How To Photograph Stunning Autumn Color

How To Photograph Stunning Autumn Color

General How-To

How To Photograph Stunning Autumn Color

Autumn Color

Five Essential Photography Tips for Autumn Color

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 produce 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’s already there. Wet leaves create even more glare so during rainy conditions, a polarizing filter is nearly essential.

When working near water, a polarizing filter will also remove glare and refections from the water’s surface and surounding 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 polarization 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.

autumn color

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 anytime there is direct sunlight. 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 crisp 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

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

Autumn Color

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 photograph fall reflections. If the water is still enough, 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 4×4 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

Essential Composition: Visual Patterns

Essential Composition: Visual Patterns

General How-To

Essential Composition: Visual Patterns

Visual Patterns

The human eye and brain are instinctively drawn to visual patterns. We are a pattern-seeking species after all so we’re always searching for patterns in random data to help extract order from the chaos in the world around us. As a general matter, we love patterns so much that we have a peculiar inclination to create patterns even where none exist. The old axiom “bad news events come in threes” is but one example that immediately comes to mind. There’s even a word for this curious human tendency to create phantom patterns: apophenia.

Therefore, it should come as little surprise that we seek out visual patterns and repetitions in the observable space around us in the same way we seek patterns in every other way. That’s great news for us photographers and artists since we know our audience is already biologically predisposed to like our images if we use them. Visual patterns can be natural or manmade, regular or irregular, the primary subject or a complimentary part of a larger image concept.

Visual Patterns

“Brazen Serpents” Glacial rivers in southern Iceland

Visual Patterns

Patterns are combinations of elements or shapes repeated in regular and reoccurring arrangements. “Discernable regularity” is how Wikipedia describes pattern succinctly. Shapes, lines, and areas of contrast have powerful visual impact when arranged in repeated or corresponding parts either in regular or irregular form. Repetition is a good example of regular patterns and they tend to be manmade. The veins in a leaf or a spider web would be examples of the irregular variety and these are more than plentiful in nature.

What exactly constitutes “good” or “bad” visual patterns is purely subjective. Aesthetically, it’s an indeterminate entity. A forest of tall trees, leaf litter scattered over the ground, a grouping of flowers, a row of buildings, stacked mountain ridges, ocean waves, and flocks of birds are just some examples of literal objects that can be defined as patterns. These are subjects you can encounter on any given day with no need to travel very far to find them. Look no further than your house or backyard if you wish.

Visual Patterns

“Stripes” Zebra fur patterns, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania.


Repetition refers to objects, shapes, forms, figures, or lines repeated in regular, consistent intervals. Think of it as the visual equivalent to the beat in music. Gestalt theory suggests that a repetition of visual forms in a composition is pleasing to the eye in much the same way rhythm is pleasing to the ear in music. In addition, the eye tends to follow successive repetitions creating visual movement through the image frame.

Visual Patterns

“Last Sigh” Stacked ridges and sunset at Clingman’s Dome, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina USA.

Tips For Finding Visual Patterns and Repetitions

  • Look Around! Patterns are everywhere. They can easily be found inside or just outside your home if you don’t care to travel very far. Search for strong graphic elements, shapes, lines, areas of contrast, or colors. Remember, you’re biologically pre-programed to be awesome pattern hunters!
  • One successful strategy is to Fill the Image Frame with repeating elements or patterns for powerful emphasis and the greatest possible visual impact – from corner to corner, edge to edge. If the pattern or repeating visual elements are dominated by lines, try rotating the camera and viewfinder so that the lines create diagonals instead of a vertical or horizontal orientation.
  • Break it! Often a pattern or repetition can indeed be the order that you seek in the visual chaos but it’s too monotonous or boring. How about a break in the order? A visual anomaly within the pattern can create a powerful focal point.
  • Perspective Progression When composing wide-angle landscape images, a pattern or set of repeating objects or shapes can make a compelling foreground that helps move the viewer’s eye up and through the image in a dynamic way. I call this compositional tool perspective progression and it can be every bit as effective as leading lines or power shapes in creating visual movement.

For more help with visual patterns, as well as other photography composition concepts, check out my e-book, Creative Composition. Have fun with visual patterns and repetitions in your photography!

