How To Photograph Stunning Autumn Color

How To Photograph Stunning Autumn Color

General How-To

How to Photograph Stunning Autumn Color

5 Essential Fall Photography Tips

Autumn color season is one of the most eagerly anticipated times of the year for restless nature photographers. The brilliant red, orange, and yellow foliage is like a jarring wake up call for all the creative energy atrophied by the listless and drab dog days of late summer (August through mid- September has always been my least favorite time of year). And since these photos aren’t going to just take themselves, here are 5 essential tips to help you make the most of the autumn color season.


A polarizing filter removes glare from almost any non-metallic surface, which includes autumn leaves. Leaves have a waxy coating and they can reflect bright glare when viewed from certain angles. A polarizing filter makes fall color look more colorful and saturated but in reality, it’s only allowing you to see the color that was already there. Wet leaves produce even more glare so during rainy conditions, a polarizing filter is nearly essential.

When working near water, a polarizing filter will also remove distracting glare and refections from the water surface and west rocks. It will cut glare from water vapor and particulates in the air as well, making blue skies darker and richer in color. The direction of maximum polarization occurs at 90-degree angles from the sun, while no light polarizing occurs when shooting directly at or away from the sun. Therefore, no polarizer is necessary when photographing sunrises or sunsets.

Get a screw-in polarizing filter for your lens with the largest front element size, then step-up rings for those smaller lenses. Step-up rings are much more cost effective than a polarizer for each lens. Some recommended polarizing filters (links to Amazon).

B+W 77mm XS-Pro HTC Kaesemann Circular Polarizer with Multi-Resistant Nano Coating ($$$)

Hoya 77mm HRT Circular PL Polarizer UV Multi-Coated Glass Filter ($$)

Lee Filters Circular Polarizer – Glass 100x100mm For Lee filter holder system.

Use Backlight

The leaves of autumn foliage are translucent, which means sunlight is allowed to partially pass through them when viewed or photographed from the opposite side. The foliage seems to glow and radiate the boldest colors when this happens. Seek out as many of these lighting opportunities as possible for stunning, luminous color.

This will work during any time, even when most photographers retire during the “idle light” of midday, you can always aim the lens skyward as the canopy of yellows and reds glow against the complementary crisps blue sky. Stop the lens down to f/22 for a sun star to add additional interest.

Keys to Using Backlighting

  • Aim the camera toward the sun (duh!)
  • Be aware of ghosting or flare when shooting into the sun. Your lens hood might help, although probably not if shooting directly into the sun, so consider using your hand, a hat, a book, anything that can block the sun’s rays from striking the front element of the lens.
  • Avoid underexposure. Your camera’s meter will probably want to underexpose the scene under most backlighting conditions. Consider adding a stop or two of exposure to keep the image from being too dark. Better yet, consult the histogram and “exposure to the right.”
  • Look to add a sunstar for additional interest and a strong focal point of the image – if it needs one. A sunstar is created by using lens diffraction when a small aperture is used. A small aperture is associated with large f-stop numbers so a setting of f/22 usually does the trick. Best results are when you partially obscure the sun behind a tree branch or mountain, leaving only some of the sun’s rays peeking through. Let diffraction do the rest.
  • Try to employ complementary colors by shooting skyward on a sunny, blue-sky day. The warm tones in the backlit foliage fully complement the blues in the sky.

Use Telephoto Lenses to Isolate

You should look to use a short telephoto lens (70-200mm or even 100-400mm) to isolate patterns of autumn color, interconnected shapes, and textures within the larger landscape. A forest of trees, colorful or not, can be a confusing maze of visual chaos. But by isolating smaller vignettes with a telephoto lens, you can help bring some order to that chaos.

Telephoto isolation in landscape photography is the fine art of exclusion, stripping away any extraneous visual elements to reveal only the most essential and important parts of the scene. This is particularly true when shooting autumn color.

