Fall color

Article and Photography by Ron Bigelow


Photoshop CS2 Used in this Tutorial

As I begin writing this article, the fall season is only a short time away. This fills me with great anticipation for fall is one of the best times of the year for photography. The color changes that accompany the oncoming of fall provide great opportunities for photographers.

Some photographers are blessed to live in areas with an abundance of fall color. Others, like me, may have to do a bit of traveling. In fact, over the weekend, I found myself researching, selecting, and planning my fall trips. As I worked through the information, it occurred to me that an article on techniques for photographing fall colors would be appropriate for this time of the year. Thus, this article was born.


The first step in photographing fall colors occurs long before the shutter is released. A photographer interested in shooting fall colors must first select the time and place of the shoot. That sounds simple enough, but there is a bit more to it than some realize. There are four major factors that affect the location and timing that is selected: type of shot desired, choice of colors, timing, and flexibility.

Type of Shot desired: The type of shot that a photographer desires strongly influences the location choice. When most people think of fall color, they tend to think of large groups of intense red and orange trees that are so commonly depicted in magazines during the fall. In the US, this type of scene is found mostly in the east. So, if this is the type of image that is desired, and you live in the US, the eastern region is the best choice. However, this is not the only option for fall color. Other areas provide a completely different type of opportunity for fall imagery. For instance, much the western US does not have nearly as dense of a fall color coverage as the east. What it does have is a sparser color that is located among dramatic, mountain ranges. A photographer that can match this fall color with the drama of the mountains or the spectacular sunsets that can occur in these areas can end up with some incredible images.

Choice of colors: Different areas have different colors. For instance, New England has a nice variety of colors while the High Sierras have a preponderance of yellow.

Timing: The earlier in the fall a photographer intends to shoot, the higher the elevation and the farther north she will likely end up. This is due to temperature. The best type of weather for fall colors is warm days and cool, frost free nights. The warm temperatures cause the production of sugar in the leaves. The cool nights interfere with the ability of the trees to transport the sugar out of the leaves. The sugar that is trapped in the leaves is one of the factors that causes the colors that we see in fall. Higher elevations and northern latitudes experience cool nighttime temperatures sooner than lower elevations and more southern latitudes -- thus, causing earlier fall colors.

Flexibility: This is a big issue for those whose schedule is dictated by a job. While locals can give general times when fall colors in any particular area are most likely to occur, nobody can exactly predict the timing of the fall colors. The timing of fall colors in an area can vary by a few weeks from one season to the next. For those photographers whose schedule is not very flexible, the length of the fall color season becomes very important. Some areas have a color season that is as short as one week. Since this week can not be exactly predicted, such an area would be a poor choice for one whose schedule is not flexible. On the other hand, some areas have color seasons that last several weeks. For instance, Zion National Park has a fairly long color season as the color proceeds from higher to lower elevations as the season progresses -- a better choice for those that have less flexible schedules.

Once these factors have been considered and a location selected, more research needs to be conducted. For this, the Internet is a huge help. Querying the chosen location along with the term "fall color" will likely yield an abundance of information. When conducting such research, I like to look for two types of information. First, I look for information about where and when the fall color is occurring or will occur. Several sites have fall color hotlines that provide excellent information of this type. The second type of information that I seek consists of fall color photos that other photographers have already taken in the chosen area. This lets me know what to expect and gets me thinking about what I might be able to capture. It also helps me plan what equipment I might bring.


After the color of the vegetation, the most important factor in successful fall color imagery is the light. In general, there are two types of light that are favorable for photographing fall color: the diffuse light of an overcast sky and magic hour light (for more information, see Magic Hour Times Two). These two types of light have very different characteristics and produce different effects on the fall color.

The diffuse light of an overcast sky can produce beautiful, fall color images. This type of light is a very soft, almost omni-directional light. It tends to produce pastel colors and can lend a very romantic feel to an image. One advantage of this type of light is that one can shoot as long as the clouds cover the sky -- in some cases, all day long.

The magic hour light produces a completely different effect. The magic hour light occurs during the half hour after sunrise and the half hour before sunset. At this time, the sun is very low on the horizon resulting a directional, but very soft, light. This light is also very warm toned. This matches the warm fall colors very well. Consequently, the magic hour light enhances the warm tones of the fall colors -- leading to very saturated colors.

White Balance

Properly used, either of the aforementioned types of light can be used to produce great images. However, it is critical that the white balance be properly set (for more information see White Balance).

