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Try these awesome autumn photography tips to kick-start your creativity this season…
For most photographers, shooting in autumn is a treat we eagerly anticipate all year long. No more hazy summer skies and muddled, dull colors. With fall comes the chocolaty auburns and deep golds that pepper bucolic scenes with rich color.
Though some of us may think of autumn somewhat sullenly, with its slowly measured ebb of life from lands once heaving with activity, autumn is actually quite a vibrant transition, providing us with beautifully unique photo opportunities.
To help you capture all that this stunning season has to offer, we’ve put together a thorough list of our best autumn photography tips, along with a few inspiring autumnal images to get your creative juices flowing.
We’ll begin with composition, and how to make sure you get the best views possible for your autumn photography.
Autumn photography tips for choosing your subject
01 Work harder
Fantastic autumn photography doesn’t always come easy. Sometimes in order to get that perfect shot you literally have to put in some legwork.
Maybe the view of those treetops will improve if you hike up that hill a little further, or perhaps that idyllic coastline becomes even clearer with a trek up a nearby bluff.
Hard work tends to produce desirable results. This is not a novel concept by any means, and it definitely applies to photography.
So when you head out with your camera this autumn, explore the viewpoints around you instead of settling on the first one you come across.
02 Include water in your compositions
When you’re shooting landscapes, water can be your biggest friend. Luckily, almost ¾ of the earth is covered in it, and we’re heading into a rainy season.
Landscapes reflected in water can make for some very moving, symmetrical compositions. Look for still water in lakes and lochs to capture these reflections, with the top half of the shot consisting of the landscape and the foreground consisting of the reflection.
If you’re shooting on a sunny day, it might be wise to use a polariser to increase colour saturation. However, take care that it doesn’t ruin the reflection.
Neutral density (ND) grad filters can come in handy when you’re trying to strike a balance between the landscape and its reflection.
The laws of physics dictate that reflections will always come out darker. You can balance the final image by giving it more exposure with a grad over the top half of the shot.
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.
The vibrant colours of autumn make for beautiful abstract reflections. The vivid foliage of fall trees reflect well in water, especially moving water such as rivers and streams where distortion creates a nonconventional reflective effect.
Telephoto zoom lenses are effective for honing in on these striking colour patterns.
03 Get down low
Getting dirty is a part of good photography. The best shots sometimes require you to get down there in the mud and grime.
Don’t shy away from getting down and dirty by lying on your back to capture that great woodland canopy shot or muddying up your knees by scrambling up a river bank to get a better landscape view.
Protecting your gear is a must, but sometimes you have to get a bit risky with it, too. Don’t be afraid to rest it on the ground or hold it at an awkward angle to capture unique perspectives.
04 Add clouds
A grey overcast sky or even a clear blue sky can appear boring and vacant. Clouds add depth and points of interest to the image, giving your eye something to focus on in the image of the sky.
They also can cast shadows on the landscape as they move past the sun. Clouds glow lovely shades of red, yellow, purple and pink when they are underlit, so try shooting just prior to sunrise or sunset.
A few clouds can liven up a landscape quite effectively and become interesting subjects themselves.
05 Emphasise the sky
In general, the rule for capturing landscapes is 1/3 sky, 2/3 landscape. However, if the sky looks intriguing go ahead and reverse that rule to let it take priority as the main subject of your image. One of the best autumn photography tips is knowing when to break the rules.
Patterns in the clouds can by emphasised by using an ultra-wide lens while tilting your camera back to make use of the distorting effect.
The blue colour of a sunny sky can be augmented with a polarising filter. It will deepen the blue, providing more contrast against the white clouds. You will want to keep the sun on one side of the camera for optimum results.
Neutral density (ND) grad filters help you to capture detail in your landscapes by balancing the land and sky.
When you’re using a polarising filter for the sky during sunny weather, this isn’t as important, however when the sky is significantly brighter than the land, such as around dawn and dusk, a 0.6 or 0.9 ND grad will be necessary.
Something else you can try if your composition incorporates a large amount of sky in the frame is to use a long exposure blur the movement of the clouds. On a particularly windy day an exposure of 20-30 seconds will record lots of movement.
In order to shoot at exposures this long, set your camera to its lowest ISO, stop the lens down to its smallest aperture (usually f/22) and mount a polariser or ND filter to block out even more light.
06 Use a telephoto lens
Many landscape photographers opt to use wide-angle lenses tend to be the most popular choice for landscape photography, but sometimes a telephoto and telephoto zoom lens can really bring a particular subject to life.
One of the key benefits of using these lenses is that they magnify your subject, making it larger in the frame, which helps you isolate the most interesting elements of a subject or scene and capture some of the finer details that often get missed with wider angles of view.
