Updated September 9, 2020
Our complete guide to fall color photography breaks down the essential information you need to effectively photograph fall colors, including planning and scouting locations, the best camera settings for fall foliage, and post-processing tips to get the best color.
Fall is my favorite time of year to be a landscape photographer living in Vermont. As we enjoy the final days of summer and start preparing ourselves for the long winter ahead, the trees are doing seasonal preparations of their own. Each day, the forested hillsides change ever so slightly from the varied, vibrant green of summer to the spectacular color display of autumn. It’s hard not to love being a photographer this time of year.
This guide is divided into four sections listed below. Feel free to jump to the section(s) most relevant to you.
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Section 1: How to Plan for Fall Color Photography
The exact timing of fall foliage season changes slightly year to year. This is why even if you live in a popular fall foliage area as I do (Vermont), it is still important to understand how weather and location affect the color change so that you can best optimize your time in the field.
1.1 When is Fall Foliage Season?
The fall foliage season varies by location, but generally speaking, it starts in September and ends by early November in the Northern Hemisphere. As the temperature falls and daylight hours shorten, the green pigment, chlorophyll, slowly breaks down in the leaves. Without the green color, other leaf pigments become visible, such as oranges produced by carotenoids, yellows produced by xanthophyll, and reds produced by anthocyanins.
The color change depends on elevation and latitude, so the trees in northern areas and in the mountains will turn before the trees in southern areas and areas closer to sea level.
Peak foliage is the short period of time (anywhere from 3 days to 2 weeks) when the majority of trees have changed color before they have lost their leaves.
The peak of the fall color season is the window of time when most photographers (and tourists) try to capture the fall colors. However, because the exact timing of peak foliage depends on the local weather and what the previous seasons for that area were like, it can be hard to predict far in advance.
The good news is that the periods before and after peak foliage are also opportune times for stunning fall photography, so don’t fret if you just miss the peak time – you should still be able to come home with beautiful images using the guidelines, tips, and techniques below.
1.2 Popular U.S. Locations to Photograph Fall Colors
Different tree species reveal different leaf pigments in the fall, and so familiarizing yourself with the species of trees that grow in the area you would like to visit is helpful in knowing what to expect in terms of the range and type of fall colors you will likely photograph.
The following are some of the more common colorful trees of the fall and what colors they are expected to turn according to the U.S. Forest Service:
- Oaks: red, brown, or russet
- Hickories: golden bronze
- Aspen and Yellow Poplar: golden yellow
- Dogwood: purplish red
- Beech: light tan
- Sourwood and Black Tupelo: crimson
- Red Maple: brilliant scarlet
- Sugar Maple: orange-red
- Black Maple: glowing yellow
Some of the most popular locations for fall color photography in the U.S. include:
- Acadia National Park, Maine
- Adirondack Mountains, New York
- Berkshire Mountains, Massachusetts
- Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina and Virginia
- Green Mountains, Vermont
- Catskill Mountains, New York
- Columbia River Gorge, Oregon
- Glacier National Park, Montana
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina, and Tennessee
- Lake Superior, Minnesota
- Ozark Mountains, Arkansas, and Missouri
- San Juan Mountains, Colorado
- Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
- Upper Peninsula, Michigan
- White Mountains, New Hampshire
- Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
1.3 How to Forecast Fall Colors
Several factors affect the vibrancy and intensity of the colors each year, including:
- Current weather: Warm, sunny days followed by cool nights are the best conditions for great fall colors. Extended warm nights can result in muted colors that season. High winds or an early snowfall can make leaves drop prematurely.
- Previous seasons’ rainfall: Any droughts or extended dry spells during the previous spring and summer seasons can delay the development of leaf color in the fall.
- Elevation: Leaves at higher elevations will turn to their autumn color before leaves at lower elevations.
- Latitude: Leaves in the northern latitudes will also turn color before leaves at southern latitudes.
Taking all of these factors into consideration, how do we forecast fall colors to know when the best time is going to be for photography?