Overcast light generally has a cool, bluish cast. This blue cast clashes with the warm fall colors. If not handled properly, fall colors will lose their luster when photographed under an overcast sky. Under this type of light, a photographer needs to adjust for the blue cast so that the fall colors can be rendered accurately. This is best done with a custom white balance (for more information, see Custom White Balance). When a custom white balance is performed, the fall colors will be recorded accurately. Now, some photographers might be tempted to save some time and effort by using auto white balance (for more information, see Auto White Balance) or a preset white balance (for more information, see Preset White Balance). For the most accurate colors, this is not recommended. Neither of these two white balance options is as accurate as a custom white balance. Thus, their use will, likely, result in the colors being off somewhat.

Magic hour light requires a different approach to white balance. Magic hour light also has a color cast. However, the color cast of magic hour light is a very warm tone that intensifies the fall colors. A photographer photographing in this type of light wants to preserve the color of the light. This is best done by using a preset white balance such as the daylight setting. This white balance approach will enhance the fall colors and their impact. A custom white balance would be a poor choice in this type of light as it would adjust for the warm colored cast of the light. This would reduce the impact of the light and the fall colors. An auto white balance would also be a poor choice for two reasons. First, an auto white balance would adjust, at least partially, for the warm cast of the light -- which would reduce the impact of the light and fall colors. Second, an auto white balance is easily fooled by scenes that have a lot of one or a few colors (e.g., all those fall colors). This could easily result in unpredictable white balance settings, which could lead to unanticipated color casts.


When shooting fall colors, it is always best to glance through a polarizer filter to see if it has any effect. Often, a polarizer will remove glare and increase the saturation of fall colors. Many photographers know that a polarizer has its maximum impact when it is aimed 900 to the direction of the sunlight. When pointed at other angles to the light, a polarizer is less effective. When used with omni-directional light (such as in overcast conditions), polarizers have even less of an effect. However, even light that is not polarized can become polarized when reflected off a surface. A polarizer can reduce or eliminate this reflected, polarized light. Consequently, a polarizer can sometimes have a positive impact even in lighting conditions that we would not normally consider prime conditions for a polarizer. Thus, it is best to check out the impact of a polarizer when shooting fall colors no matter what the type of light.

The Biggest Mistake

The biggest problem with photographing fall colors is those beautiful fall colors themselves. The most common mistake that I see in fall color images is that many photographers focus completely on the fall colors to the exclusion of everything else. It sometimes appears that photographers can get so excited by the colors that they don't consider any other factors in the creation of the image. The end result is imagery that has only one strength: blazing color. The first image might look impressive. On the other hand, after you have looked at ten, twenty, or more, you realize that they all look pretty much the same. Other than notable color, there is nothing unique about the images. So here is the first rule of fall color photography: The fact that a photographer has stunning color in front of his lens does not mean that he can forget about composition, light, shadows, contrast, leading lines, mood, emotion and all of the other factors that go into creating great photography.

In essence, a knowledgeable photographer will use fall color as one component to enhance an already strong image rather than rely solely on the color to create impact. How can a photographer determine when an image relies too heavily on the color alone? Simply imagine the image converted to black and white. If the image is still dramatic in black and white, it is probably a strong image. If the image loses its impact after the conversion, it is probably an image that has little going for it other than the fall color.

Fall Color Examples

The images below provide a few examples of the use of fall color. Obviously, these few images are not meant to provide a comprehensive overview of the many ways fall color images can be created. Rather, the purpose of these images is to show the thinking that went into the creation of the images. In particular, it is meant to show how fall color can be used as one element that integrates with other elements to produce a worthwhile image.

Fall Color: Landscapes

Figure 1: Fall Color and Landscapes

Landscapes can provide a great opportunity for fall color shots. The fall color that is closest to where I live tends to be primarily yellow and is usually found as patches of color. Consequently, one doesn't find a lot of areas that are carpeted in color. Therefore, one has the best chance of creating strong fall color images by finding dramatic scenes and figuring out how to integrate the available color with the rest of the surrounding environment. Figure 1 is a case in point. This is a scene next to a highway in the High Sierras. The scene grabbed my attention due to the sunset that was interacting with the dramatic storm clouds over the mountains. This scene would have made a good image even without the fall color. However, some patches of fall color provided an opportunity to further strengthen the image. The camera was positioned to place the largest patch of color in the foreground to add contrast of both tone (light toned trees vs. dark toned storm clouds) and color (yellow trees vs. the grays of the mountains). Furthermore, the color was dense at the front of the scene but got sparser as the trees receded into the distance -- leading the eye toward the mountain range and the sunset.

Fall Color: Isolated Elements

Figure 2: Fall Color and Isolated Elements

In the preceding image, fall color was used in a large landscape. A different approach is to identify an element of fall color and isolate it from the rest of the environment. This focuses the attention on the unique element and its color. Figure 2 illustrates this approach. This small leaf of a very young tree was found at the edge of a parking lot next to a park. The leaf was photographed up close with a macro lens (the leaf is only slightly longer than an inch). This allowed the leaf to be isolated from the surrounding environment. This isolation strengthened the image.

