Fall Color Photography Tips

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Yin and Yang, Bridalveil Creek, Yosemite

Autumn Yin and Yang, Bridalveil Creek, Yosemite
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II
Canon 70-200 f/4 L
10 seconds
F/13
ISO 100


This is the second of my two-part fall color series

Read part one: The Why, How, and When of Fall Color


Vivid color and crisp reflections make autumn my favorite season for creative photography. While most landscape scenes require showing up at the right time and hoping for the sun and clouds to cooperate, photographing fall color can be as simple as circling your subject until the light’s right. For photographers armed with an understanding of light and visual  relationships, and the ability to control exposure, depth, and motion with their camera’s exposure variables, fall color possibilities are virtually unlimited.

Backlight, backlight, backlight

The difference between the front-lit and backlit sides of fall foliage is the difference between dull and vivid color. Glare and reflection make the side of a leaf facing its light source, whether that leaf is in direct sunlight or simply faces an overcast sky, appears flat. But the other side of the same leaf, the side that’s opposite the light from the sun or sky, glows with color.

In the image below (Autumn Reflection, Merced River, Yosemite), my camera has captured the sky-facing side of most of the leaves. But I’ve captured the underside of the leaves on the top-right of the branch—even though it’s an overcast day, can you see how these backlit leaves glow compared to the others?

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Reflection, Merced River, Yosemite

Autumn Reflection, Merced River, Yosemite

The moral of this story? If you ever find yourself disappointed that the fall color seems washed out, check the other side of the tree.

Isolate elements for a more intimate fall color image

Big fall color scenes are great, but isolating your subject with a telephoto, and/or by moving closer, enables you to highlight and emphasize specific elements and relationships.

  • Train your eye to find leaves, groups of leaves, or branches that stand alone from the rest of the tree or scene, or that stand out against a contrasting background.
  • Zoom close, using the edges of the frame to eliminate distractions and frame subjects.
  • Don’t concentrate so much on your primary subject that you miss complementary background or foreground elements that can balance the frame and provide an appealing canvas for your primary subject.

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Selective depth of field is a great way to emphasize/deemphasize elements in a scene

Limiting depth of field by composing close with a large aperture and/or telephoto lens can soften a potentially distracting background into a complementary canvas of color and shape. Parallel tree trunks, other colorful leaves, and reflective water make particularly effective soft background subjects. For an extremely soft background, reduce your depth of field further by adding an extension tube to focus even closer.

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Underexpose sunlit leaves to maximize color

Contrary to what many believe, fall foliage in bright sunlight is still photographable if you isolate backlit leaves against a darker background and slightly underexpose them. The key here is making sure the foliage is the brightest thing in the frame, and to avoid including bright sky in the frame. Photographing sunlit leaves, especially with a large aperture to limit DOF, has the added advantage of an extremely fast shutter speed that will freeze wind-blown foliage.

Slightly underexposing brightly lit leaves not only emphasizes their color, it turns everything that’s in shade to a dark background. And if your depth of field is narrow enough, points of light sneaking between the leaves and branches to reach your camera will blur to glowing jewels.

A sunstar is a great way to liven up an image in extreme light

If you’re going to be shooting backlit leaves, you’ll often find yourself fighting the sun. Rather than trying to overcome it, turn the sun into an ally by hiding it behind a tree. A small aperture (f16 or smaller is my general rule) with a small sliver of the sun’s disk visible creates a brilliant sunstar that becomes the focal-point of your scene. Unlike photographing a sunstar on the horizon, hiding the sun behind a terrestrial object like a tree or rock enables you to move with the sun.

When you get a composition you like, try several frames, varying the amount of sun visible in each. The smaller the sliver of sun, the more delicate the sunstar; the more sun you include, the more bold the sunstar. You’ll also find that different lenses render sunstars differently, so experiment to see which lenses and apertures work best for you.

Motion blur

When photographing in overcast or shade, it’s virtually impossible to freeze the motion of rapid water at any kind of reasonable ISO. Rather than fight it, use this opportunity to add silky water to your fall color scenes. There’s no magic shutter speed for blurring water—in addition to the shutter speed, the amount of blur will depend on the speed of the water, your distance from the water, your focal length, and your angle of view relative to the water’s motion.

All blurs aren’t created equal. When you find a composition you like, don’t stop with one click. Experiment with different shutter speeds by varying the ISO (or aperture as long as you don’t compromise the desired depth of field).

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Reflections make fantastic complements to any fall color scene

By autumn, rivers and streams that rushed over rocks in spring and summer, meander at a leisurely, reflective pace. Adding a reflection to your autumn scene can double the color, and also add a sense of tranquility. The recipe for a reflection is still water, sunlit reflection subjects, and shaded reflective surface.

When photographing leaves floating atop a reflection, it’s important to know that the focus point for the reflection is the focus point of the reflective subject, not the reflective surface. This is seems counterintuitive, but try it yourself—focus on the leaves with a wide aperture and watch the reflection go soft; then focus on the reflection and watch the leaves go soft.

