Fall Photography: 8 Tips for Creative Autumn Images

fall photographyFall is a great time for pho­tog­ra­phy, but it’s dif­fi­cult to make images that haven’t been made a mil­lion times before. Leaves turn­ing red and gold are great, but let’s be hon­est: that’s a cliché that’s been shot a mil­lion times before. Here are 8 pho­tog­ra­phy tips to more cre­ative images this fall.

These pho­tog­ra­phy tips fall into two cat­e­gories: artis­tic and tech­ni­cal. As pho­tog­ra­phers, we oper­ate giz­mos with lots of but­tons so it’s real­ly easy to focus on things like expo­sure, white bal­ance, and depth of field. But pho­tographs should tell sto­ries and sto­ries mean cre­ativ­i­ty, mean­ing, and art. We’ll han­dle the artis­tic ideas first, and then the tech­ni­cal tricks.

1. Know Your Region
The clas­sic fall images of maples turn­ing red in next to a lake were prob­a­bly shot on the East­ern seaboard or upper Mid­west. In my home, the ever­green-filled Pacif­ic North­west the leaves aren’t that spec­tac­u­lar, but some­thing else is: mas­sive Chi­nook salmon spawn­ing and dying in the streams where they were born. Some­times it’s great gangs of geese. In Alas­ka it’s “ter­mi­na­tion dust”—the snow that shows up on the hills with no warn­ing, jump­ing straight from late sum­mer to win­ter. Every region has its fall high­lights. What are yours?

2. Tell Tran­si­tion Sto­ries
Fall is about tran­si­tion: accept­ing that the days are get­ting short­er fast, the last gasp of sum­mer camp­ing, the kids going back to school, or the moun­tains sud­den­ly being emp­ty and qui­et. It could be about the mad dash to fin­ish sum­mer projects, or look­ing for­ward to ski sea­son just around the cor­ner, or brown hills turn­ing back to green when the rain final­ly pro­vides some drought relief. Maybe it’s the sad real­iza­tion that the sea­son is over. Fig­ure out what the sto­ry is before you plan pho­tographs.

fall photography3. Peo­ple
Put peo­ple in your sto­ries and your images. Most of the tran­si­tions I men­tioned in the past para­graph aren’t just about pret­ty scenery: they’re about how we inter­act with the nat­ur­al world. Show peo­ple. Show them cold with the sud­den crisp air or the onset of the rainy sea­son, as well as enjoy­ing fall. It’s all part of the out­door sto­ry.

Now we go from the artis­tic top­ics to the tech­ni­cal ones.

4. Polar­ize
Fall images call for polar­iz­ing fil­ters. What’s a polar­iz­ing fil­ter? It’s a cir­cu­lar gray fil­ter com­posed of two rings. Like polar­ized sun­glass­es, they increase con­trast. They also cut glare, dark­en the sky, and increase sat­u­ra­tion slight­ly. The inner ring screws into the lens; the out­er one adjusts the effect, which is strongest at 90 degrees to the sun. It’s great for dark­en­ing skies, mak­ing fall col­ors pop, and cut­ting the glare reflect­ed off water. They’re designed to screw into DLSR lens­es, but can also be held care­ful­ly in front of the lens­es of point and shoots and phone cam­eras.

fall photography5. Use Col­ors Wise­ly
Fall col­or is spectacular—but to be tru­ly spec­tac­u­lar, it has to be paired with some­thing else. Think red leaves against the green nee­dles of ever­greens, or the yel­low-blue con­trast between leaves and water or sky. If you remem­ber your art class­es from mid­dle school, these are com­ple­men­tary col­ors that make each oth­er look more sat­u­rat­ed when they’re next to each oth­er.

6. Move the Cam­era
When you’re wan­der­ing around on your two feet, it’s easy to always put the cam­era at eye lev­el. This can be ok if you’re shoot­ing grand vis­tas, but it doesn’t gen­er­al­ly work in fall when you’re like­ly either shoot­ing up or down. Get close to the edge of leaves, the col­or of water at the ear­li­er sun­set, and kneel down or climb high to get a per­spec­tive oth­er than the usu­al.

fall photography7. Get Sta­ble
In the days of film, seri­ous pho­tog­ra­phers always used tripods because the only way to get a decent image was to use slow-speed film. In the dig­i­tal world, we have more flex­i­bil­i­ty. But tripods—even small table­top ones —help make sure your images are sharp. They let you shoot at low ISO, which means less pix­e­la­tion. They also help you con­trol focus when shoot­ing close-up. Less cam­era move­ment ensures that things close to the cam­era are sharp. And more impor­tant­ly, they make you slow down—which make you think more about your images.

8. Con­trol Depth of Field
Depth of field con­trols what—and how—much of your image is in sharp focus. Learn how to adjust the f‑stop on your cam­era. Many point and shoots allow this or have pic­ture modes that have dif­fer­ent pre-set depths of field. F‑stop con­trols depth of field: the small­er the open­ing, the more of the field of view is in focus—but the hard­er it is to hold the cam­era still since the shut­ter has to be open to let more light in. Shal­low depths of field are great when you want a soft back­ground free of dis­tract­ing ele­ments. Deep depth of field is great when you want every­thing to be sharp, both near and far ele­ments. Since fall pho­tog­ra­phy involves lots of leaf edges, you want depth of field under your con­trol, not the camera’s auto­mat­ic set­tings.

Use these fall pho­tog­ra­phy tips and say good­bye to the end of sum­mer, but hel­lo to one of the rich­est pho­to­graph­ic sea­sons we’ve got.