The best predictor and most reliable way of estimating when the peak foliage season will be is in-person reporting.
Many popular fall foliage states tourism boards have a fall color hotline or a fall color forecasting website that is updated daily with personal accounts of the changes happening regionally within that state.
Seriously, conditions do change that fast! For example here in Vermont, it is common to find pre-peak and post-peak conditions simultaneously within the same small region simply due to a change in elevation or a localized storm that blew the leaves off the trees. It’s best to keep an open mind and be flexible with your plans so that you can adjust accordingly.
Thankfully, a number of foliage forecaster websites exist to collect and communicate this type of daily reporting information. Here are a few that can help you plan your next trip:
1.4 Five Tips on Scouting Photography Locations
How to scout a location is one of the challenges of any type of outdoor photography. Here are five tips to help get you started.
First, just get an idea of what the state or region looks like in autumn and what sort of compositions you might expect to get there. Using a Google Image Search, Instagram, or 550px are all handy ways to formulate ideas. I would caution you not to get too wrapped up in trying to replicate a particular image you find, but rather, use these searches as informational tools to spark your own creativity and discovery.
Once you’ve decided on a location, how do you find compositions? One way to start is to use Google Earth. The 3-D view capability can help you get a sense of what a location looks like, where you might be able to set up your composition, how the light will fall on your subject, and so forth.
There are many apps that help you scout photography locations, but the one that I use the most and highly recommend is PhotoPills. Often referred to as the “Swiss Army knife” of photography apps, it does come with a heftier price tag of around $10 USD, but its value is more than well worth it. You can pretty much plan any type of photo anywhere in the world with PhotoPills.
The only downside is that PhotoPills takes a while to learn to navigate and understand all of its features. That is why I created a video series called, PhotoPills Fridays, where I teach you how to use the app in simple, actionable steps.
The series was so successful in helping people learn the app that I created a Season 2! You can see all of the videos over on our PhotoPill Friday video page or start with the first video below.
Another, less-techie, way that I like to scout locations is to use a DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer for the state or region I plan to visit. They are available for all 50 states and are large, detailed topographic maps that indicate elevation, major roads (including dirt roads and trails), points of interest, landmarks, natural areas, state and national parks, campgrounds, historic sites, and scenic drives. It is a wonderful, information-packed resource for finding both well-known and less-obvious landscapes or identifying the natural features of an area.
Lastly, if you have the time, it is often very helpful to add a day or two at your destination to scout different areas in person. You will get a much better sense of the light, the potential crowds, and what the obvious and less obvious compositions might be.
It is also helpful to talk to people in the area about favorite hikes or places to explore and to find out if you might need to get some last-minute gear, like fuel for a camping stove, bear repellent, or more layers because the weather forecast suddenly changed after you arrived.
1.5 Know Before You Go: Safety and Permits
Lastly, before you arrive at your chosen fall foliage location, be sure to familiarize yourself with any local requirements you may need to prepare for ahead of time. This is to ensure you have the best experience while also being respectful of nature and the impacts we can have on it as photographers.
This is one of our core values here at Outdoor Photography School as is outlined in the OPS Manifesto. Check it out and join us in this commitment!
Before you trek out, we recommend learning about:
- Seasonal weather and how rapidly it can change (be prepared with proper outdoor clothing)
- Any permit requirements for photography, camping, hiking, etc. (some might need to be reserved in advance)
- Any animal or plant species that are under threat in the area
- Local wildlife behavior (migration, mating, hibernation, signs of stress, etc.)
- Local hunting seasons (how to be safe and respectful of other people enjoying the outdoors)
- Any seasonal closings (parks, trails, roads, etc.)
Section 2: Best Camera Settings for Fall Foliage
Before we dive into camera settings, if you want to know what camera and outdoor gear I recommend for outdoor photography regardless of whether you are photographing fall foliage or not, be sure to check out our article, Gear You Need For Outdoor Photography. I go over camera gear, accessories, safety tips, and the outdoor gear you need to stay comfortable in different types of weather.
