Shooting tips > Photographing the Colors of Autumn Foliage

    Level: Beginner

    LESSON 16Photographing the Colors of Autumn Foliage


    Focal length: 85mm (35mm equivalent), f-stop: 3.2, Shutter speed: 1/800 second.

    Why not try some shooting techniques to capture the beauty of trees adorned in reds and yellows? When shooting autumn foliage, set the camera to A-mode to allow you to customise the aperture. Generally, when you want to focus on the entire scene, reduce the aperture, and when you want to emphasize and get a close-up shot of a leaf or branch, open the aperture as much as possible.

    Consider the Direction of Light

    Before setting the camera, let's first look at how to take advantage of light. When shooting autumn leaves, the resulting image varies greatly depending on the direction of the light, time of day, and weather.
    On a clear day, direction of light can be generally categorized as front light, side light, and back light.

    Front light

    Front light hits the front of the subject as seen from the camera. With front light, you can shoot colorful images that appear as natural as the way you see the scene. However, because there are no shadows, the light tends to create an ordinary image that lacks depth.


    Shooting with front light.
    Focal length: 35mm, f-stop: 10.0, Shutter speed: 1/50 second.

    Side light

    Side light hits the subject from the side. Shooting with side light brings out the shadows in trees to lend depth to a landscape. If you are shooting at dusk, be sure to try capturing an image using side light.


    Shooting with side light.
    Focal length: 200mm, f-stop: 8.0, Shutter speed: 1/60 second.

    Back light

    Back light hits the subject from the back. When back light shines through leaves, it brings out their translucency and rich colors, so they look like they are sparkling in photographs. The difference in contrast of a backlit subject against a dark background expresses drama, so make effective use of back light.
    When using back light, image contrast and saturation can decrease if sunlight enters the lens directly. If this happens, adjust the angle of the camera to the sunlight or the leaves so that the sunlight does not enter the lens directly. Also, when strong light points toward the lens, the subjects tend to become dark. If the subject looks dark or not as vivid as you had anticipated, increase the exposure compensation in the + direction to attain the same brightness that you see with your naked eyes.


    Shooting with back light.
    Focal length: 11mm, f-stop: 14.0, Shutter speed: 1/30 second.


    When back light directly enters the lens

    Use this technique to shoot in various types of light, taking into account the position of the camera relative to the sun.
    Don't limit yourself to sunny days for shooting fall foliage. You can capture different expressions on cloudy and rainy days as well. On a cloudy day, colors may not be as vivid as they are when it is sunny, but the entire scene is enveloped in a soft light, expressing serenity without unwanted shadows.


    Cloudy day shot.

    A rainy day is also a chance to take good photographs. In the rain, the light becomes even softer and the colors even more subdued. In addition, the dust on the leaves is washed off, and the water droplets on the ground and leaves glow moistly.


    Rainy day shot.
    Focal length: 115mm, f-stop: 11.0, Shutter speed: 1 second.

    If you include an overcast or rainy sky in the composition, the white sky stands out, and you tend to get a conventional-looking image. If this happens, capturing just the landscape without including the sky can make the main autumn colours stand out in an impressive image.

    Capturing What You See

    Capturing the autumn foliage just as you see it requires not only the right direction of light, but also adjustment of brightness and color using the camera settings. While the camera automatically calculates the appropriate brightness and color, the results may not match the image you're aiming to capture or the impression that you feel. If you're having difficulty capturing what you see, try adjusting the exposure compensation and white balance. The image that expresses what you truly see has the appropriate colors and brightness.
    The necessary adjustments vary according to the direction of light, weather conditions, and subject, and are introduced here using several examples. During actual shooting, make adjustments while viewing the results on the camera monitor as you continue to take picture after picture, and get your desired image.

    Using exposure compensation


    Exposure compensation: 0


    Exposure compensation: +2.0

    If the background is bright due to back light, the foliage may appear dark and heavy. If this happens, adjust the exposure compensation toward + to bring out the vivid colors of the foliage. You can adjust the background so it appears slightly overexposed.

    Using white balance


    Auto WB


    Cloudy WB

    White balance can be effectively used to emphasize vividness. When shooting on a cloudy day or in the shade, setting the white balance to Cloudy can increase the overall reds in the image and make the reds and yellows in the autumn foliage appear more vivid. Fine-tuning the white balance is also effective for making detailed adjustments to the colors.
    When shooting landscapes or taking snapshots, you may be tempted to increase the saturation with Creative Style/Creative Look to bring out the vividness even more, but because the original saturation of the full autumn foliage is already high, this may end up saturating the color and the image may lose depth, so it is not recommended.


    Increasing saturation can oversaturate reds and make the image look flat.

    Instead of increasing the saturation, try adjusting the exposure compensation and white balance.
    Of course, color is a personal preference, and there is no right or wrong choice. As shown in the picture below, white balance can be used to add blues to a shot from a cloudy day to express a sense of coldness and tranquility.


