If you’re like us, autumn photography is something you eagerly await all year. Say goodbye to the bland, bleached colours and hazy, washed-out skies of summer and welcome in the russets, reds and golds that dominate the countryside.
Autumn is a period of transition, when life slowly drains from the land, but instead of fading quietly it goes out in a blaze of glory, creating some of the most spectacular photo opportunities you’ll see all year.
In this in-depth autumn photography tutorial we’ll explore the techniques you need to shoot stunning pictures of Fall in all its glory, and tantalise you with a mouthwatering selection of autumnal images.
We’ll begin with composition, and how to make sure you get the best views possible for your autumn photography.
Autumn Photography Tips: 01 Work yourself harder
Next time you head out with a camera, push yourself harder. Walk a little further and see if the scenery gets better, climb that hill for a bird’s eye view of the world, hike to that distant headland where the view along the coast will be clearer.
There’s an old saying, ‘The harder you work, the luckier you get’ and this definitely applies to landscape photography.
So the next time you head out with a camera, instead of settling for the first viewpoint you find, push yourself harder.
Walk a little further and see if the scenery gets better, climb that hill ahead for a bird’s eye view of the world, hike to that distant headland where the view along the coast will be clearer.
There’s an old saying, ‘The harder you work the luckier you get’ and this definitely applies to landscape photography.
Autumn Photography Tips: 02 Just add water
Water in its many forms is a great ally when shooting landscapes – which is just as well, since 70% of the earth’s surface is covered in it and, as we head towards autumn, rainfall levels rise dramatically.
Still water in lakes and lochs is ideal for capturing reflections. If you get down to the water’s edge you can create sublime, symmetrical compositions, with the landscape occupying the top half of the shot and its reflection filling the foreground.
Use a polariser to increase colour saturation on sunny days, but make sure it doesn’t spoil the reflections. A neutral density (ND) grad filter can also be useful for balancing the landscape and its reflection.
Reflections always come out darker due to the laws of physics, and a grad over the top half of the shot will let you give more exposure to the reflection so the final image is more balanced.
Autumn is a great time of year to shoot abstract reflections of vivid colours. Overhanging trees clothed in autumnal foliage will reflect in rivers and streams, and the gentle flowing of the water ripples and distorts them.
Use a telezoom lens to home in on these eye-catching patterns of colour.
Autumn Photography Tips: 03 Get down and dirty
If you want to bag the best shots, you have to get down there in the thick of it all and not worry about muddy knees or a soggy bum.
So don’t be afraid to lie on your back in the middle of woodland to get a great view of the autumnal canopy, or scramble up a slippery bank for a clearer view of the landscape.
Similarly, while you need to protect your gear, sometimes you need to take risks in pursuit of a great picture – like holding your camera at knee-level to capture waves breaking on a beach or resting it on the ground for an unusual viewpoint.
SEE MORE: 53 essential photo ideas for winter
Autumn Photography Tips: 04 Just add clouds
Clear, blue sky and overcast, grey sky tend to look empty and dull. But throw a few clouds into the equation and it all changes.
Suddenly the sky has depth and interest. If the sun’s shining, clouds passing over it cast moving shadows on the landscape below.
Just before sunrise and just after sunset, clouds are underlit so they glow red, yellow, pink and purple. Clouds form patterns that make interesting pictures in their own right.
Autumn Photography Tips: 05 The sky’s the limit
When the sky looks interesting, let it take priority in your image. Reverse the usual 1/3rd sky, 2/3rd landscape so the sky occupies more of the composition than the foreground.
Fit an ultra-wide lens, tilt your camera back and use the distortion of the lens to emphasise cloud formations.
A polarising filter enhances the sky in sunny weather, deepening the blue so that clouds stand out. For the best results, keep the sun on one side of the camera.
If you want to record detail in the landscape you may also need a neutral density (ND) grad filter to balance sky and land.
This isn’t so important in sunny weather when you’re polarising the sky, but at dawn and dusk when the sky’s much brighter than the land, a 0.6 or 0.9 ND grad will be required.
Another effective technique when you have lots of sky in the frame is to use a long exposure so moving clouds are blurred.
On a blustery, autumnal day an exposure of 20-30 seconds will record lots of movement.
To make such long exposures possible, set your camera to its lowest ISO, stop the lens down to its smallest aperture (usually f/22) and pile on light-draining filters such as polarisers and NDs.
Autumn Photography Tips: 06 Use your telephoto
Wide-angle lenses tend to be the most popular choice for landscape photography, but for the right kind of subject, telephoto and telezoom lenses are just as useful.
For a start, they magnify your subject so it appears bigger in the frame – this enables you to isolate interesting parts of a scene or fill the frame with smaller details such as backlit autumn leaves or abstract reflections in water.
There are two things you need to watch when using telephoto lenses. Firstly, they’re big and heavy so if you’re hand-holding make sure the shutter speed is fast enough to avoid camera shake – ideally no slower than 1/250sec unless you have image-stabilising lenses, in which case you should be able to manage quite easily at 1/60sec for a typical 70-200mm or 75-300mm zoom.