One camera accessory that think is very important for fall foliage photography is a circular polarizer because it helps enhance the colors a bit and cuts down on glare when used appropriately (see image comparison below). I currently use and recommend the circular polarizers from Breakthrough Photography.
2.1 Basic Camera Settings for Outdoor Photography
Fall foliage photography is really approached no differently than any other type of landscape or nature photography, but below are a few tips to keep in mind for optimal results.
The specific exposure settings you choose will depend on the present conditions, the composition, and what artistic effect you hope to achieve.
|Setting||Definition||How does it affect exposure?||What does it do besides change exposure?||What setting to use for landscapes?|
|Shutter Speed||Length of time the shutter is open||Faster shutter speeds let in less light than slower (longer) shutter speeds||Motion: fast shutter speeds freeze motion; slow shutter speeds blur motion||Adjust to achieve correct exposure after choosing aperture and ISO – unless you are prioritizing motion, then choose your shutter speed and ISO first|
|Aperture||The size of the opening of the iris of a lens||Wide apertures (low f/stop #) let in more light than narrow apertures (high f/stop #)||Depth of field (DOF): wide apertures = shallow DOF; narrow apertures = deep DOF||It’s typical to use deep DOF (f/8-f/16) for landscape shots|
|ISO||Amplification of light signal||Low ISO = less light; High ISO = more light||Noise: high ISO amplifies the light signal and thus increases noise too||Start at base ISO for your camera (usually ISO 100) and increase if needed to accommodate shutter speed and aperture choices|
2.2 Five Exposure Tips for Photographing Fall Colors
For deeper colors, more contrast, and a more dramatic feel, slightly underexpose the image without clipping the shadows. This is known as “expose to the left” (ETTL) because the histogram appears to shift to the left. It is easier to bring up the colors in post-processing without compromising contrast if you start from a slightly underexposed image.
For a lighter, ethereal or high-key feel, slightly overexpose the image without clipping the highlights. This is known as “expose to the right” (ETTR) because the histogram shifts to the right.
Prioritize depth of field by using Manual mode or Aperture Priority (Av or A) mode. The aperture or f-stop controls the depth of field, which you can use to help draw attention to your subject.
If you use Aperture Priority mode, you could then use exposure compensation to get your desired exposure effect.
Shoot in RAW format and set your white balance to Auto. With a RAW image, you can adjust the white balance in post-processing without compromising the image quality.
Alternatively, set your white balance to Kelvin and adjust it using live view and try to match the Kelvin value as best as possible to the scene before you. The downside of this approach is that you must trust the LCD screen on your camera to be accurate. However, if you shoot in RAW, you can always adjust the white balance in post-processing as well.
Watch the color histogram. For example, let’s say your composition contains a lot of vibrant red of a backlit red maple tree. It’s a good idea to make sure that the red channel is not blown out or clipped, which may happen even if your exposure looks ok.
If an RGB channel is blown out, it will be very difficult to adjust the color in post-processing. Consider bracketing the exposure if you find yourself in this situation.
Section 3: Compositional Tips for Fall Colors
One of my favorite things about photographing fall foliage is that you can pretty much find compositions all day long in various light and weather conditions.
Naturally, some of the best light is found during the golden hours of the day (the hour or so just after sunrise and the hour or so just before sunset), but that doesn’t mean you can’t get great shots throughout the day as well.
3.1 Five Types of Light and How to Use Them in Fall Photography
Use backlight to illuminate the colorful leaves from behind. This will give a glowy essence to the trees. Be careful to check for lens flare when shooting into the sun. Using a lens hood or blocking the sun with your finger or hat can help with this. You can also play around with creating sunstars with backlit trees, which is always a fun option, too.
Use sidelight to get the full effect of a circular polarizer filter. Sidelight is great for more closeup and intimate shots of trees, leaves, or the forest floor because it brings out details and textures. It is also useful for capturing the soft glow that the colorful trees appear to emanate.
