Thursday, September 30, 2021

Making great fall foliage images: surprising tips for success

John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum impoundment pond in fall.

Too often when photographers think about fall foliage photographs, they're guilty of target fixation.

They're only thinking of photographing fall foliage colors in rolling hills, vast fields and grasslands, solely in rural areas or parks, in bright sunlight and blue skies. While no one can deny that fall foliage images in those areas and conditions can be magnificent, there are many other locations and conditions than can produce equally or even richer photographs of fall foliage.

As autumn leaves change color and slowly fall, photographers need to expand their vision to the wide variety of photographic opportunities that are available to them. Scenes that include ponds or lakes like my image above, that include reflections of the green red, yellow and orange colors in the water can greatly enhance the fall seasonal feeling we look to obtain in fall foliage photographs.

Other opportunities to create these images with their intense colors can be found in rain and morning mists and fog, in urban areas, town centers, small villages, farms and in both landscapes and close-ups. Fall foliage photographic opportunities are virtually everywhere we find deciduous trees, trees that shed their leaves annually.

To help you make great fall foliage photographs, I've got some tips and suggestions for you. They include technical, compositional and preparatory ideas.

  • If you're using a camera or smartphone capable of saving your images in RAW format, as opposed to JPG or some other format, save them in RAW. RAW format is ideal for images of scenes having the large range of light and color that these autumn photos include.

    Fall foliage images, more often than not, have a large dynamic range and a difficult to zero-in white balance. Saving images in RAW format gives photographers more latitude in post-processing to adjust their images to how they looked in the photographer's eye when the images were made.

    When your images are saved in RAW, you have a far greater ability to adjust the overall exposure of an image, as well as bring out individual areas not exposed well due to the scene's dynamic range, the ratio between the maximum and minimum measurable light intensities. You can adjust not only what you can readily see in the photo, but also what's hard to see or even unseen. That's possible because all exposure information is saved in a RAW image, unlike what's saved in a JPG file. When a camera internally processes an image to save it as a JPG file, it discards a considerable amount of the image's exposure information, making correcting exposure, particularly without image degradation, far more difficult than correcting a RAW file.

    Correct white balance is critical to be able to accurately portray the wide range of vivid color in a fall foliage scene. Look at the image's color range above. It has intense greens, oranges, reds and yellows among the trees. It also includes the blues of the sky and water and the wispy whites of the clouds. While auto-white balance is generally accurate in bright sunlight, it is less accurate in other light conditions. Even when manually setting white balance, color adjustment is often needed to bring out the rich colors in an image like the one above. Editing a RAW image for white balance can be easily accomplished because of the completeness of its image data. It's very hard, if not impossible, to make a similar correction in a JPG photograph without image degradation.

    Saving images in RAW format significantly facilitates post-processing to edit images with a large dynamic range and/or significant color and tonal ranges.
  • Fall foliage images often benefit significantly by setting white balance manually when shooting in cloudy and bad weather, as well as at any time when not close to midday sunny conditions. The further away from midday sunny conditions you're shooting in, the more you'll benefit from setting the white balance manually.
  • Consider using either full manual or aperture priority exposure modes on your camera to be able to control your images' depth of field through your camera's aperture control. This is of particular importance when your foliage photograph is a landscape.
  • Along with beautiful hills, fields and parks, areas with ponds and lakes or even sea shore areas with forested land at or near the water's edge, don't miss urban areas with small parks and river areas, etc. for your fall foliage photographs. Even street scenes in cities give you fall foliage opportunities. Moreover, don't forget close-ups of leaves and images that contrast nature with the immediate surroundings.
  • With its softer light, photographing in early morning and late afternoon, plus during golden hours, cloudy conditions and bad weather can all help make superior fall foliage images compared to images made at midday, with its harsher light when it's sunny.
  • Don't be afraid of bad weather including rain, fog and mists. According to how you catch the daylight of hills with a mist among the trees, for example, you can make amazing images.
  • Consider composing fall foliage images with a specific focal point in the image to anchor the viewers' eyes and use the foliage surrounding it to enhance the focal point by making it stand out.
  • Plan your shots in advance to the extent possible. Research where and when you can find outstanding scenes to photograph. In the continental U.S., to help you know when fall foliage will peak, use this map which predicts when the different states of fall foliage peaks will appear. It's from
  • Before you start photographing, use your eyes to scan the scene before you. Take it in. Then begin to lay out your shots in your mind. Use a variety of locations, positions, angles, etc. when you make your images.

For any kind of nature and landscape photography, planning, preparation, scanning your scene before shooting and making smart choices will help you get the best images possible. Don't just snap a photo, make a photograph. Don't be afraid to experiment and try many angles.

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