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Photographing Autumn Colours

We have an Autumn colours intro and an article on Finding autumn colours locations , plus listings of where you see displays. In this article I want to look at how we photograph autumn colours, both from a technical and artistic perspective, and in a further article we look at Filters for autumn colours.

The factors that we need to look at when photographing autumn colours include:-

  • White balance and colour management to get the colours right, or even increase them

  • Lighting - How the colours, leaves etc are lit, angle of light etc

  • Lighting added - Using fill in flash, and multiple flashes, or possibly painting with light, reflectors etc

  • Exposure

  • Depth of field

  • Composition

  • Editing

White Balance

If looking at a wider scene, its likely that auto white balance would record autumn colours although it may reduce them slightly. In this mode, the camera is attempting to get to a normal average and in doing this, in the same way as it would reduce sunset colours, it would reduce the autumn colours. Selecting the white balance for the lighting condition i.e. sun or cloud will produce autumn colours that should not be corrected, but the most accurate colours will be recorded using the white balance set at PRE. You can enhance or warm up the autumn colours in sun and shadow settings in many cameras by the adjustments available to you in camera, for example with the Nikon D300 you can use the sub command dial (one on the front) to adjust the warmth when setting the white balance. If using PRE and you want to warm up the images then use a piece of mount board that is blue/grey instead of one that is completely grey. Experiment with several pieces if you are not familiar with this technique.

We have a number of other articles that may help with explaining white balance and setting PRE :-

Colour Management

You need to have your monitor profiled as well as be using printer profiles for your printer/ink/paper, not downloaded standard ones, to get the best colours.  See more on colour management.


The best lighting is sunlight and with large scenic shots this is the only practical proposition. While you can take photos on cloudy days the colours are dull, and while contrast is less of a problem, it won't produce the same impact.

With large displays the best lighting is usually direct sunlight, with the sun behind you. However it is far from the only position that will work well, and in some cases under a canopy of trees with the sunlight coming through can be very effective.

Closer to trees and in shadow, under trees and the like, you may find it beneficial to boost the lighting you have with one or more flash units.

If looking at groups of leaves and other smaller setups you may also be able to make use of reflectors, or several flash units. For more information on how to go about using some of these techniques take a look at our Lighting and Reflectors section.

Night time photography can be done by using a time exposure and either painting with light, for example with a powerful torch or using a flash while moving through the scene, just don't get between the light and the camera. We have a separate article Photographing Coloured Lights in Forest Settings which may offer some inspiration.


There are no specific challenges usually with this, exposures when taking autumn colours, you can use matrix metering, or use spot metering and spot metre off a grey card/target. Our Exposure Section provides a wealth of articles that will give you loads of ideas, examples and gadgets on how to cope with this.

As with all landscape photography blown highlights in the sky may be a problem, but you should be able to handle this as you would other landscapes, or if you don't believe that you can then put your camera on a tripod and lock it in position, taking one photo with the correct exposure for the scene and a second for the sky and combine them in editing later. You would need something like Photoshop Elements or CS3/4 to be able to do this. You can also use graduated neutral density filters (grads) to overcome this problem. See the following for more on this:-

Filters-ND graduated filters   - the most essential filters, looking at hard, soft, reverse, strengths and how to decide what to use, setting exposure and more.

Graduated filters    - coloured graduated filters allowing images to be improved.

ND filters  - used to allow longer exposures, having a range of uses.

Depth of field

With wide scenic shots with a wide angle lens, depth of field is not usually a problem, however if you have a longer lens and in particular you have close subjects and background items and are using a long lens to close up the distance you will need to take care with the depth of field. Our Depth of Field (DOF) article explains how it works and how to overcome some tricky areas and also takes a look at slicing where you can come along in the editing stage and make up an image from a number of images taken at the time.


When looking at composition for autumn colours generally treat them as you would other landscape shots, consider framing images, leading lines and other standard compositional structures, not as a formulaic approach but in an attempt to get an appealing effect. Reflections work well and often double the amount of colour in the image. Our article on Composing Photographs and then the group of practical articles which puts some of the techniques into practice to show you how to go about it may help you achieve the perfect autumn image.

Of the autumn colour photos that immediately spring to mind, most of my favourite shots are either where they are exceptionally striking, such as a collection of Acers with strong colours or where water is involved be it a lake, river, or waterfall.


Photography has always been a two stage process, take the image then perfect it in the darkroom or now in the editor. Autumn colour photos can be improved in editing, to start with we need to edit them as we would other landscape or view shots, but then we can possibly improve the colours by using some warming, increasing colour saturation. If you use Capture NX/NX2, you may find a slight increase across some colours only with the LCH/Chroma control makes it come alive. Do everything, including rescaling if necessary, and sharpening at the end, possibly a little less than you normally would.

Volume v Quality

There is a tendency now we have digital cameras, with no running costs, to take very large numbers of photographs. The landscape photographer with medium format film will take a small number of photos and carefully think about each, and you may find that its worth having some of your days out taking autumn colours acting as you would if you were using film, so rather than coming back with hundreds of shots, take just a small number, perhaps 20 maximum and try to make every one as perfect as you can. Stop each time before pushing the button and check all settings, think about colour, lead in, and look in detail at each image before capturing it.


Autumn comes around once a year, and every year it's at a slightly different time and depending on the weather gives a totally different look. So get out an about this year and see what you can capture and next year you will get a completely different set of opportunities. This year, why not look to get four or five exhibition quality prints.

See Also:

Autumn Colours

Autumn colours introduction   

Photographing autumn colours

Filters for autumn colours   l

Finding autumn colour locations

Autumn Colours in England

Autumn Colours in Wales

Autumn Colours in Scotland

Autumn Colours in Northern Ireland


By: Tracey Park Section: Nature/Flora/Countryside Key:
Page Ref: photographing_autumn_colours Topic: Autumn Colours  Last Updated: 09/2011

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