However, you need to be careful when using telephoto lenses. Their sheer size for a start makes it almost impossible to shoot handheld without risking camera shake.
Using the old rule of a shutter speed figure equivalent to your focal length, you typically don’t want to shoot handheld with a telephoto lens at any shutter speed slower than 1/250sec unless you have image-stabilising lenses.
If you do have a lens with image stabilisation you then might get away with shooting at 1/60sec for a typical 70-200mm or 75-300mm zoom.
What’s more, you should be aware that using a telephoto lens will limit depth of field. The longer your focal length and wider the aperture, the shallower your depth of field will appear.
And this isn’t a bad thing! If you want to isolate a subject against a blurred background, a telephoto lens set to its widest aperture, usually f/4-f/5.6, will do the job perfectly.
However, if you prefer a wide depth of field with everything in focus from the foreground through the background, you’ll want to stop down to f/22 or f/32.
07 Maximise depth of field
As we stated above, if you want front-to-back sharpness in the frame, you want to ensure a wide depth of field. A popular technique that many landscape photographers use to achieve this is called hyperfocal focusing.
It’s a lot easier to do than the technical-sounding name might imply. First, frame your scene and focus your lens on infinity. Next, check the depth of field scale on your lens to find the nearest point of sharp focus at the aperture you’ve chosen.
Now you’ll want to re-focus your lens on the hyperfocal distance and the depth of field will extend from half the hyperfocal distance to infinity.
In order to use this hyperfocal focusing technique you must have a lens that displays a distance scale and a depth of field scale. If they don’t, you can also use trial and error or do a Google image search for a hyperfocal distance chart.
08 Take advantage of the sun
While sunny weather isn’t necessary to shoot fantastic landscapes, it can bring a certain level of captivation to your images.
Sunlight evens out light levels and brightens everything up, making colours more vibrant and providing good conditions for capturing pictures that are perfectly exposed and even inspiring.
If you do find yourself shooting in sunny conditions, don’t forget to bring a polariser to help enhance the sky and colour saturation.
Keep an eye out for subjects that do well with sunny conditions. This includes views that look nice reflected in still water, simple photo compositions like individual trees with colorful foliage set against the sky, detailed landscape close-ups such as vibrant autumn leaves covering the earth, etc.
It’s best to avoid grand vistas all together because they tend to look flat and uninteresting in sunny conditions.
09 When to go
While the autumn season itself may extend for a few months, the time during which foliage colour is at its best may only be for several days. Make sure you’re ready to shoot during this time so you don’t miss out on these prime autumnal photo opportunities.
Most forests are at their best during the last week in October and the first week in November, while regions further north tend to be more productive around a fortnight earlier and those down south a fortnight later.
Hot and dry summers can cause autumn to come about a bit earlier, while wet summers generally delay the transition a bit.
Long-term weather forecasts can be helpful in determining when the seasons will change, but your best bet is to simply keep an eye on surrounding foliage.
10 Capture the glow of autumn
Autumn trees come to life when backlit. Without avoiding flare, position yourself at an angle towards the light and use a tree trunk or branch to conceal the sun.
You’ll also want to get a meter reading from the bright leaves and up your exposure just a bit. Start by adding +1/2 stop and refer to the histogram to see whether the highlights are being overexposed. Your images will also have more impact if you mix colours.
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Autumn photography tips for setting up your camera
11 Capture fog and mist
Autumn landscapes become even more dynamic with mist and fog. A standard kit and tripod is all you need to capture this environment.
Cool nights followed by warm days will bring about mist and fog, and cloud cover after its formation tends to keep it around for a while.
The tripod is necessary because the lack of sunlight during foggy and misty conditions brings about longer exposure times. You may also notice that colours and shadows are diminished, resulting in a mono feel.
Filters such as an 80A (cool) or an 81C (warm) can help remedy this problem, but you’ll likely have an easier time making these adjustments in Photoshop.
12 Creating movement
Vertical panning can create a blurred effect when your subject is immobile. This can be accomplished by using either a tripod or doing it hand-held.
Play around with different shutter speeds, such as 1/15sec down to 1sec and change the pace at which you move the camera.
One of our favourite autumn photography tips is to put some Vaseline on a clear filter or clear piece of plastic and put it in front of your lens. Parallel streaks can be formed by placing just a dab on your finger and smearing it across the filter or plastic.
Oddly enough, you’ll discover that the direction of the streaking in your image will be at 90 degrees to the streaks you created with the Vaseline. The Vaseline will need to run horizontally, then, if you want to imitate a vertical panning effect.
13 Get your exposure right
Even though Photoshop is a powerful tool that allows you to correct exposure error in digital images to a certain degree, it’s always best to try and get it right in-camera.
