September 16, 2020

It’s that time of the year again. The temps are cooling down, the days are getting shorter and pumpkin spice everything can be found everywhere you look. Autumn is undoubtedly one of the more beautiful seasons to photograph (second only to winter, of course) but it doesn’t come without its challenges. One of the biggest challenges is simply timing. Sure, the season itself lasts for a few months but if you’re looking to capture that million-dollar image, you only have about a week to do so when the autumn colours are in full peak. 

If you haven’t started planning, now’s the time. It may seem like you have plenty of time to prepare but it will be here before you know it. Trust us, we’ve been there before and our procrastination has led to us missing this fleeting time of year. Here are our top photo tips for Fall.

1. Scout your location ahead of time

As photographers, we all know how quickly the golden hour comes and goes. While it’s a beautiful time of day, it’s so hectic and chaotic for us photographers who only have a finite amount of time to capture the shot we want. Unfortunately, the sun isn’t going to slow down for anyone so if you’re heading out for an autumn shoot, it will pay to have some scouting ahead of time.

If you can, go to the physical location where you want to shoot to get an understanding of the layout and landscape. You don’t need to bring any fancy equipment with you, just your phone will do to grab some quick snaps to jog your memory when you’re back home. Look for compositions that follow the classic rules of photography (leading lines and rule of thirds will serve you well!) When you get back to your home, refer to your phone images to help you plan out your exact locations and compositions.

autumn colors with a road chad-madden-
Photo by Chad Madden.

2. Plan around the lighting

As most photographers will tell you, often bluebird days with plenty of sun are actually some of the worst conditions to shoot in and this is also the case when it comes to autumn foliage photography. Bright, direct light will wash out the intensity of the leaves and leave you with a lot of light glare. 

If you do end up shooting on a bright sunny day, you’ll want to be specific about choosing to shoot during the golden hours when the sun is lower and the light is less intense. Ideally, autumn foliage photography is best in overcast days. The grey skies help make the colour of the leaves pop and will leave you with some stunning images.  

Autumn trees caleb-riston

Photo by Caleb Riston

3. Get a polarising filter

Speaking of glare, if you’re planning ahead to get an epic autumn shot, it’s a good idea to invest in a polarising filter if you don’t already have one. A polarising filter will be great to achieve creamy, milky smooth waterways if you’re shooting a composition with a waterfall or a stream but it will also help reduce the glare of the light bouncing off the leaves. Polarising filters increase the saturation and intensity of the leaves giving your shot a lasting impact. 

Autumn colours with a stream Dawid Zawiła
Photo by  Dawid Zawiła 

4. Use apps and the internet to time it perfectly

We are lucky to be living in an age of technology where pretty much any information you want is available at your fingertips. You can use this to your advantage when shooting the autumn colours by perfectly planning out your location, lighting and temperature. Here are just a few things to check out before you go out and shoot:

Google Earth is a great resource to help plan your shoot from above. You’ll get an idea of where to trees are and may even be able to discern what type of tree you’ll be shooting. 

Weather: This one is pretty self-explanatory but it can often get forgotten during the frenzy of trip planning. Be sure to check the forecast before you head out as the weather is always changing. We like YR for accurate weather reports.

Peak colour times: In some places, leaves will be changing their colour for an entire month but they’ll only be one or two weeks when the leaves reach their peak colour and this time period is always changing depending on several factors including the moisture from the summer, elevation and the temperatures. To figure out a good time to plan your autumn shoot, do a quick google search for your area and the predicted peak colour time. Here’s a good resource for the USA but each country will have a different peak colour week. 

PhotoPills: PhotoPills is a great resource for any landscape photographer and is fantastic year-round. PhotoPills will tell you exactly where your light sources will be at a particular time in the day and will also help you calculate exposures, depth of field, and compute the parameters need for time-lapse sequences. This app is a must-have for the well-planned photographer.

cabin reflection in autum vincentiu-solomon
Photo by Vincentiu Solomon

5. Try a few different types of Autumn Photography

Yes, of course, leaves and trees are always going to be high on the list for Autumn Photography but challenge yourself to scout locations that will offer other interesting elements to your photos. To help keep you focused, set out four or five different types of shots you want to capture and plan ahead to get your perfect image.

Here are a few autumn photograph ideas: 

  • Woodland
  • Intimate landscape
  • Wide-angle landscape
  • A water source such as a creek or waterfall
  • Macro shot
  • Arial photography (great if you have access to a drone or really like hiking tall mountains)

arial photo of autumn trees aaron burden
Photo by Aaron Burden.

6. Killer composition is still the king

You can do all the planning you want but at the end of the day, no amount of planning will be able to fix a poorly composed photo. When shooting autumn foliage, there are a few things to think about when composing your photo.

First, find the leading lines. Even in a sweeping vista shot, you’ll still want to tell the viewer where to look and a great way to do that is with leading lines. A leaf-covered path, a tunnel of trees, stark shadow lines. A killer composition is all bout the lines and how you use them to make an impactful image. 

 Rule of Thirds: Another great classic composition trick is the rule of thirds but like any rule, this is often meant to be broken. Having your subject off-centre using the rule of thirds can produce some great images but there are plenty of fantastic shots that don’t follow this rule and it still works. Use your judgement and creative liberty but when it down, follow the rule of thirds. 

Symmetry: Intense Autumn colours often lend themselves to stunning reflection and symmetry shots. Try finding a still body of water with a row of colourful trees for perfect reflection. 

Depth of field: Having a bit of foreground will help add depth to your photo and will make an otherwise flat photo ‘pop.’ Try to incorporate an interesting foreground if you can. 

Spatial awareness: Too many photographers go out for a shoot in the autumn foliage only to come back with a hodgepodge of photos with chaotic woodland scenes. If you’re shooting autumn woodlands, try to isolate a singular tree to bring the focus to. Alternatively, you can photograph a group of trees but be aware of their spacing. Try to find a spot where the trees have some space between them instead of being all bunched and cluttered. 

photo of cabin reflection during autumn jos-zwaaPhoto by Jos Zwaa

Autumn can be one of the most beautiful seasons to photograph and with a little bit of planning and forethought any photographer can walk away with a stunning image. Go check out your peak autumn colours now and don’t forget to tag us in your autumn shots! 

Best Camera Settings for Fall Foliage 

General Landscape:
ISO 100
Shutter speed: depends on how much natural light is in the scene. For handheld photography, the minimum shutter speed you want is 1/50 seconds. 

f/1.4 or f/2
ISO 100 or low
Shutter speed: at least 1/125 depending on what you’re shooting. Animals like a flying bird will need a faster shutter speed for maximum sharpness compared to an idle fox. 

Autumn Portrait:
f/1.4 or f/2
ISO 100 or low depending on the light
Shutter speed of at least 1/125

Autumn night photography:
f/1.4 or f/2
ISO for new moon conditions: 1600 to 6400
ISO for full moon conditions: 400 - 800
Shutter speed: 2 - 10 seconds
*Remember you’ll need a tripod for long exposures 

Moving water:
f/8 - f/11
ISO: as needed depending on the light. Try to keep it low.
Shutter Speed: 1/15 or slower
*Remember you'll need a tripod for a slow shutter speed

autumn photography settings


Cover image by Aaron Burden.

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