In the example above with a focal length of 85mm, I reveal to the viewer only a small section of a larger waterfall and scene, splitting the image into three equal sections: the autumn color, the falling water, and the distinctive glacial blue of the river.

Some short telephoto lenses to consider (links to Amazon):

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM Telephoto Zoom Lens
Canon EF 70-200mm f/4 L IS USM Lens
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Lens
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR
Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS Lens

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Autumn Color

Look Down

When exploring autumn color scenes in the trees and hillsides, don’t forget to look down at the ground at the “leaf litter” scattered along the forest floor, river rocks, trails, etc. This is particularly true in late autumn, my favorite part of the season when a lot of the leaves have already fallen, some of the trees are completely bare or still holding on to a few leaves, and there no longer is any green hanging around.

There are often many tiny scenes within the autumn leaves themselves found in the patterns of veins and variations in color found in a single fallen autumn leaf. A versatile macro lens of about 100mm is a useful tool for these types of images, like this image shown above. Links below to Amazon.

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Macro Lens
Nikon AF-S VR Micro-NIKKOR 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED Vibration Reduction Fixed Lens
Sony SEL90M28G FE 90mm f/2.8-22 Macro G OSS Standard-Prime Lens

Look For Reflections

On any sunny autumn day, find a body of water that is in the shade but also near some brightly illuminated autumn color, such as a grove of colorful trees or hillside. Here is where you will find a great opportunity to photography fall reflections. If the water is still, you can capture some literal refections that create a mirror image of the primary subject. If the water is choppy from the wind or is moving, like you would find in a river or stream, you can make abstract reflections or colored water with longer exposures. The above image is an example of the latter, with a 10-second exposure being used to smooth out the water’s surface.

These type of refection images almost always need some help in the form of one or more visual anchors in addition to reflection. A rock or rocks, a log, or a duck are just some examples to look for when making autumn color photos of reflections. In order to get exposures of 10 seconds of longer during the middle of the day, you will need a strong neutral density filter of 6 to 10 stops in filter strength. I use the Lee Big Stopper (10 stops) and Little Stopper (6 stops) for these situations. Links to these and some other options below on Amazon.

Lee Filters 100 x 100mm Big Stopper 3.0 Neutral Density Filter, 10-Stop
Lee Filters 77mm Big Stopper Kit – Lee Filters 4x4 Big Stopper (10-stop ND Filter), Lee Filters Foundation Kit and 77mm Wide Angle Ring with 2filter cleaning kit
Lee Filters 100 x 100mm Little Stopper 1.8 Neutral Density Filter, 6-Stop
Tiffen 77mm Variable Neutral Density Filter

A Last Piece of Advice

Bookmark this page for next year.

Essential Autumn Color Links

U.S. Fall Color Map by
Fall Foliage Prediction Map for the U.S
Peak Fall Foliage Map by Stormfax
Peak Fall Foliage Map for New England
Your Ultimate Guide to the Smoky Mountains Fall Colors
15 National Parks for Fall Color (
The 10 Best Places to See Fall Foliage in Canada
Best Times To See fall Foliage Across Canada with Interactive Map

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Richard Bernabe Online Photography Classes

Richard Bernabe Online Photography Classes


For the past two years, I’ve been working to create online photography classes with KelbyOne, a worldwide leader in photography education and Photoshop/Lightroom instruction. In 2016, we released Master Compositional Class for Landscape Photographers which was filmed along the picturesque Blue Ridge Parkway of North Carolina. That was followed by Landscape Photography Preplanning Post-Processing in 2017, which helped photographers connect the decisions they make in the field with the techniques they will use later in the digital darkroom.

These photography classes are masterfully filmed, produced, and edited by the video team at KelbyOne and in addition to being extremely informative, the video classes are ecstatically beautiful as well (if you don’t consider that I am in the frame most of the time). For my photography classes, as well other many other photography, Photoshop, and Lightroom classes as well, become a member of KelbyOne and learn from the pros. My classes are listed below.

