Capturing Autumn Color

October 13, 2021

The peak colors of autumn last only a couple of weeks, but the time before and after peak color can also render beautiful photographs for those that are observant and persistent in their photographic efforts. Autumn color is happening now and lasts for such a short while. Don’t just spend all your time sitting there on the computer, get outside with your camera, and capture that color before it’s all gone! Here are a few tips & techniques to keep in mind while out there capturing one of mother nature’s most spectacular shows:

Shoot in overcast light to capture subtle details and bold color

Shooting in the overcast light of cloudy days can help to render detail in boldly colored leaves. Subtle gradations of color come through, rather than blow out like they can on sunny days. When shooting on cloudy and rainy days, aim for tight compositions in which boring white and gray skies are mostly cropped out so as not to detract from the lovely bold colors of the trees. Overcast days are also great for shooting macros and closeups.

Capture glowing back lit leaves

I love the way that semi translucent leaves glow when lit up from behind. Back lit leaves look best when contrasted against dark backgrounds and foregrounds, such as dark tree trunks or trees that are in the shade. In this situation, I tend to set my exposure value to -.3 to –1 to render the boldest colors. Bracketing your exposure is a good idea in contrasty situations such as this. More on bracketing shortly.

Look for strong shadows and bold silhouettes

I love to look for strong shadows and silhouettes all year long. But autumn is a favorite season for these types of images. Bold silhouettes, such as interesting tree trunks or other strongly shaped silhouettes look particularly stunning against bold color. As days shorten, the sun remains lower in the sky than it does in summertime. That type of lighting makes for an ideal situation to capture long shadows cast from trees. Low angled sunlight also works well to spotlight leaves. Place those spot lit leaves against darker backgrounds for a stunning effect. I also like to capture spot lit leaves against a tree trunk as the leaves will often cast interesting shadows on the tree trunk. Again, here I tend to go for slight underexposure to render the boldest colors and darkest shadows.

Capture autumn’s bold colors in reflections

I always love to look for reflections during any season. But autumn’s reflections can be particularly appealing because of the season’s bold colors. There are many different ways to capture those beautiful reflections. Three of my favorite ways are:

1. The wide view that shows both the landscape and the reflections in a single image.

2. Bold color reflected in water that acts as a wonderful background for the main subject, such as a rock, statue, bird, etc.

3. In its pure abstract form, just a simple celebration of color and pattern.

Capture Landscape views with deep focus

When capturing landscape views, using a small aperture (such as F8 to F 22) helps to achieve sharpness throughout out the image. Of course when using such small apertures, less light is admitted into the camera requiring longer shutter speeds. Use of a tripod may be necessary to avoid images spoiled by camera movement. The basic rule is 1/focal length as being the slowest recommended shutter speed to handhold a camera. IE: if using a 150mm lens, shutter speeds under 1/150 generally require a tripod. It is just a guideline though. And if your camera or lens offer image stabilization, you may be able to handhold the camera for 1-2 stops under the standard recommendation.

Experiment With Shallow Focus

Not all autumn landscapes need to be captured with deep focus. Use wider apertures such as F4 to capture a more painterly view of the landscape or to help distinguish individual and clusters of leaves from cluttered backgrounds. This has become my signature style. I love images that are mostly out of focus with just a sliver of the image being in sharp focus. An added bonus with this style of photography is that since you are using wider apertures and more light is entering through the lens, so you can use faster shutter speeds which are ideal for hand holding your camera. This technique works equally well for wider landscape views or when creating close ups of small details, although it is more frequently used by most for the latter.

Capture macro & close up views

While out capturing those wider landscape views, don’t forget to zoom in and focus on the details in the landscape. Individual leaves, interesting clusters of leaves, and other small details such as berries and seed pods all make interesting close up subjects. Switch to a longer telephoto lens, I like lenses in the 150-600mm range, to capture those hard to reach leaves on distant trees. Use of a macro lens will help you to capture macro images of closer subjects such as fallen leaves, seed pods, berries, and more. Don’t forget to look for interesting abstract patterns as well. Colors and patterns in leaves also make excellent abstract subjects, fill your frame with color and pattern.

Experiment with exposure for different effects

There are many different "correct" exposures for any given image depending on preference and the desired effect. I generally underexpose many of my autumn images to render the boldest colors. The exception to this is usually when I am capturing frame filling images of gold and light green leaves in overcast light. I recommend taking a few captures of a scene and changing the exposure for each one. This technique is known as "bracketing" and some cameras even have a setting where this is done for you automatically each time you press the shutter button. Refer to your camera’s manual to see if this option is available to you. This is a particularly important technique to use if you are shooting jpegs, but even if you shoot RAW it still is a good idea to bracket.

Capture the dreamy side of autumn with a Lensbaby

Use of a fun novelty lens called a "Lensbaby" can add a soft and dreamy effect to your autumn images. I love to bend and tilt the lens to create soft streaks of color. I already mentioned how I love images that are mostly out of focus with just a tiny sliver of the image being in sharp focus. My lensbaby renders this effect, but even more dramatically so and with the addition of being able to create streaking and interesting blur effects. I’ll be posting more about using Lensbaby lenses in future blog posts, bu you can check out their web site right now for more information and their online catalog.

Pay attention to your composition

It can be a challenge to present a cohesive representation of what can sometimes be an overwhelming scene filled with many colors and patterns. Experience will help make this task easier for you as time goes by. Reading books and articles on composition can also help as they will give you useful guidelines. The subject is a vast one, too vast for this blog post.

But here are a few things to keep in mind:

1. What is it that drew you into the scene in the first place. Was it the light? The colors? A unique feature such as a waterfall or a cluster of autumn leaves or wildflowers? Base your composition around those features.

2. Move around to find just the right background for what you consider the main subject of the photo. For example, if you are photographing a single leaf or cluster of leaves on a tree, move around to position the leaves or leaf against the most pleasing background.

3. Don’t be afraid to shoot many pictures of one scene. Experimentation is the key to learning. Take a lot of variations and you will soon be on your way to being a better photographer. And remember: there is no one perfect photograph of any given scene, but many. Click away!

I hope these tips have given you something to think about while you are out capturing autumn color. Now turn off the computer and get out there!

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