Photographing Fall Colors

Fall Foliage Photography Tips from Pro Photographer Dale Stevens

Photograph of Fall Maple Leaf in Swift River, New Hampshire
Danita Delimont / Getty Images

When New England fall foliage peaks in late September and October, the region is at its most photogenic. Shutters fire like machine guns as fall visitors to New England endeavor to snap Instagram-worthy (and even print-worthy) photographs that capture the colors of foliage ablaze. In this Q&A, professional photographer and Mainer Dale Stevens provides helpful tips on preserving fall's finest colors in photographs. Before you head to top photo op spots like Height of Land or Jenne Farm, up your game by reading his advice on photographing fall foliage.

Q: Is there a special filter that can be used to intensify or highlight fall colors when photographing foliage?

There is no filter that I know of that will help in every situation. However, a polarizing filter will help when you are at 90 degrees to the sun. The other thing that will help to give more brilliant colors would be to shoot the photos after a rain. The air is clear, the leaves are clean, and the colors will be more vibrant.

Q: What is the best time of day to shoot fall foliage photos?

Morning is better because the air is always cleaner, and there is less dust, smog, etc. Or, after a rain as previously mentioned.

Q: Do you have any particular places in Maine to recommend that are great to photograph in the fall?

I don’t have any one particular place that is best, but, I would say go to the more hilly country like northern Maine's Aroostook County, western Maine (around Sunday River) or Vermont. Those big rolling hills allow you to see for miles. Scenes like this will give you colors that just cannot be imagined—you must witness them first hand. Visit the small towns and the winding backroads; these are always better than the highways and interstates.

Q: If I want to photograph raindrops on a leaf what settings should I use?

The lens settings are probably not as important as the lens you use. You would take the photo the same way you would take any other photo whether you meter in the manual mode or use a program mode or some variation of both. The exposure part of it is as easy as the automatic settings of your camera. You must, however, be careful that there is not a whole lot of light being reflected off the water. This may fool your metering system. For this reason and others, you should try to take this picture with the light diffused either through the trees or with some slight cloud cover.

The most important part of taking this photo, though, is using the proper lens. You should use a good macro type lens or close-up filters. The former can get expensive if you're on a budget, and the latter will work for much less money. I prefer using the macro lens personally because of the nice clear picture quality.

Q: Do you have any general tips for photographing landscapes?

When photographing landscapes, whether in autumn or any other time of the year, it is always good to use some of the Rules of Composition. For example, place an overhanging branch or bough from a nearby tree in the sky to hide plain sky. This also gives the photo some depth so the viewer will have more of a feeling of being there.

You can also use a road, or fence or a brook in the foreground to lead the viewer's eye into the picture.

This is known as a lead-in line. If you can imagine, try to have one of these being closer to you and trailing off toward the "real" scene, whether that is a mountain or a farm house or anything else.

Q: I don't have a "good" camera. Can I get decent fall foliage photos with a disposable camera or my smartphone?

You will not have the flexibility that a good DSLR will give you, neither will you have the advantage of interchangeable lenses, but, yes you will be able to get decent photos with a disposable camera or smartphone. You may have to move in closer, and your imagine may appear farther away than it looked when you were standing there, but you can get decent pictures.

Q: Do I need a tripod to take good fall foliage shots?

A good tripod is a valuable piece of equipment to have for anyone who is serious about photography.

It would come in very handy if you were under very low light conditions or for shooting at slow shutter speeds. But, you may not be shooting with low light, or with a very long focal length lens, or at a very slow shutter speed. And many times you should be using a very small lens opening in order to get the most depth of field you need.

With all that in mind, my answer is no, you don't need a tripod, but if you do own one you shouldn't leave it home because it might come in handy.

Q: How slow a shutter speed can I use before I need a tripod?

A good rule of thumb is to not go slower than the focal length of the lens. That means if you are using a 50mm lens you should not use a shutter speed slower than 1/60 of a second while hand holding the camera. If you are using a 300mm lens, you should not use a shutter speed slower than 1/250 of a second handheld.

Q: Is there any other advice you can give me about taking fall foliage photos?

Yes, as much as I hate to say it, autumn landscapes can become boring just like anything else if used too much. I bring up this point because many times amateurs go out looking for those big vistas, the miles and miles of nothing but colored leaves. Those kinds of pictures are nice in moderation; they seem like very pretty scenes, and they are, but they make for boring photos if overdone.

When taking fall foliage photos, don't overlook the obvious such as a brook with fallen leaves floating in it. What says New England better than a small country church with fall foliage in the background or a vivid maple tree in the scene? How about a pumpkin patch or pumpkins piled up for sale with leaves scattered all around? Try to catch some kids raking leaves or playing in huge piles someone else has raked. Use your imagination, and don't limit yourself to just those photos of grand vistas. Find a poplar tree with its golden leaves attached; go to the base of the tree and shoot up—with a bright blue sky as a background, you will end up with something quite stunning.

Be imaginative and creative and try to look at all prospective subjects from every conceivable angle. Try to photograph things from an angle or vantage point different from the way we normally view it. For example, when was the last time you laid down on your belly and looked up a brook? Probably not for a long time, if ever! Try it: The results are astonishing. That is what makes for interesting and prize-winning photos. Whenever we can photograph a common subject from a vantage point from which we do not usually see that subject, we increase the chance of owning a prize-winning photo.

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