Master Compositional Class for Landscape Photographers

This class takes you on a photographic road tour through the spectacular Blue Ridge Parkway of North Carolina while you learn how to master an array of compositional tools for creating more dynamic landscape photographs. I will share my thought processes on various composition principles and concepts while showing you how to create more compelling landscape images – from sunrise, sunset, waterfalls, and grand landscapes. View this class here: Master Composition Class for Landscape Photographers.

Landscape Photography Preplanning and Post-Processing

This class demonstrates how the photographic decisions you make in the field will impact the tools and techniques you can use in the digital darkroom later. I will show how you can bring your field work together with your post processing, so that you are capturing photographs that allow you to get the most out of your workflow. Each lesson on a specific capture technique is paired with a lesson on how to process those photographs using Lightroom and Photoshop. View this class here: Landscape Photography Preplanning and Post-Processing.

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Fill Flash for Wildlife Photography

Fill Flash for Wildlife Photography

General How-To

To supplement light in the bright sun of midday, the blue hour, backlighting, and in shadowed forest areas, using fill flash for wildlife photography can be the answer to many tricky lighting situations.

Fill Flash is supplemental lighting used in scenes or with wildlife under some of the lighting conditions mentioned above. It’s never employed as the main light source but instead provides some gentle light where the natural light is shadowed or weak. The goal is to produce a balance between the electronic flash and the available ambient light.

You should always use TTL (Through-The-Lens) flash metering so that the camera will measure the ambient light and recommend a flash output to create the balance that you want. Sometimes the flash output is too strong, so I’ll dial in flash exposure compensation -0.7 or -1.3. When shooting a scene that has very strong backlight, I’ll add more flash output using flash exposure compensation of +1.0.

(Above) This Serengeti lioness in a tree would be rendered very dark – perhaps silhouetted – against the bright sunset sky. Using fill flash, I was able to create a pleasant balance of flash on my primary subject and beautiful pastel light in the background. Canon EOS-1DX Mark II and Canon EF70-200mm f/4L IS USM lens @ 158mm. I used +1.0 flash exposure compensation and TTL flash metering.

With animals that have very dark faces, fill flash can not only lighten up some of their facial features but it also provides a catch light in the eye which makes the wildlife subject look much more vibrant and alive. Below, there are two images that were taken mere seconds from on another. The image on the left was captured without flash while the version on the right had some very subtle fill flash. The most important improvement is the catch light – the glint in the eye.

(Above) Without flash.

With flash. Not only is the face lightened up but there is a catch light in the eye.

Fill Flash with Flash Extenders

One big problem using fill flash with wildlife photography is that the light from the flash doesn’t carry very far in distance. This is where a flash extender becomes useful. A flash extender concentrates the flash output into a narrow angle of view covered by a 300mm lens or longer The light output that would be wasted outside of the angle of view is now intensified and focused into your frame. This pushes the power of the flash to a greater distance, making it useful for telephoto lenses. The two flash extenders I would recommend are the MagMod MagBeam Wildlife Kit (it’s a universal fit for speed light models) and the Better Beamer Flash Extender (which comes in different models for different speed light models. make sure you buy the right model).

(At left) Flash extender for fill flash with telephoto rig. This model of flash extender is the MagMod MagBeam Wildlife Kit. The flash extender concentrates the wasted flash output outside the narrow angle of view of the telephoto, extending the power of the flash to a greater distance.

Fill Flash with Wide-angle Lenses

It’s possible to use fill flash with wide-angle wildlife photography. First, it must be said that doing any wide-angle photography with wild creatures can be dangerous (to both the photographer and the subject) since you really need to get in close. Each animal species and situation is different so use good judgement here. If going really wide, be sure to check your speed light for angle of flash output so that it matches the local length of your lens. Below, I purposely set the flash angle at 50mm even though the lens being used was 24mm. That’s because I wanted a spot light effect on the foreground seal while keeping the rest of the scene dark.

