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12 Fantastic Fall Photo Tips — Our Extra-Crunchy Guide to Leaf Peeping
12 Fantastic Fall Photo Tips

Fall has up and arrived – kamikaze leaves crash down on unsuspecting passersby, leaf peeping is a thing again, and reports of rumbles coming from the Great Pumpkin have spread throughout the nearby towns and villages.

Any time of year is a great time to snap a photograph, but Fall is, of course, at least twenty times more so. (IOHO, of course.)

And since last year we wrote about how to get those perfect Halloween shots, this year we’re tackling Fall. We’ve jam-packed this edition with tips for photographing our leafy friends and fun ideas for fresh-new Fall shots.

Grab your camera and enjoy this Autumnal Equinox to its fullest!


Most people head out to take photographs in the Fall because of one reason: the changing of the leaves. Ordinary greens turn to shockingly vibrant reds, oranges, and golds…. Plus the leaf throwing, leaf crunching, leaf gathering – who can resist snapping a few shots during this fun Fall season?

Here’s some tips on how to get the best of it:

The Best Times to Photograph in the Fall

Photo by  Lorrie McclanahanWhen we were growing up, we often heard that the early bird gets the worm. Well, we’re not big on worms, but the adage does apply when you’re trying to get the perfect shot of autumn foliage.

(1) Photograph around sunrise and sunset for the best light and color.

The first and last hours of sun during the day (the times right around both sunrise and sunset) have a brilliant quality to the light that can yield great photos. Movie people call these times “Magic Hours” – at least for the morning one, we call it doggone early. But there’s just something about the soft, golden light around this time (which brings out the reds and golds in your photos) that you can’t help but love.

Other quick tips:

  • (2) Photograph outdoors when your shadow is longer than you are, usually in the late afternoon. (That one’s from professional photographer Susan McCartney, BTW.)

  • (3) Don’t overlook overcast days. They can often be wonderful to shoot on because the sun isn’t drowning out the colors and the shadows are softer.

Technical Tips

Photo by Richard Lo

  • (4) Use a tripod. Especially when shooting with dusk encroaching, tripods really, really help. (Don’t have one? Make one with a soda bottle, or buy one of the nifty Gorillapods and attach it to a tree branch.) Turn off your flash, set your ISO to 100 to minimize noise (sharper detail!) and start shooting. Experiment with your shutter speed -– a 1-3 second shutter can do wonders, stilling the foliage and the colors, while letting the rest of the world turn into a blur.

  • (5) Polarize your lens! Got an SLR? A polarizing filter can increase the contrast in your photos and make your colors richer, to the point where you’ll feel like it’s the 1950s and Technicolor just hit. If you don’t have one of these, or you have a point-and-shoot, no problem. (6) Underexpose your shots slightly (which most cameras, even point-and-shoots, will let you do) to deepen the saturation in your colors, then use your computer’s photo software (iPhoto, Picasa, or Photoshop) to increase the contrast and play with the color saturation to warm things up slightly.

  • (7) Experiment with your white balance settings. Don’t be afraid to take your camera off Auto mode and play with those settings. Increase the little numbers manually, or select a white balance setting like “cloudy”.

  • (8) Try a macro lens or macro mode. For those expert-looking close-ups of leaves, a macro lens is indispensable. No macro lens? Set your camera to macro mode and get really close -– that works too. Tripods are handy at this point so that you can really focus on the leaves without worrying about blurring your shot.

What to Photograph

Michelle ZlimenSome seasons only give you a few possibilities for how to frame your shots outdoors –- not so with Fall! Get up close for detailed leaf shots, or take a step back and take in a technicolor landscape. There’s so much change come Fall that the only thing you need do is look around you (or look up!).

You might also want to try:

  • (9) The Panning Technique – “Switch your shutter speed to around the 1/8 mark, zoom in on a part of a tree’s foliage (try to frame it with some nice blue sky in the background), as you hit the shutter speed pan your camera up and down or side to side. The results should be some lovely movement blur that give the impression that the leaves are moving in the wind.”

  • (10) Make-Your-Own Leaf Studio – Too windy to get those up-close macro shots of leaves to work? Try bringing some leaves home. With some good ol’ Scotch tape, stick the stem to a large open window that has some natural light coming through it, so that the leaf lies flat against the window. Now set up your camera and start snapping. Voila, brilliant leaf close-ups!

More Creative Ideas

Photo by Heather Robinson

  • (11) Take leafy portraits. While you’re busy raking those leaves up in the backyard, don’t forget the leaf fights, leaf forts, leaf heaps… they’re fun and the spontaneity will give you opportunity for dynamic portraits like this one by reader Heather Robinson.

  • (12) Capture a tree-changing time-lapse. As our very own Alicia Kachmar suggests, try taking a photo of the same tree, from the same spot, once every day for the next month. Take the shot around the same time every day if you can, and watch as the tree slowly transforms before your eyes.

  • Leaves and trees aren’t the only thing to photograph in the Fall. Visit a farmer’s market and snap some of the beautiful colors and shapes of Fall fruits and veggies. Go apple-picking or stop by the pumpkin patch.

The Star of Fall: Leaves, Leaves, Leaves

While we were thinking about how best to photograph leaves as they change color this time of year, we began to wonder why, exactly, they change color.

Photo by Heather RobinsonSo to find out, we called up Mr. Pederson, our former Junior High science teacher. The short story: leaves don’t change color! Instead, during the Fall the chlorophyll molecules in leaves start to break down. Normally, these chlorophyll molecules absorb almost every color in the sun’s light spectrum and only reflect green back to our eyes. But once the chlorophyll starts to go, and the Carotene in the leaves progressively takes over, our eyes see less of the green and more of the yellows, reds, and oranges in the sun’s light spectrum, reflected back to us from the leaves.

And that, in a nutshell, is why leaves “change color.” (Thanks, Mr. Pedersen!)

More Resources

  • Picked up some fallen and forlorn leaves that you just have to adopt into your home? Here’s how to preserve ‘em.

  • Head over to the New York Institute of Photography for their great Fall Photography piece, or stop by the Digital Photography School for some other nifty tips.

  • The City of Fort Collins, Colorado, actually sponsors a leaf exchange for people wanting to rid themselves of the leaves from their yard or get themselves leaves for their compost. Neat-o!

  • If you’ve got the dough ($1549 Canadian dollars) and the time (six days and nights), then check out this fall photography trip to the Rocky Mountains with acclaimed Canadian nature photographer Darwin Wiggett.

  • If you’re in the midwest or east (of the U.S. of A., that is), the Foliage Network is like the Weather Channel but for leaf-peepers. Up-to-the-minute reports on leaf conditions, expert location scouting for the best places to snap your award-winning shots – yup, it’s all there.*

* Smiling newscasters with shiny teeth not included.

Photo credits: top image by Dancer S., second image by Lorrie Mcclanahan, third image by Richard Lo, fourth image by Michelle Zlimen, and the last two images by Heather Robinson. Head on over to our forums for more great stuff.

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