3 Autumn Highlights for Landscape Photography

autumn landscape photography ideas

For many landscape photographers, autumn is the most eagerly anticipated time of year. Why? Well, surely no other season provides so much colour and atmosphere. The most obvious seasonal highlight is fall colour, when green leaves turn to rich shades of crimson, yellow, and orange. Meanwhile, cooler temperatures and changeable weather create highly atmospheric conditions to photograph. For example, autumn is the season of dewy and misty mornings, while ground frost can transform the landscape. The light can be dramatic and will often remain golden throughout the day due to the sun’s lower elevation. I always say that the key ingredient to any great landscape photo is ‘mood,’ and autumn provides oodles of it!

But before you rush outside with your camera, let’s take a quick look at a few of the seasonal highlights.

autumn landscape photography

#1 Woodland & fall colour

Thinking of autumn, most people immediately conjure up visions of woodland and colourful foliage. The green pigment of deciduous leaves begins to break down in autumn and reveals other, much warmer, shades. In the UK, seasonal colour tends to peak around mid-October until early November, but it shifts slightly year to year and some years tend to be more impressive than others. Oak, beech and maple are among the trees that provide the best colour, while the bracken carpeting hills and moorland is now turning golden.

Timing is important. If you wish to capture the seasonal colour at its best, monitor changes in the landscape closely from the beginning of October onwards. Be prepared to react quickly once colours are nearing their peak – you may only have a week or so to capture the very best of the season, before strong winds strip trees of their foliage and leave them looking bare and wintry. This is a great opportunity to photograph woodland interiors and elevated views overlooking colourful, autumnal countryside.

autumn landscape photography

A polarising filter is a great accessory during autumn; by rotating the filter in its mount, you can reduce glare reflecting from wet and glossy foliage and therefore restore natural colour saturation. The filter can really help to intensify colours and bring an autumnal scene alive! Their effect is particularly obvious when shooting in woodland, so keep one attached at all times. Woodland can be a chaotic and challenging environment to photograph, so look for interesting features to enhance or harness your compositions – for example, paths, bridges, rivers and tree stumps. Light will be limited under a dense leaf canopy, so always use a tripod for stability.

landscape photography autumn
Autumnal beech trees (Fagus sylvatica) in late evening light.

Rich autumnal colours will be enhanced further by low, warm light. Therefore, set your alarm early and stay out late to benefit from the golden hours of sunlight. The day-length is relatively short in autumn, so you don’t even need to get up very early at this time of year – in other words, you can capture great light and still get plenty of Zzzzzzzs! No wonder outdoor photographers love this time of year. If you wish to enhance autumn colour further still, opt for a slightly warmer colour temperature than you might do normally. If you are a raw shooter, you can apply this during post processing. Alternatively, warm-up your images in-camera by selecting your camera’s Cloudy or Shade white balance preset. Don’t overdo it, though – you risk making highlights appear muddy if you are over zealous with colour temperature.

#2 Morning mist

I don’t know about you, but mist is amongst my favourite conditions for landscape photography. The mood that mist is able to convey can produce very special conditions for photography – better still when combined with autumnal looking scenery. Autumn is one of the optimum times of the year for mist, as the atmosphere is moist and temperatures can drop significantly overnight.

autumn landscape photography

A clear, cool night together with a low wind speed will often result in radiation fog forming – so keep a close eye on the weather forecast throughout the months of autumn. An early start is important if you wish to capture the best of the conditions before any dew and mist evaporates in the morning sunshine. Set your alarm early and reach your chosen viewpoint before sunrise. Don’t wait for the sun to appear before taking photos, though – mist appears naturally blue and evocative prior to sunrise, adding even more mood to your shots. However, remember your camera’s auto white balance will attempt to neutralise these attractive cool tones, so try selecting your camera’s Daylight white balance instead. 

Lake District mist in autumn

Mist and fog has the ability to simplify the landscape and provide a certain softness and quality to landscape photos. Bodies of water are a great mist generator, so it can be a good idea to photograph scenes containing a lake, river or pond. You also need to think about whether you want to be down shooting among the mist, or up above it – both options provide great photo opportunities. Longer focal lengths tend to work well when shooting mist, due to their ability to foreshorten perspective and exaggerate the weather conditions. Bear in mind, though, that the brightness of mist can fool even the most sophisticated metering systems into underexposure. Therefore, it is wise to keep an eye on histograms and apply positive exposure compensation if needed.

For more information on how to predict and photograph mist, read my tutorial How to Photograph Magical Morning Mist.

#3 Bad weather

They say there is no such thing as bad weather for landscape photography. Having been stuck out in some pretty dismal conditions over the years, I’m not sure that statement is entirely true! However, the best, most photogenic conditions typically occur when the weather is changeable, dramatic, wild, or in transition and autumn tends to provide weather in abundance! While there is no such thing as the perfect weather or light, landscape photographers tend to favour moody skies, heavy cloud, transient light and mixed weather conditions. So don’t hideaway indoors if the forecast looks a bit iffy, but wrap up warm, don your waterproofs, and go generate good opportunities for yourself.

autumn highlights for landscapes

Taking pictures in bad weather means you will inevitably get wet, so dress appropriately for the conditions. Wear good wind and waterproof clothing and appropriate footwear – consider outdoor clothing brands like Paramo, Patagonia and Rab. Also ensure your kit bag and gear are sufficiently protected by investing in a waterproof cover or rainsleeve – and always keep a lens cloth close to hand to remove raindrops or moisture from your lens or filters. Look for a forecast with a mixture of rain and sunny spells. Although windy weather will require you to use a heavier, sturdier tripod, conditions tend to change quickly and dramatic or spot lighting is more likely.

Identify your viewpoint and composition and then wait for the right light. Anticipation is key, as the light will often be fleeting. Watch the cloud’s movement and wait for a gap in the cloud to move toward the sun. Then be ready to trigger the shutter as light dances across the landscape, potentially spot lighting certain areas or features within the landscape. From a technical viewpoint, this type of mixed lighting can fool metering systems, as the camera is likely to bias exposure length for the dominant dark, shadow areas around your spot lit subject and therefore overexpose results. Be prepared to apply negative exposure compensation – or alternatively, spot meter for the sunlit area of your landscape in the first place.

landscape autumnal highlights

A mixture of rain and sunlight is also likely to provide a rainbow, which can really add interest and magic to your landscapes. Although unpredictable, rainbows can transform a fairly mundane scene into something wonderful. They appear in the opposite direction to the sun when there is moisture in the air and the sun is at just the right angle (around 42degrees relative to the viewer). It is almost impossible to anticipate just where and when a rainbow will form, so typically you have to be opportunistic and react quickly to the conditions. The biggest problem can be keeping the lens dry. If you are all set-up using a tripod, you might be able to protect your camera using an umbrella, while a lens hood can also provide some protection from rain. Regularly check the front of your lens for raindrops – otherwise your shots may get ruined. Wide-angles (in the region of 17-35mm) are great for capturing rainbows in their full glory, while a polarising filter can be used to accentuate their colour. However, take care – if you position your polariser incorrectly, you can make it disappear altogether.

Weather is unpredictable and often very localized, so be prepared for disappointment. There will be days when you return home wet and empty-handed. However, when the weather Gods are on your side, and the lighting and conditions combine as you hoped, results can be truly stunning.

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