Updated: Apr 29, 2019
Fiery shades of red and orange, rich textures, low-angle light... no wonder photographers love autumn! But how do you take photographs that really capture the season in all its glory? Read on for my four tips on how to photograph autumn colour...
It's all too easy to fall under the spell of autumn. You set out on a sunny day, scrunching through fallen leaves; the colours are amazing and you happily start snapping away. You're convinced that every photograph you take is a winner! It's only when you get home and you're sat staring at a computer that you realise the pictures you've taken are perhaps a bit flat and lack the 'zing' you experienced when taking them. Sounds familiar? Don't worry, we've all been there!
The actual process of taking photographs is not just a visual one. It's a multi-sensory experience where your state-of-mind is not only being influenced by what you see, but also by what you feel, hear, smell etc. Stare critically at an image in Lightroom with these 'extra senses' stripped away and your images can sometimes seem rather lifeless or disappointing.
The trick, of course, is not to let yourself get carried away! Of course, you should enjoy your photography. But don't let the euphoria of the moment trick you into thinking that every shot you're taking is amazing. Hopefully, the four tips below will help you take a more analytical approach to photographing autumn colour, creating images that you'll love long after the trees are bare and the colour has vanished.
Autumn colour photography tip no.1: Look for the details
There are few sights more spectacular than a woodland enflamed by autumn colour – and a wide-angle view of a large swathe of trees, or an aerial shot of the canopy taken by a drone can certainly have impact. But there's beauty in the detail too. Autumn is all about decomposition – chlorophyll in leaf cells breaking down from green to orange and red; leaves curling up; branches laid bare...
For this photograph of autumnal oak leaves, I zoomed in on just a couple of leaves to show the actual process of decay. From a biological point of view, you can see how the chlorophyll is breaking down inside the leaves. Photographically this creates a rich palette of colours, which I tried to accentuate by framing the leaves against an area of shadow in the background. Shooting towards the sun, so that the leaves were backlit, boosted the colours. I also spent several minutes trying to find the right leaves. This particular type of oak (Quercus coccinea) has deeply indented leaves – almost as if a giant caterpillar has taken a few mouthfuls out of them. By finding a couple of leaves that were isolated and not overlapping not only highlighted their unusual shape but also created a more dynamic composition – helped here by positioning the central vein of the main leaf off-centre (applying the rule of thirds).
Autumn colour photography tip no.2: Go for impact
Leaves are translucent. That's what makes them such rewarding subjects to photograph spring, summer or fall. In the right light they almost seem to glow. Any type of light can work wonders – overhead, side-lighting, even overcast (imagine a birch tree looming out of the mist with just a few golden leaves hanging from its branches like droplets of honey). To really add impact to autumn photos, however, I love shooting into the sun. It's the type of lighting that makes the most of all that leafy translucence.
For the photograph above, I chose a Japanese maple as my subject. First, I carefully crawled under the tree's branches to get right 'inside' it and set up my tripod at its lowest setting so that I could point the camera up through the leaves towards the sky. Using a wide-angle lens, I framed the shot to include both strong diagonal branches across the frame and the sun down near the bottom right-hand corner. The sun was also partly obscured behind a thin branch and, of course, plenty of leaves, to slightly filter its strength and reduce the amount of flare on the lens. To avoid the image turning into a silhouette, I took several shots, adding +1, then +2 and +3 stops of exposure compensation (alternatively you can turn the camera away from the sun, take a meter reading from a more neutrally lit part of the tree, then recompose your shot with the sun in the frame). This ensured that the scarlet foliage came through nicely, while a small aperture of f16 helped to create the pronounced sunburst. I have retouched this image to remove one or two distracting flare spots and I also boosted saturation slightly.
Autumn colour photography tip no.3: Look beyond leaves
Having just sung the praises of fiery foliage, don't forget that autumn offers plenty of other treats for photographers. Seeds and berries (the redder the better) make eye-catching subjects, while grass heads and tree bark can make richly textured images – particularly when you use side lighting or backlighting. The image above of the Miscanthus grass was photographed late in the afternoon towards the sun in order to emphasise the feathery seedheads. The single curl of peeling bark on the trunk of the Himalayan birch, on the other hand, relied on strong side lighting to make it stand out.
Autumn colour photography tip no.4: Take another look
When you're surrounded by stunning autumn colour, with potential new subjects constantly luring you on, it's easy to overlook things. Work each subject, exploring it from different viewpoints, trying different lenses, looking up through the branches, exploring all the opportunities of the available light. The shot, above left, might be the first 'reactive' photograph you take when encountering a beech tree in all its autumn finery. Take the photo. Then use your knowledge of photographic techniques to explore more possibilities. One is shown here, above right, of the same tree but photographed from a totally different viewpoint.
Like to learn more? Join me on a small-group or one-to-one photography workshop in the Cotswolds, Cornwall or Lake District.