Photographing Fall Colors

20030102 fall colors

It is the time of year for traveling north in pursuit of colorful fall foliage. The northern states are already in flux, with the band of colors moving south week by week. Photographic Wanderings scoured the web and rounded up some tips for shooting fall foliage across the United States and offers up web sites with further information and foliage forecasts.

To Travel or Not to Travel?

The first thing an aspiring fall foliage photographer needs to decide is whether to travel to get the best shots and, if so, where to travel to. In the Northeast of the United States, Vermont is the typical destination with its combination of cute villages against hilly, leafy backgrounds. These weeks are top travel weeks in the state for photographers and admirers alike. Chances are that if you’ve waited this long with booking something in the more attractive areas of Vermont, your choice of hotels isn’t going to be great.

Of course, as farmland moved westward in the last hundred or so years the once relatively barren Northeast is once again rich in forests. Every state has great hilly areas, lakes and parks that offer excellent fall foliage photography opportunities. Even cities like New York have attractive locations, most importantly Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn, but many of the city’s streets are lined by trees as well and can provide wonderful surprises.

In the New England and other northeastern states, you will find a wide variety of colors and generally densely forested areas.

Not so in the western states. The High Sierras, for example, have mostly yellow foliage. Forests are generally less dense in the West, but the backdrops of high mountains and tall skies provide great drama.

There is some risk in traveling, or at least in having to make your plans early on when you don’t know yet where and when exactly peak season will hit. As Ron Bigelow writes in an excellent article about photographing fall colors, in some places the color season only lasts a week, while in others, like Zion National Park, it tends to last longer. This season also changes from year to year, so some lucky guessing is going to be involved.

For those planning a quick jaunt out of town, the foliage calendars list below can be of help.

When to Shoot?

So, assuming the colors are changing and you’re at the right place. Now, you have to decide what time of the day you’re going to go out. Those who do a lot of fall foliage shooting suggest you either venture out when it’s overcast or when the magic hour hits (after sunrise and before sunset), when the sun is low in the sky. Those bring out the best in the fall colors, with saturated colors during the magic hour and muted colors under an overcast sky.

If you’re not familiar with the area, you can combine a mapping website or app with apps that forecast the direction of the sun at any particular day or time and the weather forecast to figure out where to go. Some useful apps are listed below.

How to Shoot?

I’m not an experienced foliage shooter, I’m ashamed to admit, despite having a backyard filled with trees. Those in the know suggest making sure you’re white balance is properly set. Again I’ll refer to Ron Bigelow, who provides tips on how to prevent the various colors casts of either the magic hour or an overcast sky. He advises to use a custom white balance under an overcast sky and to set your white balance to Daylight during the magic hour.

Using a polarizer filter is another trick to bring out the best colors, though the effect depends on the light. Better to just check it out and see what difference  the filter makes.

This means that it’s better to use gear that allows the use of a polarizer. Other than that, any camera will do. Lens choice really depends on whether you’re out to capture detail, patterns, landscapes, etc.

What to Shoot?

Bigelow is probably talking to me when he writes that the biggest mistake newbies make is to focus only on the colors and forget about the rest of the image. “It sometimes appears that can get so excited by the colors that they don’t consider any other factors in the creation of the image. The end result is imagery that has only one strength: blazing color,” he writes. That’s me, as you can tell from the image above this post.

Truth is that no matter how much I love the fall colors, as a photographer I’m not a big lover of forests. I prefer wide open skies over dense forests. So, despite having lived in the Northeast for many years, I never really went out to just shoot the fall foliage. It’s an oversight I intend to correct this year and I hope to take Bigelow’s advice to heart, especially when he provides some excellent examples of the kind of photographs you can take.

Further Resources

Below is just a small collection of the many sites that provide information about fall foliage. Once you’ve narrowed down where you intend to shoot the fall colors, you can zero in your internet search on that area and find more detailed advice on getting the most out of this fall season.

Tips for photographing fall colors

Fall Color by Ron Bigelow

Fall Foliage Photography by Canon 

Pro Tips for Dynamic Fall Color by Outdoor Photographer

Top Ten Tips for Photographing Fall Color by Photo Cascadia 

A Detailed Guide to Photographing Fall Foliage

Useful apps


The Photographer’s Ephemeris 

Fall forecasts

The Foliage Network

Fall Foliage by The Weather Channel

Peak Fall Foliage Dates by the Farmers’ Almanac

Vermont Fall Foliage Reports

Live Fall Foliage Map by Yankee magazine

When to Find Peak Color in New England by Yankee magazine

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