I used a wide-angle perspective to capture this cape fur seal with fill flash in the late evening light. Cape Cross Seal Preserve, Namibia. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and Canon 16-35mm f/4L lens @ 24mm.

When using fill flash at close range – such as situations when using a wide-angle lens – the flash output can be harsh and to direct. In these situations, I like to add a small soft box to the speed light to soften the light from the flash. I like the Altura Photo Flash Diffuser Light Softbox that folds flat and fits easily inside my camera bag. The 6x5-inch model works great for me but they also make a 9x7-inch option and a larger 13x8-inch model as well. They attach to the speed light with a simple Velcro strap.

Below you can see the attached Altura Photo Flash Diffuser from the front (left) and the side (right).

When in comes to fill flash, be sure to use it in a subtle manner. You don’t have to compete with the natural light your are given, you want to cooperate with it. Fill flash is never overpowering, it should create a nice balance with the sunlight. Remember to use TTL flash metering for the best balance of fill flash and ambient light and flash exposure compensation to make any necessary adjustments.

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Why You Should Calibrate Your Monitor

Why You Should Calibrate Your Monitor

General How-To

If the question is whether you should or should not calibrate your monitor, the answer is yes. If you are a photographer, you definitely should. But why?

If you have ever ordered prints from your favorite digital lab or printer (or tried printing yourself), you may have been disappointed in the results. Has this happened to you?

For example, most prints come back too dark. That’s because most people set their computer monitors far too bright, overcompensating during image processing by making it “darker.” You need to set the brightness to a standard. By calibrating your monitor, you will get the right setting for brightness – as well as white balance, contrast, and color fidelity. You want your computer monitor is to display these important factors as accurately as possible so the prints look as accurately as possible to what you saw on the screen.

At left, you can see how the Datacolor Spyder colorimeter hangs over the edge of the computer screen and reads the color and light values from the monitor during a calibration diagnostic test.

Monitor calibration is the first and one of the most important steps toward creating a true color-managed workflow.


Calibrate your Monitor

Here are the three programs that I recommend for calibrating your computer monitor. Each consists of a piece of hardware called a colorimeter, a device which reads the light and color directly from your screen, and software which then evaluates that information and writes a custom device profile for your screen. It’s actually much easier than it sounds (all links below to Amazon).

Datacolor Spyder5PRO for serious photographers.
Datacolor Spyder5EXPRESS for beginners.
X-Rite ColorMunki Display for serious photographers.

Monitor calibration establishes a vital link between your eyes and your computer screen. Its the first, and perhaps most important, step toward creating a true color managed workflow.
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Going Coastal

Going Coastal

General How-To

As a landscape and nature photographer, there are few experiences that compare to walking out on the beach in the dawn’s faint light, examining the sky, the clouds, the mood of the surf, and anticipating what the next hour might bring.

What is it, exactly, that unceasingly beckons the photographer back to the edge of terra firma time after time? Is it some visceral, primal urge to “go back from whence we came,” as John F. Kennedy once speculated about the kinship of human beings and the sea? Or is the seemingly boundless ocean a visual metaphor for the infinite photo possibilities offered the photographer? How about the local seaside tiki bar that serves up a kaleidoscopic array of boat drinks with miniature umbrellas during the idle light of midday?

Whatever the reason or excuse, coastal landscapes are a favorite subject for many nature photographers, including myself. So with spring soon turning to summer and the unofficial start of beach season, here are a few tips for better coastal landscape photography in any season.

Find a Point of Interest

Beaches are often nondescript, featureless expanses of sand and endless water without any apparent focal point. With no obvious visual fixture, the scene might leave a photographer confused and viewer of the image bored. Locating a conspicuous geological feature, rock, tree, tidal creek, piece of driftwood, or serendipitous conch shell in the foreground can provide a visual anchor that makes for a more compelling image.

Experiment with Shutter Speeds

The ocean is a dynamic body of water, heaving and churning with the ebb and flow of each and every wave. Photography is an interpretative art form, so the shutter speed you choose will greatly vary both the look and feel of the scene to potential viewers.

