Choosing the Location
The key point when shooting landscapes in the fall is to remember that the foliage just adds color. You still need a strong composition to create interest for the audience. Fall colors can start in early to mid-September in low-lying marshes and with early-turning trees like swamp maples and birches. Elevation can change timing by at least a week. There are now a lot of good apps that provide fall color maps, but I tend to rely on making calls to local contacts to get the best information. Past peak conditions can still yield rich colors and more isolated compositions to allow shooting into November.
Interesting Weather Makes Interesting Photos
My favorite condition to shoot fall colors is an overcast sky as it provides soft/even lighting in which you can shoot all day long. Fog and light rain are even better as they creates a mystical atmosphere and great color gradation. On the rare occasion when there is an early snow, you are rewarded with the colors popping out of a totally neutral background. But fall is also full of sunny days, so keep shooting and look to get out in the magic hours of morning and evening. During the middle of the day, try to find shade when you can or when in full sun try to use it to backlight the leaves in your scene.
I use a telephoto lens to compress and bring the leaves more “into the scene”. I usually shoot 1/3 to 2/3 of a stop under and always use a polarizing filter to eliminate the shine off the leaves and deepen the hue. Wind is your enemy in shooting fall colors so I prefer the early morning when it is calmest or I make sure I set my shutter speed at a high enough level to “freeze” the moving leaves. If you have moving water in the scene, use a tripod with a longer shutter speed to give a little motion to the stream or waterfall. I like between 1/3 – 1 second depending on the water’s speed.
I try to engage my audience by varying the scene from the traditional landscape. I do many of my shots around still water in order to provide reflections that create a little distortion to the viewers that tends to hold their interest. I also try to find paths, roads, fences, etc. to provide leading lines into the scene/foliage. Another technique to change the normal way the audience sees the scene is by getting low to the ground, shooting straight up or including close-up of foreground leaves in the scene.
Fall is a wonderful time to shoot and as Camus said “Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower”.