How To Photograph Fabulous Fall Leaves

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We are in peak autumn color, here is how to photograph those fabulous colors of the fall foliage!

USING LIGHT

As always, light is one of the key elements to great photographs of a subject like fall foliage. You should try different light to create more interesting shots.
Direct sun will be very contrasty light with bright, punchy colors. You can also get some interesting light contrasts early/late in the day when the sun is at a lower angle. Remember to meter from the light!

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Full sun provides lots of snappy colors and contrast.
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Late afternoon light creates contrasting areas of light and shadow on the forest floor. Meter from the light areas to keep your shadows nice and dark!
Full sun shining though this tree stands out against the darker trees.
Full sun shining though this tree stands out against the darker trees. The exposure was metered from the light on the tree using my spot meter.
The sun cuts across this scene, lighting up the leaves and creating great contrast with the shadows. Remember to meter for the light!
The sun cuts across this scene, lighting up the leaves and creating great contrast with the shadows. Remember to meter for the light!

When the sun is shining on the leaves, it will reflect the surface texture. You may also want to try backlighting the leaves, so the light shining through and shows off the interior textures. Remember to meter from the leaves themselves, either by filling the frame with just the leaf, or use your spot meter.

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Image on left is sunlight shining on the leaves, reflecting the surface. The image on right shows sunlight shining through the leaves, which shows off the interior textures.
A large tree full of red leaves is backlit against the bright sky.
A large tree full of red leaves is backlit against the bright sky.

Backlight could provide some interesting possibilities using flare as well. Just you can play around with the exposure a bit to increase/decrease the flaring.

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The light should get filtered nicely through the leaves. In general you should start by metering off the leaves, but feel free to over/under expose to see what happens.

 

Overcast light is much softer and has less contrast than full sun…and it’s a bit cooler in tone.

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DO I NEED A POLARIZER?

Depends on the situation, but you should definitely try it with/without to see if it makes a difference. If the sun is at your shoulder or 30-60 degree in front/behind you, you most likely will see a difference.

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A polarizer made a huge difference in this image, but might not in every situation.


MORE TIPS BELOW!

I hope you find these tips useful!
If so, it would be awesome if you would check out my LearnPhoto365 Photography Assignment Generator Apps on the app store and the Google Play store, a unique photography app that’s meant to inspire you to take great photos!

Perfect for anyone taking part in a Photo 365 challenge, there are over a hundred individual assignments and hundreds of thousands of potential random ones. Versions available for iPhone/iPod and iPad, including free versions so you can try them out! Full details, including reviews and tour videos of the apps can be found at www.learnphoto.ca/apps Even if you only download the free version that would help get it up the app store lists!


 

CAMERA SETTINGS

SHUTTER SPEEDS

If handholding the camera, make sure you use a fast enough shutter speed to prevent camera shake blur (1/125th to 1/200th for most people)
If the leaves are moving at all due to wind, 1/500th or faster would be best.

APERTURE/F-STOP

If you want a particular leaf to stand out, use a smaller number aperture like F4.5/5.6.
If you want full depth of field, F22/F32

WHITE BALANCE

Set your white balance to the light you are under (daylight-daylight/overcast-overcast or cloudy) as the auto white balance could be affected by a lot of red/orange colors. Or you can shoot RAW and just adjust later.

GETTING CREATIVE

You can create interesting images of fall foliage using slower shutter speeds and camera movement.
You’ll want to try speeds between 1/30th to 1 second, which can be hard to get even on an overcast day. To make it easier, starting by selecting your lowest ISO (100) and largest possible number f-stop (F22/32, etc)This way you will have cut out light as much as possible, and whatever speeds get you the meter in middle is the slowest you can get.  On a bright, sunny day however, you will need to use a polarizer or neutral density filters to cut out the light.

Once you have your settings, create interesting blur by jiggling panning, or rotating the camera, or by zooming the lens, during the exposure. For the panning/zooming shots, you may want to use a tripod to ensure smooth zoom lines.

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A wall of orange trees become lines of color when panning the camera. The white areas are patches of sky.
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Rotating the camera during a slow shutter speed creates interesting overlapping lines in these trees, with small patches of blue sky here and there.
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Zooming a nice red tree against a blue sky, on tripod to ensure smooth zoom lines.
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Trees panned vertically

Another creative technique would be multiple exposures if your camera allows it. Some things to try include in focus/out of focus combinations, and zooming the lens between exposures to create interesting layers.

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Multiple exposure of an image in focus, and one out of focus to create an interesting glow.

Of course, don’t get too focused on just the leaves themselves! If there are other elements in the frame that make a great composition, use them!

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The barn doors create interesting shadows as the light peers in, illuminating the fallen leaves.
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The horses give a nice sense of scale to the height of this colorful tree.

Water provides some excellent possibilities as well, with both reflections and movement as potential subjects to shoot with leaves.

To blue water, you’ll want shutters peeds between 1/30th to 1 second, depending on how fast the water is moving. Again, this can be hard to get even on an overcast day. To make it easier, starting by selecting your lowest ISO (100) and largest possible number f-stop (F22/32, etc)This way you will have cut out light as much as possible, and whatever speeds get you the meter in middle is the slowest you can get.  On a bright, sunny day however, you will need to use a polarizer or neutral density filters to cut out the light.

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Hope this post helps you get awesome fall foliage photos!

RELATED POST: HOW TO TAKE GREAT PHOTOS OF YOUR KIDS HAVING FUN WITH LEAVES

 

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Noel Chenier

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Photographer and teacher
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