Use frontlight to really accentuate the vibrancy of the fall colors. Frontlight can sometimes be too strong, but it can make the trees really pop during the magic hours of the day.
4. Overcast Light
Overcast days are perfect for photographing waterfalls, reflections, or woodland scenes. The light from an overcast day is great for obtaining an even, soft light by reducing harsh highlights, shadows, and glare, which often ruin sunny day photos.
5. Middle of the Day Light
When it’s the middle of the day and you have bright blue skies (which are great for tourists and less so for photographers), consider looking down and explore the more intimate details of your surroundings. For example, in the image below, I took advantage of the blue sky and the reflection of the yellow leaves above to create a composition of complementary colors.
3.2 Other Composition Ideas for Fall Images
1. Use long exposures to create a silky smooth movement of rivers and streams and use that to contrast with punctate, colorful leaves.
2. Experiment with motion blur to create an impressionistic or abstract image. This is especially useful on a windy day when it’s difficult to freeze the motion of the trees anyway.
To try this, set your camera up on a tripod, but keep the ballhead loose. Use a longer shutter speed (1/2 second or so), and move the end of the lens in a vertical plane while depressing the shutter button. This will blur the image and create a surreal feel of a woodland scene.
Try exposing to the right a little to create a more ethereal and dreamy feel. It takes a lot of tries, but the results are worth the effort!
3. Include people or the built environment. A few favorites that come to mind here in Vermont are apple picking, fall harvest festivals, winding country roads, covered bridges, church steeples, and farm animals. Including these characters helps tell the story of the season.
Section 4: Post-processing Tips for Fall Color Images
Post-processing fall foliage images is essentially just like processing any landscape or nature image except when it comes to color.
4.1 Basic Exposure Edits
I primarily use Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop for my editing. I begin my workflow by making general adjustments to exposure. First I adjust the highlights and shadows just a tad each to make sure they are not clipped at either end of the histogram. I’ll then adjust the overall exposure if needed. I’ll next move onto color adjustments before playing around with the other sliders to get my final desired effect.
4.2 Vibrance versus Saturation
When post-processing fall color images, it is really easy to go overboard on boosting the colors of an image and turning a beautiful composition into something cringeworthy. One of the easiest ways to ruin your image is by not understanding the difference between the Vibrance and Saturation sliders available in most image processing software.
Both vibrance and saturation affect the intensity of any given color, but how they adjust the intensity is different.
The saturation slider is a non-discriminant slider, meaning it changes the intensity of ALL present colors exactly the same way, even if they are already starting off quite intense from the RAW file. It knows no limits and oversaturates colors to the point of looking artificial or even clipping pixel information.
Because red and yellow are often the most intense colors of autumn, it is easy to ruin these colors when trying to increase the overall saturation of your image. This is why the saturation slider should be used sparingly when processing fall color images, if at all.
On the other hand, the vibrance slider is more friendly when it comes to post-processing fall images. The vibrance slider is more discerning and can detect what colors are already intense and only applies saturation to the more muted colors.
Vibrance also only works on the midtones of an image. As a result, adjusting the vibrance slider is an effective way to boost the intensity of colors in a realistic and balanced way. Even then, it’s wise to just use a little and not overdo it.
Even though all RAW images require some post-processing, you really don’t have to do much to get great balance and pop of the fall colors because nature has already done a lot of the work for you. After post-processing your images, try taking a break from your computer to give your eyes a rest. Come back later – you will likely find that you need to back off a little on your final adjustments. It happens to the best of us!
If you want to dive deeper into how to post-process fall color photos, be sure to check out my step by step editing process in Lightroom Classic:
Fall is a wonderful time of year to grab your camera and head out to the great outdoors. Remember to enjoy the process and being out in nature! It’s not just about the shot, it’s about the experience.
What are some of your favorite fall foliage compositions? Comment below and let us know!