Photographing Autumn's Glory

Tips and Tricks to Help Capture Fall Colors!

If you’re a Landscape photographer, chances are you’ve felt the grip of autumn closing in. A longing to photograph fall colors as if nature was calling to you, takes over. Somewhere, somehow, you’re going to find some colorful stuff to shoot, real soon.

Although the Autumn season is stunningly beautiful, it can sometimes be tricky. Whether be it the hardwood varietals of the Northeast, the cypress trees of the southern swamplands, the curvaceous cottonwoods and Aspens of the west, or the vibrant Lengas Trees of South America, there are shimmery golden colors to behold somewhere.

Here are a few tips for photographing fall colors along with some introspective ideas to help you on your Autumn Photography adventures.

Harnessing Light and Color

To harness really vibrant and colorful scenes, not only will you have to consider dynamic range, in terms of light, you’ll have to consider checking RGB channels as well. All too often photographers forget that all of the light and color being displayed on the back of the camera, regardless of the subject matter, is composed of 3 colors – or rather a combination of those 3 colors.

The scene will ultimately dictate what that combination is within each pixel. This is why red, green and blue appear in your camera’s histogram and your processing software of choice. In autumn scenes, the warm tones of yellow, green, reds, oranges and even magentas can overwhelm the scene with red. In turn, that red channel can, and likely will, clip in dynamic situations!

With that being said, minding the color channels is not as vital as the range of luminosity in the scene, therefor, protecting highlights should still be top priority. In many cases, when attempting to capture dramatic light, autumn foliage, and other landscape elements, the dynamic range of the scene will simply exceed both the luminosity and color capturing capabilities of your cameras sensor. Although these sensors have improved dramatically, they are just no match for Mother Nature’s intensity.

So, what should you do?

Bracket at least a couple of stops; perhaps one frame for the landscape and one or more to recover the overexposed colors and light. This can help harness that intensity but will require exposure blending to render the scene to its full potential. The image blending technique you will use is up to you – and there are many methods out there – but the methods used in these tutorials will definitely help!

Below is an example of  ‘clipped’ Highlights and a ‘clipped’ Red Channel 

Thinking Differently

The autumn season has always challenged me to think differently and I find that it is during this time that I make images that are different than I might normally capture – more intimate and of different subject matter.

It’s also more common for me to look down more and shoot more throughout the day in more difficult lighting situations, not just sunrise or sunset. The harvest season usually brings with it some rainy, wet weather which can also make things challenging. Cold, wet, and dreary aren’t always the conditions we love to be in, but there is always something to shoot, especially if you look hard enough!

This same weather though, can create incredible atmospheric conditions by way of fog, or even cloud inversion which opens the door to an infinite amount of compositional opportunities.

To the right are two examples of how a rainy, dreary day and a little bit of brain power resulted in stunning images of a very simple scene.

Even in harsh mid day sun you can find patches of shade, like in these images.

To the left, using a long telephoto lens I was able to hone in on a very small section of a larger waterfall in Maine. The harsh light was creating a great rainbow effect through the mist highlighting the areas collecting the water as it tumbled down. A scene that I would’ve walked by any other time without noticing the small scenes beauty.

Below is an ordinary stream in Pennsylvania  that comes to life with backlit trees and a low, wide angle!

Fall in the Southwest

Growing up in the Northeastern U.S. in the Finger Lakes region of New York, my autumn season was full of waterfalls and a cornucopia of colors due to the wide variety of hardwoods like Maple, Ash, Birch, Big tooth Aspens, Oaks, and a few others, turning from green to red and everything in between in a scattered display of awesomeness covering the rolling hills and valleys.

I loved spending all my free time outdoors hiking and fishing and only wish I knew more about photography then. Now, in the southwest in eastern Utah, I get a different kind of fall; different trees and colors with a little bit different weather and little later in the year.

The Cottonwoods reign supreme here and in other desert states, but small areas of other tree species can be found in the mountainous regions. Colorado, my future home, is very mountainous and boasts a great variety of trees, but Aspens are the most common. Colorado has also been a Mecca for landscape photographers hoping to capture these stunning aspens backdropped by any of the seemingly infinite number of snow capped mountain peaks that make Colorado so incredible.

