"It's everything," says nature photographer Rod Planck, who ought to know: his fall color photo tours sell out faster than any other tour or workshop he offers, which is a testament to the image opportunities and overall inspiration of fall color. If you're thinking of focusing a photography vacation around the colors of autumn, or just want to spend a day or two in pursuit of the season's hues, Rod suggests three major regions to consider: the New England states; the Colorado Rockies; and the upper Midwest of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota (all the photos here were taken by Rod in his home state of Michigan). If you live elsewhere, your best bet is the website of your state's tourism board for timely, peak fall color information, perhaps even a fall color hotline. And yes, there are apps for fall color's best times and places; Google will reveal all.
Not all things need be, or should be, photographed in bright sun. "People at the autumn tours will often tell me that the weather report calls for sun for the next seven days," Rod says, "but that's not good news." In autumn, sunlight is desirable only early and late, when it's essentially sidelighting. "An overcast day is best—first, because you can shoot all day long, and second because the light is soft and even." But doesn't overcast mean that the intensity of the color is decreased? Nope, not at all; in fact, just the opposite: autumn colors are saturated colors, and they contrast nicely with a gray day. While a bit of gray sky is okay in your photo, remember to avoid expanses of uninteresting white sky. What's often best is cloud cover illuminated by sunlight; the first photo here is a nice example of that.
Rod uses Matrix metering for everything, regardless of sunshine or clouds, then checks the histogram to make sure no highlights are being clipped. "I'll check the LCD to see what I'm getting and dial in some exposure compensation if I need to increase or decrease saturation." Another exposure setting tip: "Cloud cover will give you less light, and because you're photographing landscapes, generally you won't want to sacrifice depth of field by opening up the aperture, so I suggest pushing the ISO to keep your depth of field at a good setting while maintaining a high shutter speed if you're hand-holding the camera."
"But I use a tripod for everything, so shutter speed isn't usually an issue. If it's calm weather, I'll shoot at the lowest ISO setting and not really care how long the exposure is."
One of the things that'll give you a sense of the expanse of an area and the color that fills it is height. "A lot of locations afford the opportunity to drive up and get above the color," Rod says, "and when you can do that it gives you a grander feel for how much color there is in the area." Search out what Rod calls "the famous overlook" in any area of fall color. "There'll usually be one, and there'll be lots of people photographing there every morning." Rod often seeks elevations that give him a straight-on view of a fall color array, as in the second photo here, for which he was up high enough to look straight into central portions of the trees. "I take advantage of anything I can—a stump, rocks, hills. I've stood in the back of a pickup truck." And don't forget to look down, too. "Late in autumn, the forest floor is as colorful as the treetops were," Rod says, and offers the third Image as an example.
Streams, creeks, ponds and rivers can become magical in the fall. Rod sets the scene: "There's a maple tree on one side of the stream, and you're on the other side in the shadow. The maple gets sunlight on it and it reflects yellow into the stream in front of you; everything else is reflecting blue from the sky." When the leaves are turning, the spot you'd just pass by at any other time of the year becomes a great photo location as water gives you reflections, contrast and, with long exposures, texture.
Rod's an advocate of the "power of longer lenses." All the photos here were taken with 85mm, 70-200mm and 300mm NIKKOR glass.
Fog and Mist
They can soften and mute colors, but they add mood, atmosphere, even mystery. The fourth image is a rather straightforward capture of morning mist rising from a lake, while the fifth is a bit more complex: "The trees were just starting to get some sunlight, and I focused the camera on the foreground reflections, which are still in the shade, so the mist is a different color temperature, and the bottoms of the trees are still in shadow."
Consider some close-ups that are related to autumn but not to the season's bright colors, like the image of mushrooms growing on the side of a tree, or the photo of a milkweed seed pod with seeds being dispersed by the wind. "This is color that fall brings to particular plants," Rod says, "and the photos were taken during peak times of color in the area. Fall color is an excuse to go out in the woods; it doesn't mean that everything you photograph has to be defined by colorful leaves."
"Fall is a great time to drive around to look for spots where there's color," Rod says. "You'll find places to photograph right then, and you'll locate other spots to come back to later on, and in later years—your own private, favorite spots. You can spend the entire day out in the woods during those cool, clear, crisp days of color. Twilights are better, the sun's at a lower angle for a longer time, sunsets are intense. The autumn light will bring color and texture to a lot of things. Fall is an awesome time to be out all day long looking for beautiful photos."