To do this, you must be familiar with the fundamentals of exposure, how your camera’s meter functions and be able to identify circumstances that are likely to bring about error in the first place.
When shooting landscapes, you’re much more likely to be faced with underexposure rather than overexposure simply due to the large amount of bright sky that’s typically included.
Shooting into-the-light or photographing bright and reflective objects such as water will also trick your camera’s meter as it attempts to balance out the scene.
Avoid this by taking one shot at the metered exposure then maybe two more with the exposure compensation set to +1/2 and +1 stop.
It’s unusual during autumn that your meter could be more than one stop out so there should be one perfect shot of your three. However, if you are doubtful, go ahead and add a fourth frame at +1 stops and a fifth at +2 stops.
Don’t forget to get creative with exposure, too. A backlit woodland scene shot at +2 stops, for instance, can produce images that are rather dreamy and beautiful.
Basically, you want to experiment with your camera and get to know how different exposure adjustments interact with different subjects.
14 Use a wide-angle lens
Wide-angle lenses are perfect for creating far-reaching, dramatic compositions. They allow the elements to appear further apart by stretching the perspective as well as exaggerating scale.
Large depth of field at small apertures such as f/16 or f/22 means everything can be recorded in sharp focus.
15 Think about what’s in the frame
It’s the tendency of landscape photographers to shoot things as they are, but there’s nothing wrong with doing a bit of tidying up to get your scene just right.
For instance, you may want to toss some more colourful leaves in the foreground if the ones you find are a bit bland, or take out unpleasant looking twigs and leaves if they take away from the shot.
Of course, you don’t want to cause any damage to your surroundings, but a little re-organizing is completely acceptable.
16 Shoot sunrise and sunset
Shorter autumn days mean shooting sunrise and sunset won’t deprive you of too much sleep. Here in the UK the sun rises around 7am in early November and sets at 4:30pm in central England.
Capturing silhouettes against the sun and sky is easy. Simply set your camera to Aperture Priority mode and you’re good to go.
If you’re looking to capture more foreground detail, try using a strong (0.9) ND grad to provide more exposure to the foreground without burning out the sky.
SEE MORE: Best camera settings for sunsets
17 Use a Neutral Density grad
Without ND grad filters, the sky and foreground will be unbalanced. A correctly exposed landscape will wash-out the sky, and the landscape will be underexposed if you get the sky’s exposure right.
0.3, 0.6 and 0.9 are the usual ND grad densities, and they tone down the sky by one, two and three stops, respectively.
A 0.6 is generally suitable for most conditions, but a 0.9 is a stronger and is quite useful during dawn and dusk.
To use an ND grad, first compose your picture and then slide the grad down in its holder until the grey part covers the sky in your camera’s viewfinder.
To determine if you have the grad properly aligned, depress the depth of field preview button to darken the viewfinder.
18 Make your tripod even sturdier
Without a doubt, tripods are indispensable for landscape photography. While they’re extremely handy when it comes to avoiding camera shake at long exposures, tripods also protract the picture-taking process and allow you to perfect compositions, leaving you with a camera that’s primed to shoot while you set back and wait for the perfect conditions, such as a cloud to pass or the sun to set.
There are a couple of ways to transport your tripod. Some photographers use padded bags with straps that can be carried over a shoulder or across the chest. Others attach the tripod to their backpack.
Another option is to simply attach a strap to the tripod itself so it can be carried over a shoulder.
19 Compose for depth
An effective landscape photograph conveys a strong sense of depth.
You’ll need a wide-angle lens with an effective focal length of 28mm or less to ensure you can work within a broad field of vision.
Also, you’ll want to create dramatic perspective by getting in close and emphasising the foreground. This allows features in the foreground to dominate the composition.
If you position your camera about a metre or so out from boulders on a beach, for instance, you’ll be surprised by the amazing effect it creates.
The last thing you need to do is set the lens to a small aperture such as f/16 or f/22 and maximise depth of field. This will ensure that everything in the image is captured in sharp focus.
Following these steps will leave you with an image that is dramatically composed and communicates a strong sense of scale and depth. Best of all, this technique can be used over and over to produce the same amazing results.
20 Embrace bad weather
‘Bad’ weather typically creates the most dramatic conditions for landscape photography. Specifically, when there’s a stormy sky and the sun breaks through you’ll end up with a sunlit foreground under a layer of dark, gloomy clouds.
Your images will be more stunning if you can capture the above conditions close to sunrise or sunset, as the light will be a lovely gold colour.
There really isn’t a way to forecast when these conditions will happen, however you can prepare yourself by bundling up and getting outside so you’ll be ready with a break in the clouds occurs.