Look at the BIG picture; thinking differently again…

As much as I enjoy the small, intimate scenes of fall, nothing beats a big, mountainous scene complete with snow capped peaks and colorful flora. You might immediately think about grabbing your wide angle lens with this sight before you, but that might be a mistake.

Using a wide angle lens might not do those mountains justice because of things like distortion and magnification. Due to the lens’ wide nature, things that might appear large to our eyes are diminished substantially by the effects of “pin-hole” or “pin-cushion” distortion.

To achieve the ‘field-of-view’ you want to capture you might want to try taking a panoramic image with a longer focal length with the camera in portrait orientation. Taking panoramas require some thinking and, if done haphazardly, can result in some less than desirable results when it comes to ‘stitching’ all of the images together. Things like parallax and nodal points should be key points to research when venturing this way.

Perspective Blending

Another method of capturing the scene in a way that would do these mountains justice is referred to as ‘perspective blending‘. This is where you capture the scene with a wide angle lens, but cleverly take a second frame, zooming in with a tighter focal length on the distant features you wish to enlarge and blending them seamlessly in post processing; a technique I frequently cover in my video tutorials and workshops!

The image to the right was taken during an exploratory trip to Patagonia just outside of a small mountain town in Argentina at the foothills of Mount Fitz Roy in all of its autumn glory; though sadly the trees were ravaged by invasive beetles. To neatly fit in all of the elements of the scene I wanted, I had lost the majesty of Fitz Roy. In an effort to restore that triumphant stature I zoomed in to 24mm, 10mm more than the foreground and mid ground and captured another series of images to blend in not only the larger peak but correctly exposed sky. In photoshop I nvery carefully blended the images freehandedly through the distant ridge where the shapes and textures resembled each other for a seamless blend.

Filters, Filters, Filters!

One of the best things you can do to elevate your autumn photography is to simply screw on, or drop in, a circular polarizing filter. Its one of the few accessories I never leave home without – and talk more about in this article about filters. The ‘CPL’ reduces glare and reflection which deeply enriches the colors of foliage so you can see why they’re useful for autumn photography eh?

Circular Polarizers, along with the glare of foliage, cuts the glare on water too, like this image taken inside a massive slot canyon in Utah’s incredible Zion National Park with incredibly cold, blue water.

The CPL really enhanced the color I was able to capture not only in the water but the the tree ands canyon walls as well! This scene felt rich and inviting straight away. In some landscape scenes, like above, a soft, graduated ‘neutral density’ filter of 2-3 stops can help decrease the need for bracketing and blending exposures.

Get Wet

One of my favorite things any time of year is wading into the water to capture an image, in fact it’s been far too long as I write this. Being in the water gives you a unique perspective which can really pack a lot of effect into an image by giving your viewer a sense of immersion, actually feeling as though they’ve stepped into your world. This perspective can also give way to incredible reflections under the right circumstances like this image of the iconic Maroon Bells in Colorado at sunset in 2017. Although I wasn’t standing ‘in’ the water my camera was and contradictory to the last section, a CPL could and will hinder your reflections so be careful!

Of my fondest memories in photography, a majority were created during the months when seasons are changing. Of those, most were created during the change from summer to winter, a span of time that seems to last only days in some parts. When the deciduous trees lose their leaves in a glorious collision of decay, weather, and color, you know its time and nothing compares to the smell and taste of the autumnal air.

My last take away from the lessons in this article I’ll leave for you here: Enjoy your time in nature, for we are so lucky to have it. The future of our world is uncertain and we need to cherish what’s left. Our duty is to ensure that future generations will have a chance to see the world we knew, how we wanted them to see it whilst trying to save it.  

Therein lies the lesson; create a world you want to remember. Create like there’s no tomorrow and do it without apologizing for being you! Tread lightly and with purpose out there! Good luck and good light!

Want to Accelerate your Photography?

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Stay tuned! My next article “The Colors of Landscape Photography~ Color Theory in a Nutshell” is coming soon!