This image demonstrates three important factors that can be used to strengthen fall color images. First, strongly contrasting colors were used. The camera was positioned so that the lawn was directly behind the leaf. This resulted in the vibrant red of the leaf standing out from the strongly contrasting, lush green of the lawn. Second, the colors in this image are very saturated because magic hour light was used. In fact, this image was shot in the last one or two minutes of light before the sun disappeared behind a range of mountains -- resulting in a very soft and saturated light. This enhanced the colors. Third, the image conveys simplicity. This causes the viewer to focus on the important components of the image (i.e., color and shape) rather than being distracted by other elements of the environment.

This image demonstrates one other important concept about fall color photography: a photographer doesn't have to live in an area that has a large amount of fall color in order to get fall color images. While this image was shot in the High Sierras, it was not shot on the side of a mountain covered with expanses of fall color. Rather, this image was found next to a slab of asphalt parking lot less than a minute off the main highway. Furthermore, the image was shot one to two months before the fall color season began. No other vegetation in the area had developed any fall color at that time. Yet, a tiny bit of color was all that was needed to create the image.

Fall Color: Multiple Colors

Figure 3: Fall Color and Multiple Colors

One method of creating memorable, fall color images is to photograph scenes that have several colors. Figure 3 illustrates this approach. The contrast between the colors in this image helps to draw the viewer's attention. One technique that helps to further accentuate such a mixture of colors is to create a composition where the colors are set against a relatively dark background. This approach was used in figure 3. Fortunately, the colorful trees were situated on the edge of a forest. This allowed the colorful trees to be placed against the relatively dark pines. Thus, the dark green of the pines along the top of the image helps to set off the colors of the trees. Lastly, the weather was used to enhance the image. This image was actually discovered the day before this shot was taken. At that time, there was no snow anywhere. However, the weatherman predicted snow for that evening. Thus, I returned early the next morning hoping to find some snow on the trees. I was not disappointed. That evening, a light dusting of snow had been deposited on the trees and the ground. This light dusting of an early winter storm helped add a bit of atmosphere and a sense of the cold, fall temperatures.

Fall Color: Lines, Curves, and Patterns

Figure 4: Fall Color and Lines, Curves, and Patterns

Just a few short paragraphs ago, I stated that the most common mistake in fall color images is that many photographers focus completely on the fall colors to the exclusion of everything else. Now, I go and show you Figure 4 -- an image that is probably over 95% yellow. What's going on? Am I a hypocrite? Actually, no! While it is true that this image is dominated by a single fall color, there is a very big difference. The difference comes in the form of the tree trunks and branches. When you look at this image, where are your eyes draw? To the color? Briefly, perhaps, but not for very long. Rather, the eyes are drawn to the tree trunks and branches. Why? The trunks and branches are very light colored. The eyes are always drawn to light areas. Even more important, the light tree trunks contrast in both tone and color with the rest of the image. The eyes are strongly attracted to areas of contrast. Consequently, the eyes of most viewers will spend most of their time roaming around the lines, curves, and patterns created by the tree trunks and branches. While the eyes will jump to the color as they roam the image, they will, likely, quickly jump back to the trunks and branches.

Thus, this image is not so much about the color. Rather, it is about the interaction of the lines, curves, and patterns of the trunks and branches with the color. In other words, despite the fact that the color covers most of the image, the color in this image is only one element that interacts with the other elements in the image to create the final result.

Fall Color: Reflections

Figure 5: Fall Color and Reflections

Did you ever notice that things seem to look more dramatic when they are reflected in a body of water? Why not use this to your advantage with fall colors. Figure 5 shows this idea in action. The area around this pond had a group of trees with yellow fall color. When photographed directly, the trees looked okay, but the reflections of the trees in the pond looked much more impressive. The choice was simple: use the pond to enhance the impact of the fall color through the reflections of the trees.

Nonetheless, simply reflecting the fall colors in the pond was not enough. It was desired to show the relationship of the fall colors to the rest of the surrounding environment. This was done by positioning the camera to capture the grass and branches sticking out of the water. This lets the viewer know that the fall color was surrounded by a natural pond and not just a puddle or cement water hole.

The last component of this image has to do with the shutter speed. This image was shot in the early morning (just after sunrise while the pond was still in the shadow of the nearby mountains). The air was cool calmness pervaded the area. It was desired to catch this feeling of calmness. It was known that a smooth reflection would communicate this feeling while a jagged reflection would contradict it. Thus, a relatively slow shutterspeed of 0.3s was used to help ensure that the reflection would not appear jagged.

In Summary

The best fall color images integrate color with other photographic elements to produce visual impact.