Five Tips For Amazing Fall Foliage Photos

September 16, 2022

Autumn is my absolute favorite season of the year! The air gets cool and crisp. You can smell the scent of wood burning from fireplaces and wood stoves. Apple cinnamon and pumpkin spice flavors and scents are everywhere, warming us up on chilly mornings. But my most favorite thing about fall is the riot of colors Mother Nature shows every year. Autumn is always a busy time as I go and chase the color, so I thought I'd share some tips on how best to capture the foliage this year. The best thing about these tips? They work whether you are using an expensive camera, or just using your cell phone camera!

Maroon Peak rises above the colorful aspens on an autumn day in Colorado.

Maroon Bells II

Limited Edition

Maroon Peak stands in the distance as colorful aspens cover a hillside on an autumn morning near Aspen, Colorado.

Fine Art Limited Edition of 100 prints. Includes Certificate of Authenticity with serial number, shipped separately.

Use a Polarizing Filter

If you've ever worn a pair of polarized sunglasses, you've seen the effect polarization can have. The sky turns bluer, glare is minimized, and colors seem to be more vibrant. Polarizers work by cancelling out light reflected toward the camera at certain angles. Often, foliage color vibrance is minimized because of light reflecting off the leaves. A polarizer reduces that, and helps the colors look their best! The filter rotates, so turn the filter when it's on your lens so you can see the way the effect changes, and set it to where the effect is most pleasing. For more on filters, you can read my journal entry on filter use.

A walnut tree on a misty morning in Cades Cove.

Autumn Glow

A walnut tree basks in the early morning mist and sunlight in Cades Cove, part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee.


A canopy of autumn foliage arches over Kaaterskill Creek near Hunter, New York.

Kaaterskill Creek

Kaaterskill Creek in the Catskills, is located in the eastern Catskill Mountains of New York, on the north side of Kaaterskill Clove, between the hamlets of Haines Falls and Palenville in Greene County's Town of Hunter.

Photograph on Overcast Days

Normally, I LOVE the sunny weather. But on autumn days, that soft, diffuse light caused by a layer of clouds really helps those colors shine. This is because the light isn't quite as harsh, so you're seeing the pure color, undisturbed by the harshness of the light reflecting off the leaves. Even if it's not completely overcast, often you can wait for a passing cloud to block the sun for a moment. Photograph the scene with the cloud and without, and you'll see the difference!

Glade Creek Grist Mill on an autumn day in West Virginia.

Glade Creek Grist Mill

Standing as a monument to other West Virginia mills that once dotted the area, Glad Creek Grist Mill was constructed from parts of three other grist mills, and completed in 1976. It is located in Babcock State Park, West Virginia. Pictured here on an autumn morning.

As an alternative to waiting for a overcast day, try photographing early in the morning, just after sunrise, or later in the day, before sunset. You'll want to check if direct sunlight will fall on the location at those times, but chances are good the low angle of the sun will cause softer, more diffuse light than it would be earlier in the day, allowing the colors to be as vibrant as possible.


The sun shines through a grove of aspen trees on a fall morning in Colorado.

Dance of the Aspens II

Weighted by heavy snows as saplings, these aspens now appear to be dancing due to their curved trunks. I captured this image on an autumn morning in Colorado.

Photograph Backlit Trees

If you can't get out early or later, and the weather just isn't cooperating and providing a soft overcast, all is not lost! Find a nice tall canopy of trees and photograph the foliage from underneath. The leaves will filter the sunlight through, appearing to glow in brilliant colors! If you can partially hide the sun behind a trunk or branch, you can also create the "sun star" effect to add extra drama, similar to what I've gotten above.

A grove of aspens near Kebler Pass in Colorado.

Aspenglow

The autumn chill turns Aspen leaves to a soft golden glow in the mountains of Colorado.

Sometimes, you don't even have to be looking up. Later in the day, that low angle will come into play again and if it's clear, the sun may filter through and cause the leaves to glow, as in Aspenglow, above. When we're photographing into the sun and the back side of our subject is lit, we call that backlighting, or backlit. The results can be fantastic, so be sure to try it!


An abstract photo created by intentional camera movement of a group of birch trees in ACADIA NATIONAL PARK.

Autumn Birches Abstract

Moving the camera while the shutter is open gives a painterly look to this image of a stand of birch trees on an autumn day in Acadia National Park.

Use In-Camera Movement (ICM)

In-camera movement is a technique in which a slow shutter speed is used, and the camera is intentionally moved in order to create an abstract image. You'll want to experiment with different shutter speeds to see what kind of effect you like best. I recommend starting at ¼ second shutter speed and working up to 1/30. The above image was taken at 1/25. You can also vary your movement. Autumn Birches Abstract, above, was a simple up-and-down movement. You can also try twisting the camera for a swirling effect, or zooming the lens during exposure for a neat effect. For a really fun shot, zoom the lens AND twist the camera at the same time, as I did below!

Camera movement causes a group of maple leafs to create a spiral using a slow shutter speed.

Camera movement causes a group of maple leafs to create a spiral using a slow shutter speed.


SmokyMountains.com Fall Foliage Forecast Map

SmokyMountains.com Fall Foliage Forecast Map

Check the Foliage Prediction Maps

There's nothing worse than going out for fall foliage photos and finding you've missed it, or that you're too early. Thankfully, there are many online resources to check and make sure you're going at the best time. SmokyMountains.com has a great foliage map that allows you to not only see where things are currently, but to get an idea where the foliage color will be in the future, by sliding your mouse across the date bar at the bottom.

Another thing you can do for some peace of mind is to check previous years' foliage maps. You can generally look back at the maps for specific dates of previous years and take an average of when they hit peak. It's never the same every year, so it's good to look at both this year's forecast, as well as see when the foliage was best in previous years.

Fallen leaves are wet with recent rains alongside Duck Brook in Acadia National Park near Bar Harbor, Maine.

Wet Leaves

Fallen leaves are wet with recent rains alongside Duck Brook in Acadia National Park near Bar Harbor, Maine.

Bonus Tip: Look Down

Make sure you look at the ground too! Fallen leaves can create beautiful scenes all on their own, so be prepared to get close, zoom in, and really highlight the leaves. Look for contrasting colors, such as the vibrant top of the leaf against some of the more muted undersides, or a yellow leaf against a brown or gray rock. These little scenes are just as beautiful as the larger vistas, so don't miss them!

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