Photo tips: capturing autumn / fall colour

Autumn is my absolute favourite time of year to photograph - the landscape turns red and gold, leaves sparkle like jewels in the autumn sunshine, changing colour almost before your eyes. Is there anything more beautiful than watching a swirl of golden leaves spin and float gently down to rest on a scarlet carpet? There is magic everywhere - look up, look down, look all around.

Yet this autumnal magic can be surprisingly hard to capture on camera, so I thought I would share a few tips that have helped me. I should say that I am not about traditional shots or wide vistas of lots of trees. I hate HDR (High Dynamic Range) shots with a passion. My photography is all about softness and simplicity and my macro lens is my autumn lens of choice. So read on if you are interested in capturing autumn the beautiful simplicity way.


1. Position yourself to best catch the light

This is probably the single most important thing you can do. Observe which direction the sun is shining (even when there's lots of cloud cover) and walk around the tree you are photographing to see where the leaves are best illuminated. Sometimes, this means standing underneath the tree to get to the underside of the leaves (but obviously taking great care not to damage it). You will usually find that in one direction the leaves look flat, dull and lifeless, but from the opposite side they are beautifully lit, with strong vivid colours.

If you're lucky enough to have a day with some sunshine, it's worth waiting for the sun to come out and illuminate your shot - it's amazing what a bit of patience can do.

And make sure your flash is turned off - you won't capture that autumn magic with artificial light.


2. Use other trees for background colour

The joy of autumn for me is the beautiful medley of rich colours - definitely a case where the sum is greater than the parts. To take advantage of this, position yourself so that a brightly coloured tree is in the background of your shot, ideally one that is a contrast to the leaf or tree you are focussing on. Sometimes it's the background that makes the shot.


3. Don't shoot against the sky

The sky is usually much brighter than the landscape. If you are trying to focus on some leaves or a tree with lots of sky visible behind them, your camera will struggle to get the exposure right - you'll find your shot will either be far too light (exposed for the leaves) or far too dark (exposed for the sky). Even with lots of post-processing, it's hard to get pleasing results. You would be better to change your angle of view so that you have other trees/leaves in the background instead of the sky.

Of course, there are always exceptions to this rule. If the sun is behind you and the sky is bright blue, you might find your exposure is nicely balanced. And sometimes shooting directly into the sun provides some interesting sunflare - but it can be very hit and miss. As always, the key is to experiment, and check your results.


4. Look for fallen leaves & small details

As well as photographing the leaves whilst they are on the trees, don't forget to look around for other details as well. There is so much richness of colour and texture in the autumn landscape. A few ideas to try:

  • Fallen leaves, perhaps on a branch with some interesting moss, or floating in a stream.
  • Water droplets.
  • Reflections in a puddle or lake.
  • Ask a friend to hold a collection of autumn finds in their hands, or hide behind a leaf bouquet, or make a leaf headdress.
  • Find some colourful leaves for a backdrop for some portraits. Action shots can be fun too - try jumping off a tree stump or throwing some leaves in the air (put your camera into continuous shooting mode for this one, so you can capture as many frames as possible - hopefully one of them will be "the one").
  • Look down at your feet - the autumn carpet can be pretty special. 
  • Bring some props out with you to photograph, such as mini pumpkins/gourds, or in my case, dolls :)
  • Collect some fallen leaves to take home with you and arrange them on a simple background (but work quickly, before they dry and curl).

Don't be afraid to move things around either - I will often collect together some of the most beautiful fallen leaves and place them on a branch or a tree stump and arrange them to look as if they had fallen there. I'll also remove anything that looks dead or diseased from the shot (always without causing damage to anything - always respect your environment).


5. WHICH GEAR TO USE AND WHICH SETTINGS

As I mentioned above, my absolute favourite lens to use for autumn photography is my 100mm f2.8 macro lens. This is because I love to shoot small details, with softness and simplicity. I find you need a longer lens as the trees are often very tall, so it's the only way to get close enough to the leaves. I usually shoot somewhere between f2.8 - f4, trying to find the balance between shallow depth of field and sufficient sharpness of the subject I'm focussing on.

Another lens I like to use is my 24-105mm f4 zoom lens. I will mostly use this fully extended at 105mm with an aperture of f4 to get as much background blur as possible. It's also nice to be able to capture a few wider shots as well.

I also enjoy using my 50mm f1.4 lens. However, you need to be able to get reasonably close to your subject to produce the tight compositions and blurry backgrounds I love, so this has its limitations.

Finally, you might find a monopod or tripod helpful. The light can often be very low at this time of year with shutter speeds quite slow, so having something to steady your camera can be helpful. I have to say, though, that personally I prefer to shoot unencumbered - I'm forever moving around trying to find the perfect angle/light/background, going down low, shooting high. If I had to keep adjusting my tripod, I would be there forever!

Instead, I usually make sure my ISO is set to auto, so my camera can use higher ISO settings if the light is very low. I will most often shoot in Aperture Priority mode, as aperture is the setting I like to adjust most often. My camera will then adjust the shutter speed and ISO automatically, in accordance with the light reading.


6. Beware very shallow depth of field

Whilst I absolutely love shooting with the shallowest depth of field my lens will allow for maximum background blur, you do need to be careful if you are using a macro lens.  Shooting at 100mm focal length with an aperture of f2.8 gives you an extremely small range where your shot will be in focus (just a centimetre or two), if you are standing close to your subject. 

As the light is often low, it can be hard for your camera to focus and you can't be certain exactly where the focus point always is, unless you are shooting with manual focus (something my eyesight doesn't allow). I've come home and reviewed my photos after many an autumn photography session to find that most of them are blurry or the focus point is not in the right place and too much of the shot is out of focus (there's soft and there's blurry). 

I would suggest that you vary your aperture and experiment a bit with different settings, rather than using the absolute shallowest depth of field possible for ALL your shots (I typically work with a range of f2.8-f4, sometimes up to f5.6, if I'm using my 100mm macro lens).

The shot below was taken at f2.8 and I just about get away with it, but if you look closely, very little of the shot is in focus. This would have benefitted from increasing the aperture to f4. As the background is quite a distance away, this would still have allowed plenty of background blur.


For more information about aperture and depth of field, and the relationship to focal length and the distance from your subject/background, please see my How to get background blur in your photographs post.


7. Review often

This point goes hand in hand with the one above. To avoid disappointment, make sure you sit down at some point and review the photographs you have taken. Zoom in and check to see if they are sharp and if the focus point is where you want it. Is the exposure looking OK? You then still have time to re-shoot and correct any problems and try any other shots you want. It's also the perfect opportunity for a nice cup of tea :)


So there you have my top tips for capturing autumn colour, the beautiful simplicity way. If you'd like to see more photos, have a look at my Autumn Glory album on Flickr - I've amassed rather a lot of shots over the years!

Let me know if you have any questions and I'll do my best to help. What are your top tips?