Secondly, depth of field is limited with telephoto lenses. The longer the focal length and wider the aperture, the shallower depth of field gets.
This can be handy if you want to isolate your subject and throw the background out of focus – just set the widest aperture, usually f/4-f/5.6, and focus carefully on your main subject.
However, if you need to record front-to-back sharpness in a scene you may have to stop down to f/22 or f/32, and even then it may not be sufficient – so use with care.
Autumn Photography Tips: 07 Maximise depth of field
If you want everything to record in sharp focus, you need to control depth of field. The easiest way is using a technique known as hyperfocal focusing.
First, compose the scene and focus your lens on infinity. Next, check the depth of field scale on the lens to see what the nearest point of sharp focus will be at the aperture set.
Finally, re-focus the lens on the hyperfocal distance and depth of field will extend from half the hyperfocal distance to infinity. To use this technique your lens must have a distance scale and a depth of field scale. If your lenses don’t have the necessary scales, use the chart above as a guide.
Autumn Photography Tips: 08 Make hay while the sun shines
Although you don’t need sunny weather to shoot great landscapes – in fact, often the opposite holds true as stormy weather’s more dramatic – there’s no denying the magic of sunshine.
It makes the world look bright and colourful, light levels are even, it’s easy to take perfectly exposed pictures and we feel more inspired.
So, if you’re lucky enough to have some spare time and the sun’s shining you know what to do: grab a camera and get out there and start shooting!
Remember to pack a polariser as you can use it to enhance the sky and obliterate glare so colour saturation’s improved.
Also, look for subjects that benefit from sunny weather – scenes with nice reflections in calm water, simple photo compositions, such as a single tree covered in autumnal foliage against the sky, close-ups of details in the landscape like autumn leaves carpeting the ground and so on.
Grand vistas tend to look flat and boring in sunny weather, so avoid them at all costs.
Autumn Photography Tips: 09 Blink and you’ll miss it
Although autumn last for several months, the period when foliage colour peaks and photo opportunities are at their best may only last for a few days – so make sure you’re ready for it.
The last week in October and first week in November are often considered to be the most productive, especially in northern regions such as the Lake District, though further north into Scotland autumn colour may be at its best a fortnight earlier and down south a fortnight later.
Much depends on the summer – if it was hot and dry, autumn can come earlier, while a wet summer prolongs things. All you can do is keep an eye on the foliage around you and watch the long-term weather forecast.
Autumn Photography Tips: 10 Capture the glow
Backlighting makes autumn trees come alive. Angle yourself towards the light, but be aware of flare – hide the sun behind a suitable branch or tree trunk.
Take a meter reading from the glowing leaves and increase the exposure slightly – try adding +1/2 stop to start with, checking the histogram to ensure you’re not overexposing the highlights. Mix colours, as above, for impact.
Autumn Photography Tips: 11 Colour crazy
Want to add zing to your autumn pictures? Here’s how to make the most of colour:
Control white balance
Instead of using auto white balance, try setting a higher ISO so that the camera thinks you’re shooting in cooler light and warms up the colours. Don’t go over the top, though, otherwise the effect can look off.
Flare tends to lower contrast and weaken colour saturation, so make sure your lenses and filters are clean and use a lens hood or lens shade (your hand will be fine) to keep stray light off the lens.
Set a low ISO
Digital sensors give optimum image quality when set to a low ISO as problems such as noise are minimised. Whenever possible, work at the slowest speed your sensor offers – usually ISO 100 but ISO 50 in some cases.
Use polarising filters
This is a must. Polarising filters not only deepen blue sky but also reduce glare and haze so that colours come out crisper and more deeply saturated.
Use enhancing filters
Red enhancers are ideal for autumnal foliage shots as they improve the warm colours and filter out cool casts. Avoid including the sky, however, as it tends to go magenta.
A little underexposure can make colours appear stronger. Just 1/3-1/2 stop is all you need. Any more and the image will appear too dark. Use your camera’s exposure-compensation facility to override the meter.
Shoot in the right light
The way colours record has a lot to do with the quality of light. Sunny weather’s the most effective psychologically, though bright overcast is said to be even better because contrast and glare are reduced.
Primary colours look stronger than pastel shades. Contrasting colours in the same picture also clash and add impact – blue and yellow are the best, followed by red and green.
Shoot in raw format
By shooting in raw you can let your computer convert the image file into a viewable image (JPEG or Tiff) rather than your camera. As your computer has a more powerful processor and can utilize more sophisticated raw conversion software, the resulting image will be sharper and crisper with better colour saturation.
Autumn Photography Tips: 12 Capturing mist and fog
Mist and fog can add a further dimension to an autumn landscape. To capture the atmosphere, all you need is basic kit and a tripod. Wait for a relatively warm day followed by a cool night and if cloud cover creeps in after the fog has formed it will slow its dispersal in the morning.
Fog and mist block the sunlight so exposure times are likely to be long, so a tripod’s essential. They also reduce colour saturation and shadows, giving a mono feel. You could accentuate this with filters such as an 80A (cool) or an 81C (warm), although it’s easier to alter the colours in Photoshop.
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