    Daylight WB on a cloudy day

    Shoot with Various Compositions

    Once you have control of color and vividness, you can enjoy changing the composition to create various expressions of autumn foliage.

    Various lenses for various expressions

    As shown below, the method of shooting differs completely between using a wide-angle setting and using a telephoto setting, even for the same scenery. Wide angles create inspiring images, and telephoto angles bring you closer to the subject and create blur. By using various lenses to optimize shots from various angles, you can bring out more of the qualities of the autumn foliage.


    Wide-angle shot, Focal length: 18mm, f-stop: 8.0.


    Telephoto angle shot, Focal length: 90mm, f-stop: 8.0.

    Shooting from a wide angle

    When shooting from a wide angle (short focal length), you can fit a wide landscape into the image, but you can also create dynamic expressions that further emphasize perspective and height. There is also little blurring, so objects throughout a wide area can remain in focus. To fit the full landscape into view, set the aperture to f8.0 to f11.


    Focal length: 11 mm, f-stop: 8.0, Shutter speed: 1/25 second.

    This image was shot with a wide-angle lens looking up. It emphasizes the height of the trees stretching upward from the left, creating an inspiring image.


    Focal length: 11mm, f-stop: 10.0, Shutter speed: 1/60 second.

    Here, we get up close to the vivid autumn leaves. The contrast of the leaves against the wide expanse of the background creates a dynamic photo. In this way, the properties of the wide angle bring out the subject with foreground-to- background contrast. Also, by closing down the aperture to f10, the background can be depicted well without excessive blurring.

    Shooting with a telephoto angle

    With a telephoto lens (long focal length when using a zoom lens), the subject background can be greatly defocused, and impressive parts can be brought forward to stand out from the distant mountain-spanning landscape. A telephoto lens is also good for creating a compressed effect that includes everything in one image without losing the perspective of the mountains lined up in the background and the scenery in the foreground.


    Focal length: 200mm, f-stop: 3.2, Shutter speed: 1/80 second.

    Here, a telephoto lens was used to shoot the autumn colors. The foreground and background are beautifully defocused. The closer-up the telephoto setting, the smaller the range of focus and the more the background is defocused, bringing out the leaves in the autumn foliage. To increase the amount of blur, shoot with the aperture open as wide as possible.
    When shooting this type of image, pay attention to the color of the background. The photo above was shot at an angle so that yellow leaves are in the background and the entire image creates a vivid impression.


    Focal length: 160mm, f-stop: 8.0, Shutter speed: 1/60 second.

    When you encounter beautiful scenery, there is a tendency to try to fit everything you can see into the image. Have you ever shot an image, but were not able to capture the feeling at all? This is because you end up capturing unnecessary and unexpected elements in the photo that create distraction. Instead of simply pointing the camera aimlessly at a wide area, try to find the most impressive part of the scenery and bring it out with a telephoto setting. In the above photo, the area with the most beautiful autumn foliage is boldly focused upon.


    Focal length: 150mm, f-stop: 11.0, Shutter speed: 1/4 second.

    Telephoto shooting is also good for portraying a picture with compressed depth of scenery. Although the yellow trees in the foreground, the conifer trees toward the back, and the mountains in the background are separated by several kilometers, they are tightly compressed together to create an impressive image.

    Create expressions with various viewpoints and ideas

    Shooting autumn foliage is not just about capturing trees and leaves as your subjects. Incorporating mountain streams, lakes, and other surrounding scenery can make autumn foliage look more attractive, and fallen leaves by themselves can create an expression of an autumn landscape. Try shooting various compositions of various subjects from a broad perspective, and enjoy the freedom of capturing images of autumn foliage.


    (1) Focal length: 50 mm, f-stop: 2.8, Shutter speed: 1/8 second.


    (2) Focal length: 70 mm, f-stop: 7.1, Shutter speed: 1/160 second.

    (1) An image of fallen leaves floating on the surface of a puddle near your feet signifies the end of autumn. Autumn foliage is more than just trees bathed in crimson red. Even after the peak of autumn foliage, autumn is apparent everywhere.
    (2) Even water droplets on fallen leaves evoke a sense of autumn.


    Focal length: 35 mm, f-stop: 10.0, Shutter speed: 1/15 second.

    Lakes, ponds and rivers which are often supporting actors to the autumn foliage and trees, are sometimes the main actors. Pay attention also to how colorful trees are reflected on the surfaces of bodies of water.

    Trying wide-angle lenses


    F-number: 8 / Shutter speed: 1/100 sec.

    This full frame E-mount 16–35 mm ZEISS Vario-Tessar zoom offers outstanding performance in a compact, lightweight package. A versatile zoom range coupled with built-in optical image stabilization makes it a great choice for snapshots, indoor scenes, group shots, landscapes, and more, especially with a full-frame α7 series body. A constant F4 maximum aperture facilitates exposure and depth-of-field control.