A wide focal length often provides sharpness from the nearby leaves to the infinite reflection, but sometimes achieving sharpness in your floating leaves and the reflection requires careful hyperfocal focus. And sometimes the necessary depth of field exceeds the camera’s ability to capture it—in this case, I almost always bias my focus toward the leaves and let the reflection go a little soft.

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Don’t forget the polarizer

I can’t imagine photographing fall color without a polarizer. Fall foliage has a reflective sheen that dulls its natural color, so a properly oriented polarizer can erase that sheen and bring the underlying natural color into prominence. Not are reflections on the foliage a problem, reflections on nearby water and rocks can pull the eye and distract from your primary subject.

To minimize the scene’s reflection, slowly turn the polarizer until the scene is darkest (the more you try this, the easier it will be to see). If you have a hard time seeing the difference, concentrate your gaze on a single leaf, rock, or wet surface.

Fallen Color, Rock Creek Canyon, Eastern Sierra

A polarizer isn’t an all-on or all-off proposition. When photographing a scene with still water, it’s often possible to maximize a reflection in the water without dialing up the reflection on the leaves. To achieve this, dial the polarizer’s ring and watch the reflection change until you achieve the effect you desire. This technique is particularly effective when you want your reflection to share the frame with submerged feature such as rocks, leaves, and grass. In the image below, I turned my polarizer just enough to reveal the nearby submerged rocks without removing the mountain a trees reflection.

Morning Reflection, North Lake, Eastern Sierra

Nothing communicates the change of seasons like fall color with snow

Don’t think the first snow means your fall photography is finished for the year. Hardy autumn leaves often cling to branches, and even retain their color on the ground through the first few storms of winter. An early snowfall is an opportunity to catch fall leaves etched in white, an opportunity not to be missed. And even after the snow has been falling for a while, it’s possible to find a colorful rogue leaf to accent an otherwise stark winter scene.

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About this image

Gary Hart Photography: Autumn Yin and Yang, Bridalveil Creek, Yosemite

Autumn Yin and Yang, Bridalveil Creek, Yosemite

People sometimes accuse me of adding or positioning leaves in my frame. Those who know me know I don’t do that, but that doesn’t protect me from their (good natured) abuse. For those who don’t know me and who don’t believe I found this leaf like that, I don’t really know what to say, except to explain that the joy I get from photography comes from discovering natural beauty, and a manufactured scene that isn’t natural has zero appeal to me. (I think this is also why I don’t do composites.) I don’t think it’s wrong to place elements in a frame (or to blend multiple images), as long as it’s done honestly—it’s just not something that interests me. But anyway…

I don’t really understand why people think it’s so unusual to find a leaf (or two, or three…) isolated from its surroundings. I aggressively look for small scenes like this, so it should be no surprise that I have a lot of them in my portfolio. While the position of the leaves in my images is randomly determined by nature (or maybe by the unscrupulous photographer who preceded me at the scene), there’s nothing random about my position when I capture these scenes.

Probably my favorite place to photograph isolated leaves is Bridalveil Creek, just beneath Bridalveil Fall in Yosemite. The entire area is decorated with an assortment of deciduous trees that deposit their leaves liberally among the rocks and cascades each fall. And unlike Yosemite’s other waterfalls, Bridalveil Fall runs year-round. Even in autumn, when it’s often barely more than a trickle, there’s enough water to cascade, splash, and pool among the rocks.

Another great thing about Bridalveil Creek is that its location just beneath Cathedral Rocks and Leaning Tower means it gets very little direct sunlight in autumn.  So even when the sun’s out, I can spend hours photographing here in the full shade that’s ideal for this type of photography.

On this cloudy October morning I was doing my usual thing, bounding about on the rocks upstream from the trail looking for single leaves to isolate in my frame. My of the cascades here are active enough to splash and wet the rocks, so when a descending leaf hits a wet rock just right, it sticks like glue. I didn’t see this leaf land and stick, but I’ve seen it happen enough to know this isn’t that unusual.

This cascade was about 20 feet away, above a pool that was deeper than I wanted to wade, so I went to my 70-200 lens. I spent a little time casually working this scene, circling, framing it from a variety of positions using different focal lengths. But when I got to this spot and saw the smooth curves and dark flowing into light, my mind immediately went to the Yin and Yang symbol (okay, so maybe you need use your imagination a bit). I dropped down a bit and refined my composition, then started working on the exposure.

Not only was this spot in full shade, the morning was overcast. With my polarizer on to cut the sheen on the rocks and leaves, I knew that slowing the water enough to capture any detail was virtually impossible, so I went all-in on the motion blur and just turned the water a homogenous white. It turns out this decision actually enhanced the yin/yang effect I was going for.

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To better understand the science and timing of fall color, read

The Why, How, and When of Fall Color



A Gallery of Fall Color

Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.

:: More photography tips ::

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