Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine   


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Picture This: Capturing the Colors of Fall

Autumn provides creative chances to photograph the vivid beauty of the season.

By Earl Nottingham

Oh, it’s a long long while
From May to December
But the days grow short
When you reach September
When the autumn weather
Turns leaves to flame
One hasn’t got time
For the waiting game.
           September Song

Perhaps Willie Nelson was thinking about photographing the Texas autumn color when he sang those lines to September Song. In a state where the verdant greens of spring and early summer seem to transform to shades of brown almost overnight, there can be, with the help of proper rains and temperatures, a brief portal of time in which green gives way to a palette of vivid yellows, oranges and reds that rival those found anywhere in the country.

Because of this typically short burst of color, combined with shorter days, we often miss some potentially great photos. Willie’s admonition that “one hasn’t got time for the waiting game” is especially relevant for any photographer wanting to get the best results in such a small window of shooting opportunity.

Autumn is a great time to expand your photographic vision. Typically, we get stuck in a rut of seeing and photographing the world that is straight in front of us. It’s been said that we view life in the horizontal. Autumn foliage invites us to look up, look down – look all around. By looking upward and exploring the contrasting colors against the canopy of a blue sky as well as looking down at the smallest details in the tapestry of fallen leaves at your feet, you instantly add new creative possibilities.


Shooting upward toward the sky on a sunny day will produce saturated colors and highlight the contrast between fall colors and blue sky.

You will even find that, by using various focal lengths such as wide angle, zoom and macro, you can point the camera in one direction and get totally different images of the same subject and its surroundings.

Because of the time of year and the sun’s lower position in the sky, autumn light offers artistic possibilities, regardless of whether it’s sunny or cloudy. Sunny days are for looking up and photographing the rays of light as they transilluminate brilliantly colored leaves or grasses against the sky. Colors during sunny days will be vivid and saturated. Colors on cloudy days (or after the sun goes down) will be more pastel, making it an ideal time for looking down and using the diffused light to bring out the delicate details of a forest floor.


Softer light — such as the diffused light of a cloudy day — will bring out the delicate details of fallen foliage on a forest floor.

Perhaps the most useful tool to have in any camera bag for accentuating foliage and sky color is the venerable polarizing filter. Because most foliage has a waxy sheen, the underlying color is often degraded by the sky’s reflection. By removing the reflection, the polarizer reveals the beauty beneath. A word of warning: Always use a polarizer judiciously! Polarized colors can become too saturated, especially when including a blue sky in the frame on a sunny day. Also, since the polarizer cuts down on the amount of light entering the lens and requires a longer shutter speed, it is always a good practice to use a tripod to avoid any camera movement.

Autumn color and water seem to go hand in hand. You will often find yourself around a lake, pond or running stream. This is the time to include reflections in your photo for an additional element of interest to an already beautiful setting. In a stream setting, you might try including the swirling movement of water around any fallen or submerged leaves. Here again is a good time to use a polarizer not only to eliminate unwanted reflections but also to warrant a slower shutter speed, which can give the water that “silky” quality. A sturdy tripod is definitely needed here!

Autumn has always been my favorite season, and in deference to Willie, I think the poet William Cullen Bryant summed up the reason other photographers are drawn to its beauty with his quote, “Autumn ... the year’s last, loveliest smile.”

Photographers have always been drawn to smiles.

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For more on TP&W magazine photography, go to our Photography page


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