Living in New England, I am blessed with all different types of landscapes with some of my favorite being the backroads of New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts. The combination of natural, rugged terrain mixed with small, rural town villages have made several areas world famous for fall foliage photography. The numerous barns, church buildings, farmhouses, and villages combined with the vibrant seasonal colors makes for iconic photographs.
Across most of northern New England, the first leaves begin to change by early September in low-lying areas. This gradual process in which the trees change colors starts in the higher elevations of the White Mountains of New Hampshire and the Green Mountains of Vermont with peak colors usually occurring in the first week of October. Moving south across the farmlands of southern Vermont, southern New Hampshire, and the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts in mid-October and usually ending along the sea coast and southern New England in late October to early November.
- Excellent variety of trees
- Few if any major cities
- Nice elevation changes for better views
- Good variety of other natural landscape features (mountains, lakes, ponds, streams)
- Other “New England” structures and artifacts (barns, chuches, covered bridges, dirt roads)
- Mostly two-lane winding roads
- Multiple sites within close proximity of each other
- No special equipment is needed for shooting fall foliage landscapes
- Body – any full frame or crop sensor dSLR or mirrorless
- Lens – wide angles for sweeping landscapes and areas with space restrictions, longer telephotos for isolating and compressing scenes and a macro for small, close up foliage shots
- Drone – amazing opportunities for fall foliage shots with a drone
- Tripod/ Ball Head – light for smaller hikes to overlooks and sturdy for handling larger lens
- Polarizing Filter – excellent for taking the shine/reflection off of foliage and water as well as increasing the color saturation
- Neutral Density Filter – 3-stop & 6-stop for moving water pictures
- Camera Bag – one with enough room for the equipment as well as space for some protective clothing for temperature and moisture
- Weather Protection – small umbrella, camera cover and lots of moisture protection and cleaning cloths
Composition – Focal Point
The key point when shooting landscapes in the fall is to remember that the foliage just adds color. You still need a strong composition to create interest for the audience.
- It is almost always essential to have a focal point
- The focal point is the anchor or main character of your photo
- If the scene does not have a main subject, the audience does not know what to look at and quickly loses interest
- Effective composition is how you place the different elements relative to each other while using light and other techniques for a smooth, visually pleasing transition to the focal point
Compositon – Positioning
- There are many different rules on where to put the focal point
- Try to show the scene differently
- Arrange the scene to show off the foliage as well as the focal point
- Frame overhead and on the side of the focal point
- Use foliage as a backdrop behind the focal point
- Use leading lines in the foreground to the focal point
- Break the rules “elegantly”
- Do what pleases your eye
Composition – Depth
Layers create depth and interest in a fall scene. Look to use the foliage to give distinct layers to your scene. Unlike summer, where green is the predominant color, fall provides many different colors, sometimes within the same tree, to bring your viewer into the scene.
- Foreground can provide framing and leading lines with fallen leaves covering roads and fences or rocks in streams and in still water
- Midground is usually where the Focal Point is and can make or break the picture. Surround the focal point with foliage for framing.
- Background is usually the sky or some other landscape element. If you are able to shoot down at the focal point, the foliage can provide a wonderful background on a rainy or foggy day and can add mystery, atmosphere and depth.
- Get Closer and Get Lower
- Closer allows the audience to feel like they are in the scene
- Add dynamic foreground elements to the scene
- Use a wide angle lens to exaggerate the foreground elements
- Lowering down changes the look of the scene as most people view it at eye level and this change adds interest
- Later in the season fallen leaves provide a great foreground element as long as they don’t look “arranged”
- Shoot Up or Down Versus Out
- Shooting straight up can provide an unsual angle that most people don’t see, and it works well especially with thin trees like birches
- Shooting straight down works well with patterns of fallen leaves on the ground or in the water
If the scene has little or no sky, cloudy days are the best for fall foliage
- No shadows
- Richer colors
- Can shoot all day
- Shots can have great colors, but can be a little flat and uninteresting
Rainy, foggy, misty days are the best
- Moisture brings out and deepens the colors
- Bad weather adds another element to the scene
- Creates mystery or a story for the image
- You usually have the location to yourself
Lots of sunny days in the fall
- Shoot early in the morning and late in the afternoon
- Look for scenes where the sun is providing positive light with few shadows
- Shoot in the shade to avoid any harsh light or shadows
- Look for interesting cloud formations that complement the scene
- Pray for an interesting sky, especially around sunrise and sunset
- In direct sun, try backlighting the leaves
- Sun rays streaming though the trees can also be an effective shot, but tends to de-emphasize the foliage
- The eye looks for symmetry
- Mirror image doubles the color
- Reversal and distortion create interest
- Has to be windless which allows long shutter speeds
- Retains morning mist/fog
- Movement can provide drama and emotion to an image
- Camera can catch movement over time that your eye cannot
- Use neutral density filters to slow things down
- Experiment, experiment, experiment
- Waterfalls are bright and will always be a focal point so you have to decide if you want it to be a major or a minor part of the scene
- Decide if you want to use a fast shutter speed to freeze the water or a slow one to show movement
- Use neutral density filters to slow things down
- ¼ – ½ second for faster water
- ½ – 1 second for slower water
- Always shoot on cloudy days to avoid harsh light and shadows
- White Balance – if shooting in RAW (recommended), shoot in auto WB and you can change this in post-processing. I prefer cooler tones around 5000-5500 k.
- ISO – if you are on a tripod, go as low as possible. If you have to push your ISO, remember that any increase will degrade the image quality by creating more noise in the dark areas.
- Aperture – set your aperture for f/8 for wide angle and f/11 for telephoto. This is a good starting point depending on the depth-of-field that you are trying to achieve.
- Shutter speed – as long as you are on a tripod, this can be any speed to achieve the correct histogram. Wind is the major enemy that you have to be aware of in order to “freeze” the leaves.
- Polarizing filter – use one to take the shine off the leaves and provide more saturated colors.
- Exposure compensation – I usually shoot 1/3 to 2/3 of a stop underexposed to deepen the colors and insure that none of my highlights are blown out.
- Bracketing – if the entire histogram does not fit in the thumbnail, consider bracketing with three different exposure settings. The first will be as my meter reads the scene using the brightest light source and two additional exposures at 1-1/2 and 3 stops under.
- Use your histogram and not your thumbnail image to judge light to avoid blowing out the highlights and learn ETTR (Expose To The Right).
Post-Processing – Adobe Lightroom or Equivilent
- No camera can capture what your eye sees
- While the eye has approximately 24 levels of dynamic range, the best cameras have about 14 levels
- With post-processing, you can get closer to what the eye sees
- Shoot in raw
- Have a good monitor calibration system (Datacolor SpyderX) https://spyderx.datacolor.com/
- Learn the Lightroom (or equivalent) “Basic” panel to dramatically improve your finished landscape images
Vibrance vs. Saturation vs. HSL with Point Adjustment Tool
- The HSL Panel with Point Adjustment Tool allows individual control of each color’s hue, saturation and luminance – always use
- The Vibrance slider is a discriminatory global adjustment tool and impacts the muted colors of the image – seldom use
- The Saturation slider is a non-discriminatory global uniform adjustment tool and saturates of all colors in your image – never use
- 5 locations in 6 regions
- Description of the location
- GPS and address of the parking and the location
- Trail information including length of time & difficulty
- Best time in the fall to visit
- Best time of day to shoot
- Optimal conditions/weather
- Complete metadata for the accompanying images
- Tips specific to the location