Top tips for autumn photography

Autumn colours at Coombe Hill

Hugh Mothersole, our volunteer photographer and web editor for the Chilterns Countryside, gives us his top tips for taking pictures of autumn colour.

Time and location

Autumn will arrive at different times, depending on weather patterns and your location. The season can start as early as mid-September but, continued dry conditions and the absence of early frosts can mean the colours may not be at their most vibrant until mid- to late-October.

A mild autumn could lead to prolonged colours well into November, although a severe frost or a lively autumnal storm can bring the colourful display to an abrupt end. A useful tip is to look out for daily photographs taken by the BBC TV’s ‘Weather Watchers’; when the autumnal images start to appear in the weather forecast, it’s time for you to set out with your camera.

A native deciduous woodland is the obvious choice of location, but autumn colours can be equally spectacular in an ornamental garden, an arboretum, a local park, a back garden or a tree-lined urban street. None of us has to travel far to find autumnal colours.

Autumn colours at Bradenham
Autumn colours at Bradenham
Autumn colours at Bradenham

Photography is about light

Autumn colours do not need to be photographed in bright sunlight, although sunlight is an advantage in the so-called golden hours after sunrise and before sunset, when the low angle of the sun lights the scene from the side, creating long shadows and adding a golden hue to your shots.  

However, an overcast day is just as good, because the light is soft and more even, and you can shoot during the middle of the day. Autumn colours are usually intense, saturated colours, and they can contrast nicely with a grey sky, but you may want to leave sky out of your shots altogether, letting the colours fill your image.

Of course, cloud cover will give you less light, so, if you're hand-holding the camera, you may want to push the ISO up a little to keep your depth of field deep enough, while maintaining a high shutter speed to avoid camera shake.

Keeping the camera steady

If you use a tripod, shutter speed becomes much less of an issue, so providing the weather is reasonably calm, you can shoot at the lowest ISO setting and not worry too much about the length of exposure. Ideally, use a remote control to release the shutter so you eliminate camera shake.

Water

Lakes, ponds, rivers, streams, and even large puddles can add additional interest to your shots. Stillwater can offer near-perfect reflections of colour-laden trees, and running water provides opportunities to add more textures to your images, particularly if you are using a relatively slow exposure and keeping the camera still with a tripod.

Why not try some shots of colourful leaves floating just under the reflective surface of a stream?

Autumnal weather

Fog, mist and drizzle are common features of our autumn weather, particularly early in the morning and they can be used to soften or mute colours and to add mood or mystery to your shots.

If you are lucky, you might capture that magic moment as the morning beams of sunlight slowly burn their way through the morning mist. If there has been a dew or a frost, look for water droplets or ice crystals on leaves, or on a spider’s web, for close-up shots.

Autumn at Pulpit Hill
Autumn at Pulpit Hill
Autumn at Pulpit Hill

Above and below, near and far

Hill tops, tall buildings or similar vantage points give you an opportunity to enlarge the area or colour that fills your shot. Similarly, try shooting upwards into the tree canopy. Pointing the camera directly up towards a patch of intense and varied colour can make an interesting and unusual shot.

And don't forget to look down; a carpet of fallen leaves of different interlocking patterns can make a fascinating natural tapestry of colours and shapes.

Also, consider some close-up shots of clusters of leaves, both on the trees and on the ground, and look out for back-lit autumn leaves, decaying plants, fungi and textures on tree trunks. 

Composition

With autumn colour all around you, it is easy to forget to compose your photograph carefully. Try to have a focal point, such as a particular tree, a trunk a leaf or a toadstool.

All of the elements in a composition should work together to create an image that is visually balanced so that one side of the image doesn’t contain all the dominant elements.

The rule of thirds is a well-known compositional technique in which you place your main focal point slightly to one side of an image, and not directly in the centre. This often results in natural looking, and well-balanced photographs. However, sometimes this rule should be broken as long as you are happy that you have a visually balanced composition.