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Leaf peeping: How to photograph fall’s changing leaves

The start of the fall means you don’t have to travel far to see a spectacular landscape — anywhere with deciduous trees will put on a show, from small towns to hilly countrysides. Nature’s temporary color show often brings out an itch to photograph the colors before they are gone, but capturing great leaf-peeping photography involves more than just pulling a smartphone out of a sweater pocket and rapid-firing a few snapshots.

Learn how to take fall pictures to make the most of your leaf-peeping adventures, whether you own a high-end mirrorless camera or a simple smartphone.

Hillary K. Grigonis/Digital Trends

Plan ahead

Fall colors can be nearly non-existent one day and full of fiery reds, oranges, and yellows the next. Planning ahead will help you see the most color. Start with the Smoky Mountains Fall Foliage Prediction Map to see when color is expected to hit different parts of the U.S. Keep in mind that predicting fall color isn’t an exact science — a cold night could bring earlier colors, or a strong wind storm could knock the leaves down before they’ve had a chance to reach their peak.

Even within the same zip code, trees will turn different colors at different times based on several factors, from the type of tree to how much moisture is in the soil. If you are leaf peeping locally, scouting out locations ahead of time isn’t a bad idea.

Hillary K. Grigonis/Digital Trends

Bring a variety of lenses

With color everywhere, most tend to simply take wide-angle pictures to try to fit in all that beauty. Bringing along a few different lenses can help add variety to your shots — and help keep your leaf-peeping photos from looking like every other colorful leaf photo on Instagram. Even if you are shooting with just a smartphone, using add-on lenses can help add that missing element.

Wide-angle lenses are good for capturing the breadth of the fall colors. Wider lenses are common for capturing landscapes because they fit in more of the view.

Macro lenses will allow you to get close-up details of the fall colors. Try focusing on a single leaf — or even a small part of a single leaf.

Fish-eye lenses are so wide that the photo appears to bend to fit it all in. Avoid this type of lens if you want a sense of realism in your photos, but try one if you want a bit of an unusual shot.

Telephoto lenses are less common in landscape photography, but if you already own one, bring it along. Telephoto lenses can help isolate parts of a fall scene. Telephoto lenses also make objects in the photo appear to be closer together than a wide-angle lens does.

Hillary K. Grigonis/Digital Trends

Try a polarizing filter

A polarizing filter is like a magic secret sauce for your lens. Polarized light is reflected light, and a polarizing filter allows you to control reflections. Besides being great for capturing the fall colors mirrored in a body of water, using a polarizer will also help the fall colors pop. Twist the polarizing filter slowly and watch how the colors and reflections change. Find the sweet spot in the polarizer that offers the best colors and reflections.

As one of the few filters that can’t be easily mimicked in Photoshop, polarizing filters are easy to find for DSLRs, mirrorless cameras, and now even smartphones.

Hillary K. Grigonis/Digital Trends

Wait for great light

Timing a leaf-peeping photo shoot isn’t just about waiting until the leaves are the right colors — the time of day matters, too. If bright sunshine is overhead, your photos will have dark shadows that obscure much of the color. 

Instead, aim to go in the morning or the evening when the sun is lower in the sky. When the sun is low in the sky, try moving around until the sun is behind the leaves that you want to photograph. Placing the sun behind the leaves — a technique called backlighting — makes them appear to glow and will bring out those golden colors even more.

A cloudy day will also create nice, soft light. While the results are less spectacular than backlit fall leaves, a cloudy day creates great light from any angle, and you don’t need to plan your shot based on where the sun is. Leaf peeping on a cloudy day is a simple way for novice photographers to get better shots.

Hillary K. Grigonis/Digital Trends

Shoot in RAW

A JPEG photo has already been edited by the computer — to get the most color and creative flexibility from your fall photos, shoot in the RAW file type. A RAW file is a minimally-processed image. These files need to be edited before sharing, but the editing process is much more flexible. If your photos look too blue, for example, it’s easy to correct the white balance on a RAW photo. For fall photography, shooting in RAW offers the most control over the colors in the final image.

DSLRs, mirrorless cameras, advanced point-and-shoots, and even smartphones can all shoot in RAW. On a dedicated camera, RAW is available in the file type settings — check your manual if you can’t find it. If you are shooting with a smartphone, you’ll need to use a RAW photography app and select DNG or RAW for the file type.

Play with composition

While leaf peeping, photograph what inspires you — but don’t just shoot every colorful leaf the same way. Start with the view that inspires you the most. Then, narrow down the view that you see from the camera’s viewfinder or the smartphone screen. Is there anything else in the scene that’s distracting, like a tree that has already lost all its leaves? Make sure everything that is in the photo deserves to be in that photo.

Where the subject is in the photo matters, too. Don’t just place everything in the center of the frame. Try placing the focus of the image off to one side. And along with moving the subject, move your feet, too — explore that tree from all angles, and don’t forget to look up.

Hillary K. Grigonis/Digital Trends

Venture beyond just landscapes

Fall is a great time for landscape photography — but it’s also an excellent time to photograph portraits. Adding a person to a wide-angle autumn scene will help create a sense of scale, while close head-and-shoulders portraits will blur the colorful leaves into golden bokeh.

Fall can also be a great time to experiment with macro photography, street photography, and even wildlife photography.

Hillary K. Grigonis/Digital Trends

Play with color in post

After the leaf-peeping tour, bring out those colors with a photo -editing program or a mobile app. If you shot in RAW, you’ll have a lot of room to play with, from replicating exactly what you saw into creating a dreamlike world with more drastic edits.

For fall photography, start with checking the white balance. Moving the white balance slider a bit to the warm side can help bring out those earth tones and create a more golden glow. Next, make any exposure corrections to lighten or darken the image. Lightening the highlights and darkening the shadows can also help subjects to pop. Use vibrance and saturation controls, but only sparingly, or you’ll very quickly wreck a good photo.

Just because you don’t have to go far to find a great view in the fall doesn’t mean you can snap great photos without any effort. From planning to editing, putting a few tips into play will help your smartphone shots stand out.

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