Tips for better fall leaf photos

Tips to capture great fall photos

“How can I take better fall leaf photos?”

 We get asked that a lot. Many describe visiting picturesque destinations for fall leaves, but being disappointed when their photos don’t seem to capture what their eye was seeing.

Wandering Rose Travels has tips to help you take fall photos that will leave you Oooing and Ahhhing.

take pictures during golden hours for best light

Shoot during the golden hour

The golden hour ­­– the hour or so just after sunrise and just before sunset – is magical for photographers. If you had to pick just one thing from this post to make your fall photos magic – or any outdoor photos pretty much – this is “The One Thing.”

The golden hour is all about light. And most great photos are all about light. During this time the sun sits near the horizon and travels father to reach earth than other times of day. Traveling father through the atmosphere softens and scatters the light and removes some of its blue color, making your shadows softer and colors redder.

When planning leaf trips, we determine the top places we would like to photograph, and try to be there during the golden hour. If we’re not sure what the best photo spots are, we use forums on Trip Advisor and other sources to seek advice from people who live or travel there.

You can’t be everywhere on your itinerary during the golden hour, so how else can you add magic to your photos?

how to take great fall foliage pictures

Try using a circular polarizing filter

If you were to say, Thorny, I want to step up my travel photography; what is the first camera accessory I should buy; my answer would a polarizing filter. Actually … that is number three. Number one is a spare battery and number two is a spare memory card, but I’m hoping you bought those the camera was purchased.

A polarizing lens filter can reduce reflections (great for water and glass), enhance skies and clouds, and make everything (i.e. fall foliage) more vivid. Filters are available for any kind of camera, including smart phones. Polarizing filters operate best when the sun is at a right angle, so results will vary. Rotate the filter to see changes in sky, reflections and color saturation. Rotate until you see what you like and snap away. If you’ve found a really great shot, experiment with different polarizer settings and select your favorite(s) later when you can enlarge the images. Sometimes I like to leave a little reflection on the water for contrast, but I can’t see that looking at a tiny image on the back of a camera.

Most times you’ll want the sun behind you and at either shoulder for best lighting of landscape photos.

fall leaves reflect in still water

Play with white balance and exposure

Those beautiful fall colors can wreak havoc on your camera’s automatic white balance and exposure. Experiment! Shoot a “safe shot” with automatic settings and then start to play. Switching your white balance from “auto” to “cloudy” will give your shots more warmth. Your camera may offer a “vivid” or “autumn” mode to make fall colors pop a bit more.

Underexpose slightly to deepen the overall tones. There are various ways to do this. You can the automatic exposure by taking the light reading on a lighter part of your image area; use exposure value (EV) to compensation; or bracket several exposures and select the one you prefer later.

High-end cameras can capture images in raw mode, allowing white balance and exposure to be adjusted in editing software later. I rarely shoot in raw. The thought of hours in front of the computer fixing images does not appeal to me. I would rather get it right at the camera. This is likely a fallback to my film days when little to no manipulation was possible once an image was taken.

There is an exception to my avoidance of raw mode. If shooting something I cannot redo, like our winter trip to Yellowstone, I shoot both raw and jpeg. Should I completely fail in exposure or white balance I like the thought that the raw image exists and the shot could be saved. I have NEVER actually had to use a raw image for this purpose. But I have hundreds in archive should I need them one day. I call it insurance. You may call it obsessive.

Make notes of everything you do. I take a picture of my notes so they can’t be lost and since they appear beside the photos they refer to, I stay better organized. Only though use of notes will you start to learn what you like and open the door to more creative photography. If you have a photographic memory and don’t need notes, kudos to you. Can I join you next time you go to Atlantic City or Vegas? I get creamed at cards because I cannot remember what has been played.

zoom lens perspective
Following is a series of four photos all taken from the same location. Only different is using zoom telephone lens to get several different looks from the same place.

Shoot something different

The best advice I ever got as a photographer was to always capture an image that is different than what people see with their eyes. I dirtied a lot of clothes over the years laying on the ground or climbing to a high vantage point, but the advice stuck with me. Cameras with tilt-back viewfinders are great for this. You can put the camera on the ground or high above your head without changing position by tilting the screen. I carry a point-and-shoot with a tilt viewfinder just for this purpose.

Your camera likely has a zoom lens. Use it! Use the zoom to get several variations from the same spot. Zoom in or go wide angle to change perspective. Use panoramic mode to capture the expanse of fall landscapes. Experiment! Every tourist stop you’ll see people crowded in one spot all shooting the same thing with their camera on tripods. Leave the tripod in the car. Leave the crowd. Find something different.

Fall foliage photos don’t always mean landscapes. I love to shoot near water. My fall hikes intentionally include water features where I find endless photo opps with colorful leaves contrasting dull wet rocks, beautiful reflections and moving water softened with a slow shutter speed.

Get close up. Leaves are beautiful. Get close. Put the sun behind the leaf rather than in front. You’ll get some spectacular Ahhh shots.

Don’t let cloudy weather discourage you. To most travel enthusiasts, a clear and sunny day is our best friend. But overcast and foggy days are great for fall photography by enhancing the mood and making saturated colors that pop. Shoot tight landscape compositions to eliminate a dull gray sky

Let leaves be props for other objects. Colorful, curled fall leaves make an otherwise ordinary stump, mushroom or rock become a work of photo art. This might occur naturally or you might find yourself strategically placing a few leaves in the foreground where there were none before. Cheating? Not to me.

Remove your lens cap. Just kidding. Sort of. I have taken photos extensively for 45-plus years. Yet, I have that embarrassing moment when I raise the camera my eye and exclaim “I can’t see anything.” That is followed by Bee or some other travel companion noting, “You’ve got the lens cap on, fool.” The fool is not actually spoken, but I know they are thinking it. This has often caused me to miss a great wildlife opportunity who are gone by the time I resolve my technical issue. Lens caps are great when not using the camera, but take them off when shooting. We use a clear filter on our expensive lenses protect the glass surface without impacting color.

That’s it for now. Happy shooting! Leave your questions in the comments below. And tag us in your fall photos on Facebook and Instagram @wanderingrosetravels!