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9 tips for spectacular autumn photography

As we head into autumn in the Northern Hemisphere, we asked four professional photographers to share their secrets for making spectacular pictures this time of year.

For more than a decade, Matt Payne has been travelling to Colorado every year to photograph the landscape as it erupts in yellows and oranges. A true New Englander at heart, David Long has discovered magical waterfalls and mountain lakes that come to life in fall. Brandon Alms has witnessed the transformation of the maple leaves while hiking in northern Arkansas. Miles away, in Italy, Isabella Tabacchi heads to the Alps in autumn to watch the sun rise above the golden larch trees.

For these four photographers, the changing of the seasons serves as a reminder to slow down and reconnect with the natural world, whether that means gathering around the campfire with friends or getting lost on purpose while driving the backroads through the countryside. Here they share their top tips for capturing the spectacular colours and atmospheric conditions they embrace during this enchanting time of year.

Forest Guardians, 2021 © Matt Payne (@mattpaynephoto on Instagram)

1. Get into the field

Because he and his friends have returned to Colorado year after year as part of their annual trip, Matt knows the landscape, its cycles, and its weather patterns inside and out. “I have grown to have a good feel for when conditions will be ideal, based on studying the cycles of weather and plant and tree conditions,” he tells us. He can predict when the colours will change and how long they’ll last.

That kind of knowledge only comes with spending time in the field, perhaps in the company of another photographer or local conservationist who’s familiar with the location. If you’re just getting started, consider reaching out to another photographer or attending a workshop (a few of the photographers included in this article organise their own workshops or offer mentoring).

The important thing is to get out there and experience nature in real-time; Matt recommends using Gaia GPS, a maps app, to help you navigate trails in your area. You can use it to find campsites, hiking trails, and scenic overlooks.

Image © Brandon Alms (@brandonalms on Instagram)

2. Conduct some research

While most of your knowledge will be gathered on location and in the field, it also helps to do some preliminary research online, from searching Google Earth to checking out local websites and blogs. Photography magazines can also offer a treasure trove of information. “I’ve been reading Outdoor Photographer magazine for years,” Brandon tells us. “They always have great content for shooting, including locations in the fall. Whether they are highlighting a popular spot within a national park or pinpointing a local hidden gem, they have been my longtime go-to resource.”

Brandon also works for food and lifestyle magazines based in his hometown of Springfield, Missouri, so he gets to explore new places and settings regularly. Check out your local events and happenings by following magazines, newspapers, and bloggers in your area. You might find a seasonal event perfect for the shoot you have in mind.

Image © Brandon Alms (@brandonalms on Instagram)

3. Watch the forecast

David’s favourite days to shoot are overcast, as the sunlight’s soft and naturally diffused, meaning you can work throughout the day. But in fall, he also looks for foggy conditions and light rain or drizzle (wet foliage has richer colours). He’s also a fan of snowy days, if you get an early one, as the blanket of white will help those fall colours pop. Feel free to embrace “bad” weather; it often makes for good photos.

4. Beware of glare

From still mountain lakes to flowing waterfalls, water is a key element in many fall landscapes—but be wary of reflections and glare. “A polarizing filter is excellent for taking the shine/reflection off of foliage and water as well as increasing the colour saturation,” David says.

Image © David Long (@davidlong3653 on Instagram)
Image © David Long (@davidlong3653 on Instagram)

5. Chase the light

“I find my autumn locations using the same methods I use in every other season: Google Earth to scout new places, and PhotoPills to find the perfect time for that golden light,” Isabella says. PhotoPills, a favourite app among landscape photographers, helps you determine the position, direction, and quality of the sunlight at any given spot; they even have an augmented reality tool so you can visualise the light in your location in advance.

Early mornings always work well. It’s during this time of day that you’ll get golden light shining through tree leaves, and still waters for those serene reflections (if you’re shooting in the Alps or near water, like Isabella).

6. Get moving

Give yourself enough time to explore; the right vantage point might not be the first one you find, so keep an eye out for interesting structures, landmarks, and foreground elements. Autumn colours are beautiful, but you still need a subject to tie everything together. “I always wander around my chosen spot to look for inspiring points of view,” Isabella explains. “Of course, for my fall pictures, I prefer locations with a lot of golden trees. But I also find the trees and their branches can be used as a beautiful frame for mountains or other parts of the landscape.”

Autumnal Souls © Isabella Tabacchi (@isabellandscapes on Instagram)
Flames in the Dark © Isabella Tabacchi (@isabellandscapes on Instagram)

7. Stay flexible

Even the best-laid plans can go awry, so the photographers we spoke with recommend keeping an open mind and adapting in the moment. If conditions aren’t what you hoped for, make the most of what you have. “The biggest challenges most landscape and nature photographers face when it comes to fall photography is related to having little to no control over conditions, including weather, the health of the trees on any given year, and the phase and quality of the fall colour that has emerged,” Matt admits.

“A lot of photographers are obsessed with ‘peak colour’ or ‘peak conditions,’ when, in fact, there is no such thing. You can create incredible images of autumn scenes at any stage of autumn, even well after the leaves have all fallen from the trees. It does require photographers to think more outside the box, which, in my opinion, leads to creativity and personal expression. So set aside expectations, and enjoy the ride.”

8. Respect the land

“The biggest challenge I’ve seen has come from the overexposure and destruction of great locations on social media by individuals who don’t respect nature and people’s land,” David admits. “So many sites are becoming off-limits as a result, and finding new locations that have not been overrun has become much more difficult.”

In the age of “Instagram tourism,” it’s more important than ever to protect the places you visit. That means leaving nothing behind (take your trash with you), sticking to marked trails, and following the rules. It could also mean avoiding places that are already overcrowded in favour of lesser-known destinations; David has an eBook with dozens of hidden gems in New England.

Finally, we recommend checking out Nature First—The Alliance for Responsible Nature Photography, which Matt helped create, for educational resources and guidelines. You can find their seven guiding principles over on Matt’s website.

Capitol Peak Clearing Fall Storm, 2021 © Matt Payne (@mattpaynephoto on Instagram)

9. Use a light touch when editing

The temperature of the light becomes doubly important in autumn, so you want to shoot RAW for more flexibility in post-production (for example, you might want to warm up your shots a bit). “There are always a few adjustments required, but I tend to edit my photographs to best represent the actual experience I had in nature,” Matt explains. “Typically, for me, this looks like minor curves adjustments and some work using luminosity masks to dial in the colour or contrast that already existed in the scene.”

With that being said, Matt is also the co-founder of the Natural Landscape Photography Awards, a competition celebrating authenticity in nature photography, so he prefers using a light touch to preserve the integrity of the landscape. Ultimately, he wants the final photograph to capture what he really saw—and felt—when he was in the field. Autumn colours are spectacular on their own; they require a light touch, not heavy editing.

About the contributor

Feature Shoot showcases the work of international emerging and established photographers who are transforming the medium through compelling, cutting-edge projects, with contributing writers from all over the world.