For example, a shutter speed of 1/250 of a second or faster can freeze the water’s motion, projecting a feeling of power or urgency. Any shutter speed of one second or slower can tame even the most furious ocean swells and ascribe a certain grace or fragility to the sea. A range of 1/20 to ½ of a second with an advancing or receding wave or foam is a good compromise, giving water the illusion of motion yet retaining important detail as well.

The focal length, physical distance, and water’s velocity will all vary the visual effect of the wave’s movement for each shutter speed, so the examples cited above are merely rough guidelines. I think it’s important to experiment with a variety of speeds before ultimately deciding on what you prefer for each situation.

Look For Reflections

As mentioned earlier, beaches can seem featureless with little “working material” to assist in assembling a composition. Reflections in wet sand and tidal pools, however, can add some interest and depth to an otherwise ordinary scene.

Tidal pools and puddles can reflect the sky or clouds like a mirror if there’s little or no wind and the thin film of water left on the sand by a receding wave produces reflections that are impressionistic and expressive.

Look for Patterns and Textures

Wind and water can conceive captivating dunes, mini dunes, ripples, ridges, and basins in the sand. These features can be used as a component of a larger, expansive scene or they can become the primary subject themselves. Look for conditions created by low-angled, directional lighting where the verge of light and shadow add yet more compositional elements with which to work.

These conditions can be difficult to visualize under flat or direct midday light. But as the angle of the sun becomes more oblique, textures, patterns, and lines will soon reveal themselves. Work quickly, as the light and shadows will be fleeting.

Arrive Early – Stay Late

This advice should be mandatory for any landscape photographer – coastal or otherwise. But does the world really need yet another photograph of the sun setting or rising over the ocean? My short answer would be, “Sure, why not?”

I prefer to bracket and blend exposures in post-processing for sunrise or sunset scenes that need usable detail in both the sky and foreground, but the level, unobstructed horizons are ideal graduated neutral density filters as well.

But if beauty for beauty’s sake is too banal for your tastes, you still have the twilight wedge, dawn or dusk’s glow, and low-angled, warm sunlight during the golden hours to compliment the landscape. Snobbery is no excuse for sleeping in.

Protect Your Gear

The best advice I can offer with regard to keeping your gear looking and working like new: Take someone else’s camera to the beach.

Seriously, the saltwater, sand, and wind can run roughshod on your camera gear. Even if the camera is not dropped in the drink, saltwater spray and mist from the pounding surf can do damage over time. I always wipe down my camera and lenses with a damp, freshwater towel and let dry.

Tripods can become corroded and completely inoperable if the legs are submerged in saltwater. Since I cannot resist getting into the water, I carry an old, backup tripod on my coastal excursions and go for it. It’s still a good idea to rinse off the sand and saltwater off the tripod legs when you are finished shooting to extend its life as much as possible.


Image Design Masterclass by Richard Bernabe $9.95 USD 74-page PDF E-book on photographic composition theory and practice by photographer Richard Bernabe. Add to Cart

Get Wet

Despite the previous point of advice, it often helps to get your feet and tripod wet in order get an interesting perspective. Wading into the water and getting a low angle to onrushing waves can provide a unique viewpoint while vicariously injecting the viewer into the scene.

Waves can move the sand and tripod during long exposures, resulting in soft images. For this reason, I push the tripod legs as deep into the sand as possible before an incoming wave arrives. This usually stabilizes the tripod and camera sufficiently.

Research Tide Information

Your favorite coastal photo locale has many different faces and characteristics, which all depend upon the height of the tide. Knowing when high and low tides occur and how they correspond to sunrise and sunset is vital to both your approach and your planning for a future photography trip.

Tidal information can be found online. For the United States, is a good place to start. A quick Google search for “tidal chart” and your area will produce several results.

An excellent iPhone application is Tide Graph, which gives tidal information for hundreds of coastal locations, which can then be quickly accessed and deciphered.

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