Of course, at a scientific level, color is light and light is color, so light is a critical component to photographing fall color, creatively and artistically. One of the primary guidelines of light applies equally to fall foliage, and that is early morning and late daylight will give you the best reproduction of the actual colors. Even though midday light is weaker during the fall, it is still too harsh, and will diminish the saturation of color in your images.
If you’re serious about capturing the best photos of fall colors, then you may discover that an overcast day will produce equally stunning images. Sunlight diffused through a thick layer of clouds will actually make colors pop because there are virtually no deep shadows or bright highlights, which tend to lessen the effect of the colors.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the palette of colors you find, which could lead to confusing images because the colors can actually fight each other. Give yourself some time to study the environment or scene you want to shoot and look for composition where the colors are complementary. Instead of a riot of color, juxtaposition reds against greenery or yellows against a neutral background.
Shooting fall foliage is a great opportunity to experiment with the whole range of focal lengths. Use a wide-angle focal length to create landscapes, with a patch of color in the foreground that complements the distant colors on a hillside or the mountains. Try a telephoto focal length to isolate specific leaves or small groups of leaves. If you have a macro lens (which can be easily rented for a reasonable amount), then you can move in very close to reveal textures and the vein patterns in leaves.
A polarizing filter is a must. Not only does it make the sky more blue, as a contrasting or complementary background to landscapes, but also helps to produce more saturated colors. If you happen to be shooting when it is bright and sunny, then the polarizer will help to reduce glare and reflections.
An enhancing element that will provide you with additional creative choices is a reflection off a body of water. This could include a tighter view of a single branch of leaves overhanging and reflected in a clear pool or a panoramic image of a hillside above a lake or a riverside of brightly colored trees.
If you’ve scheduled a fall foliage shoot early in the morning, then be alert for mist or even frost that are more likely to occur during an autumn morning. A river mist will add another element to a panorama or reflection shot and a single leaf tipped with frost makes for an excellent close-up study.
In almost any kind of photo, color can be a story-telling element, especially so during fall foliage. Vibrant colors in the foreground will draw viewers into your image, and then the repetition of those colors or complementary colors at different depths in the rest of the image will help their eyes to travel pleasantly throughout the entire image.
Another weather tip is to plan to shoot fall foliage immediately following rainfall. Wet leaves, as compared to dry leaves, create a completely different color presentation. Puddles become additional reflective elements and a single raindrop traveling down a leaf or falling from it gives your images an artistic value that is not available when they are dry.
The riot of fall color is also an opportunity to break a few of the rules, or, at the very least, to look carefully for images that are not the stock photos that so many photographers take.
Conversely, don’t let the excitement of such an amazing palette of color cause you to start snapping images uncontrollably in all directions. Think like a professional. Take a few deep breaths. Walk through the environment without taking any pictures just to discover in more detail what is available. Better yet, spend an entire day scouting for locations, positions and angles; take some notes and return the next day with much more developed ideas about what to photograph.
The fall months are a great time for photography, especially when the nights become longer, which triggers the reduction, and eventually stops the complete, production of chlorophyll in leaves. It gives leaves their green color during the growing season. As the chlorophyll is destroyed, two other types of pigments, carotenoids and anthocyanins, which are also present in the leaves, become dominant. Carotenoids produce yellow, orange and brown colors, while anthocyanins produced red and blue colors, such as found in cranberries, red apples, concord grapes, blueberries, cherries, strawberries and plums.
The length of the autumn nights and weather conditions are the other two factors, other than the amount of pigment in the leaves, which determine when colors are at their peak. This is slightly different every year, so you’ll want to access a fall foliage calendar or guide to know when is the best time to trek into the countryside with your camera. One such resource is http://www.gorp.com/fall-foliage/index-sp.html.
For fall 2012, it shows that by mid- to late October the peak season has passed for the most Northern U.S. states, such as Maine, northern Vermont and New Hampshire, most of New York; the upper Midwest states of Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan; and Western mountain states, such as Montana, Idaho, Utah and Colorado. During this period, the colors will at their peak in the Mid-Atlantic States, such as much of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia; the Southern states of the Carolinas, eastern Tennessee and northern Georgia; Ohio and Lower Michigan in the Midwest; the Ozarks of northern Arkansas; Kansas; and Northern California, northern Oregon and all of Washington State in the West.
With a little botanical understanding and an accurate fall foliage map, you’ll be ready to start exploring and capturing the magical colors and scenery of the season with the following tips.
Capturing the magically colors of the fall foliage can be one of your most enjoyable photography adventures if you do a bit of planning and pre-thinking about what you want to accomplish. Above all else, have fun doing it!
Photo copyright PhotographyTalk member Robert Chin
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