L Backpack.
DiBlasio’s primary camera is the Canon 5D Mark IV, which he uses with one of three lenses: the Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L, 100mm f/2.8L, or 35mm f/2. “To stop-down the sky brightness while preserving the color/brightness of the foliage and landscape when shooting I’ve used 3-9 stop Neutral Density filters from Tiffen, as well as graduated, slide-in type filters from Lee,” says DiBlasio. “And to stay ultra-portable while out hiking around with clients or on my own, I carry a HoldFast Gear Moneymaker 2-Camera Harness, along with a Sightseer Lens Bag.”
Peterson, a Nikon Ambassador, is now shooting with the Nikon D850. “As for lenses, more than likely, I’ll use the Nikkor 24-70 f/2.8E EDVR lens, with the occasional use of the Nikkor 14-24 mm f/2.8 G ED lens or the 105mm f/1.4 E ED lens.
According to Payne, half the fun of shooting fall foliage is the exploration and research involved to get a shot that is meaningful and personally fulfilling. “A few minutes on Google Earth can reveal some very interesting locations that provide a unique vantage few others have seen or photographed,” he says. “I encourage photographers to stop being lazy, stop following the crowds, and get out and explore! Work for your images and be patient,” he adds. “You may need to stay at a location for several days to capture a scene in the best light possible.”
Mitchell advises foliage photographers, “Get up early and stay out late! While it isn’t impossible to make interesting photographs of fall color in the middle of the day, many of the most spectacular opportunities come at—or before—dawn and then again late in the day.”
Peterson recommends backlighting scenes, using a polarizer or underexposing to make colors pop.
Carnathan suggests capturing fall color with a telephoto lens. “Keep in mind that heat waves can cause distant details to become blurry on a sunny day, so use telephoto focal lengths early or late if photographing distant trees under these conditions,” he notes. “Or, use a telephoto (or a macro lens) at a short distance to isolate interesting leaves from a blurred background.”
DiBlasio advocates: “Don't miss the forest for the trees. Meaning, don't miss the beauty and serenity that comes with being out in nature by becoming solely focused on the photograph and technicalities.”
And finally, Bailey proposes, “Don’t try to show too much, you don’t have to give your viewer everything. Abbreviate; a little bit here and there can go a long way towards creating powerful visual impact. Don’t just get tunnel vision for the beauty of the colors. Color can add a tremendous amount of interest, but it usually won’t make the shot great by itself, unless you show it in a really special way.”
For more articles on photographing in the great outdoors and in autumn, click on the following link to go to our Fall Foliage Landing Page.
Do you have any fall foliage photo tips to share? If so, please add your voice to the Comments section, below.