10 Ways to Improve Your Fall Colour Photography

Pyramid Lake, Jasper National Park

Last Updated on August 25, 2021

Pyramid Lake, Jasper National Park, Alberta
Fall colours at Pyramid Lake, Jasper National Park.

Fall colour season is just around the corner, so it’s time to prepare for most landscape photographers’ favourite time of year. On the surface, it seems fairly straightforward – wait for the leaves to change and start snapping away. But a bit of planning can go a long way to getting the most out of this special time. We’re not going to deal with technical stuff such as gear and camera settings here, but rather ways of approaching fall colour photography to maximize our potential before we head out.

1) Find a backdrop to give the photo a sense of place

A photo of the forest or even a single tree during fall colour season is fine, but we can add another dimension to the image if we put it in context. In the following two photos, as well as the opening image, including the mountain as a backdrop helps give that context. They are no longer just fall colour photos, but fall colour photos in the Rocky Mountains. Besides mountains, we can also incorporate rivers, lakes, waterfalls, badlands and various other landforms as backdrops to provide a sense of place.

Icefields Parkway, Banff National Park
The Icefields Parkway, Banff National Park.
 Jasper National Park
Jasper National Park

2) Go beyond the forest

While trees immediately spring to mind when thinking about fall colours, going beyond the forest can be just as colourful and just as rewarding for photography. We are fortunate where we live because we can go north to the forest, or south to the prairie. The natural prairie can be dazzling in the fall, especially in some of the coulees with a wide array of shrubs, grasses, and other vegetation.

Red Deer River near Drumheller, Alberta.
Red Deer River near Drumheller, Alberta.
Fish Creek Valley, Saskatchewan
Fish Creek Valley, Saskatchewan
Saline Lake, Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan
Who needs trees? Edge of a saline lake near Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan. Plenty of colour but not a tree or even a shrub in the frame.

3) Look straight up… and straight down as well

Try different perspectives in addition to straight-on forest views. For example, shoot straight up at the forest canopy as well as straight down to capture the forest floor.

Trembling aspen trees, Thickwood Hills
Trembling aspen trees, Thickwood Hills
Yoho National Park, British Colombia
Vegetation on the forest floor, Yoho National Park.

4) Embrace cloudy weather

While sunny weather is great for grand overview photos, cloudy weather can also be preferable for fall colours. This is especially the case when we try to photograph under the forest canopy. Sunny conditions can be intensely contrasty in the forest, with dark shadows and overly bright sunlight that filters through the canopy. A cloudy sky produces softer light with a better balance between shadows and highlights. When there are different colours in the scene, the softer light also makes it easier to capture subtle differences.

A cloudy day allows us to see detail in the forest, Thickwood Hills, Saskatchewan.
A cloudy day allows us to see detail in the forest, Thickwood Hills, Saskatchewan.

5) Get close

Sometimes a close-up scene can be just as compelling as a long view.

Early morning frost on the vegetation.
Early morning frost on the vegetation.
Sarsaparilla in evening light.
Sarsaparilla in evening light.

6) Look for a mix of colours

When the leaves are just beginning to change, some remain green while others take on shades of gold or red, resulting in distinct colour differences. Look for opportunities in prairie coulees and riverbanks where different types of vegetation can also add to the colour mix.

Mountain maple leaves in fall in Pasquia Hills.
Mountain maple, Duck Mountain Provincial Park, Saskatchewan. Some leaves are bright red, while others or tinged with yellow, and some are still green.
Fall colours, Saskatchewan Landing Provincial Park, Saskatchewan.
The mix of shrubs in a coulee in Saskatchewan Landing Provincial Park.

7) Look for reflections

Trees reflecting the water provide excellent photo opportunities at any time of year, but fall is definitely the prime time. Calm water usually produces the best results, often in early morning just after sunrise before the wind picks up. However, don’t discount photographing when the water surface has a slight ripple, which can bring surprising results.

Wetland in the Thickwood Hills, Saskatchewan.
Wetland in the Thickwood Hills, Saskatchewan.

8) Put people or wildlife in the landscape

In most cases, fall colour landscapes can stand on their own, but sometimes you might want to add life to the scene. For example, people can give a sense of scale. Wildlife can add to the context or augment the colour. The photo of the tree below has attractive red berries, but the image would be quite mundane without the bluejay.

Bluejay in an apple tree.
Bluejay in an apple tree.
Spruce River Highlands Trail, Prince Albert National Park, Saskatchewan
Hiking the Spruce River Highlands Trail in Prince Albert National Park.

9) Create fall abstracts

Take time to think outside the box. Not every photo has to be a realistic representation. Play around with long exposures, blurring, double exposures, or anything else you might imagine. Although we can do this at any time of year, fall brings on more possibilities because of the dazzling colours.

Fall colours, Prince Albert National Park
Reflection in a wetland in Prince Albert National Park – turned upside down. The slight ripple in the water gives it an impressionist painting look.

10) Make use of entire fall colour season

Fall colours can come and go quickly. We usually try to time our photography when colours are at their peak, but that isn’t always possible. There is always the danger that if we wait too long, a big wind may make short work of most of the leaves. Instead of worrying about trying to time things perfectly, just get out whenever you can, since each part of the fall colour season presents different possibilities. Early in the season when most leaves are still on the trees, the gradual change means that there may be more colour variations.

Fall colours, Prince Albert National Park
The end of the fall season in Prince Albert National Park in early October. The few leaves that are left have an intense colour.

The end of the season is different again. Most leaves have fallen, yet the remaining ones tend to display more intense colour. This is also a good time to capture the fallen leaves or smaller plants and shrubs on the forest floor.

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