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Home > Learn Photography > A Beginner’s Guide To Shooting Autumn Colours

A Beginner’s Guide To Shooting Autumn Colours


Every season has its charms, but autumn (or fall if you insist) is particularly special. What’s not to like? The weather is often unsettled and therefore interesting photographically. (A clear blue sky is boring, a sky that changes from one moment to the next is far more compelling.) And then there are the colours of autumnal foliage, the reds, yellows and oranges that make the season a visual treat.

As I write this, here in the northern climes of the northern hemisphere, autumn is beginning to take effect. From my office window I can already see trees that are shedding the greens of summer for the golds of autumn. In fact if I wasn’t typing this I might be tempted to sneak out right now and expose a few pixels. Obviously you’re under no constraint to hang around, but before you head out you might find these hints and tips useful…

Deciduous trees provide the colour, but they don’t have to be the primary subject. Here I shot the reflections of trees in a pond, creating an abstract wash of colour.

Great Britain can be a misty old place in autumn. Even when there is no mist it can be overcast and a bit gloomy. Fortunately, this is no bar to photographing woodland. In fact, it’s often the best time to be out shooting woodland. On bright sunny days woodland can be a chaotic mess of bright highlights and dense shadows. Exposure can be tricky in this kind of light as the contrast level often exceeds the dynamic range of cameras. This is not a problem on a misty or overcast day. Contrast levels are lower and therefore it’s far easier capture the entire range of tones in the scene. The only problem is typically the sky, which will be far, far brighter than the woodland scene you’re shooting; this will create patches of white wherever sky can be seen in your shots. The most elegant solution is to carefully frame your photos so that the amount of visible sky is minimised, or – even better! – is not visible at all.

Long lenses – 85mm or longer – make it easier to exclude sky and concentrate on the  purely on the trees themselves.

The light levels in woodland are naturally lower than those in more open environments. This means that shutter speeds will often be long, particularly if you’re using a smallish aperture to maximise depth of field and/or a low ISO to keep image noise low. The problem is exacerbated if you then add light-sapping filters such as a polariser (of which more in a moment). All of this means that using a tripod is a necessity. However, this is no bad thing. A tripod will slow you down and so make you think harder about composition. You can even use long shutter speeds to your advantage. Wind-blown foliage will blur during a long exposure, helping to create a sense of movement in the final shot.

Woodland isn’t just about trees. Also look for other subjects like fungi that are commonly seen in autumn , or plants such as bracken that have their own take on the change in the season.

If the sun is shining then forget woodland and concentrate on single trees that stand alone, such as in a park setting. Red/yellow and blue are complementary colours so the combination of autumn foliage and a cloudless sky works well together. Shoot when the sun is at 90° to the tree and you can use a polariser to deepen the blue of the sky too. While we’re on the subject of polarisers…

Wet or naturally shiny leaves pick up the reflection of the sky above. This has the effect of washing out their colour, making the colour less intense. A polariser will help to remove some of the leaves’ shininess to reveal the colour beneath. It won’t entirely fix the problem (not all the leaves will be at the optimum angle for the effect to work) but it will go a long way to make the colour of the tree pop more in your shots. This technique works even when it’s overcast so don’t forget to pack your polariser even when the weather is less than perfect.

Woodland can be chaotic places. If you find it hard to find a pleasing composition try looking for details to create clean, simple photos.

Picking the right White Balance is key to making the most of autumnal. Shoot Raw and you have the option to tweak this later. With JPEG you really need to think about this at the time of shooting. Auto WB can work, but it’s not an option to rely on – the warm colours of the autumn foliage can fool Auto WB into artificially cooling your shots down. Try experimenting with either Daylight or Cloudy. Daylight will produce slightly cooler images than Cloudy, but it’s largely a matter of taste. Personally, I find Cloudy produces images that look a bit syrupy unless the weather is particularly grey and dank so I tend to stick to Daylight. If you’ve time and plenty of memory card space try shooting with both options to see which you prefer. 

Do you know something, the call of the wild is just too much. It’s time to go out and shoot some trees. That’s the one thing about autumn, it doesn’t last that long in the scheme of things so take every opportunity you can to get out and enjoy yourself.

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