My Favorite American National Parks For Photography

My Favorite American National Parks For Photography

Bucket List

My Favorite American National Parks For Photography

National Parks for Photography

My recent travels have taken me to some amazing places around the world (Iceland, Patagonia, Myanmar, Tanzania, and others) but many of my all-time favorite photography locations are the National Parks of the United States. Most of these parks are beyond beautiful, easily accessible for recreational activities, and are preserved as sanctuaries for pristine mountains, deserts, forests, seashores, tundra, and the wild creatures that inhabit them.

The writer, historian, and environmentalist Wallace Stegner is credited with coined the phrase America’s Best Idea when referring to the National Park System. Here’s what he said in 1983: “National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”

At the time of this writing, there are 59 National Parks in the United States. By my last count, I have photographed in 32 of them. Here – in no particular order – are my 5 favorite National Parks for photography, with a few honorable mentions thrown in as well. If you have a favorite that American National Park that didn’t make my list, let me know which is your favorite in the comment section, including why.

Yosemite National Park

No other place in the world inspires photographers quite like Yosemite National Park in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. Iconic landmarks such as El Capitan, Half Dome, and Yosemite Falls are burned into the psyche of landscape photographers in both name and visage. Spring, particularly the month of May when the waterfalls have the highest flows and the dogwoods along the Merced River are in bloom, is the most popular season for photographers. The summer months, with bumper-to-bumper traffic in Yosemite Valley, should probably be avoided but any season will produce fantastic images, including winter. Regardless of the month, Yosemite is always a good idea!

National Parks for Photography
National Parks for Photography

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

It’s the most visited of all the national parks in the United States as well as one of the most ecologically diverse. Often dubbed “Wildflower National Park” because of the profuse blooms each spring (mid to late April is best) the Smokies have so much more to offer than flowers. There is spectacular autumn colors in late October, stacked mountain ridges, and wildlife too, including the highest density of black bears in the world. The Smoky Mountains National Park is also my “home park” and the place where I honed my skills many years ago. For sentimental reasons alone, it’s one of my all-time favorite national parks for photography.

National Parks for Photography
National Parks for Photography

Acadia National Park

Acadia National Park in Maine is one of the few places in the US where you can capture both deciduous autumn color (second to third week in October) and dramatic seascapes in the same frame. Favorite photography locations within the first national park east of the Mississippi River include Jordan Pond, Jordan Stream, Otter Cliffs, Monument Cove, Cadillac Mountain, Duck Brook, and Hunter Beach Cove. Nearby Bass Head Lighthouse can be crowded with other photographers at sunrise or sunset but it’s certainly worth a visit anyway.

National Parks for Photography
National Parks for Photography

Arches National Park

Delicate Arch is the most famous landmark in Arches National Park (it’s featured on Utah’s license plate) but it’s certainly not the only shooting location. All in all, there are more than 2000 sandstone arches in the park as well as many other geological formations, windows and fins that make superb photo subjects. With Canyonlands National Park and Dead Horse Point State Park nearby, the town of Moab, Utah makes a great location for a week or two of landscape photography and you still won’t scratch the surface of the available locations.

National Parks for Photography
National Parks for Photography

Yellowstone National Park

As America’s first national park established in 1872, Yellowstone National Park is best known by photographers for its wildlife and the many geothermal features found within its 3,468.4 square miles (8,983 km2). I’ve been traveling to Yellowstone for wildlife for more than 20 years and it never disappoints for the wildlife opportunities or the geysers, mud pots and fumaroles. Lamar Valley is often referred to as “America’s Serengeti” because of the sheer abundance of wild animals and is one of those places no wildlife photographer should miss during their lifetime. My favorite seasons for visiting for photography are spring, autumn, and winter while summer is a bit too crowded for my personal taste.

National Parks for Photography
National Parks for Photography

Favorite Images of 2018: A Retrospective

Favorite Images of 2018: A Retrospective


Favorite Images of 2018: A Retrospective

I spent much of December at home with a thought-provoking read titled The Artist’s Journey by author and screen writer, Steven Pressfield. And while I don’t completely agree with everything he espouses, I do recommend the book for artists, writers, musicians, or anyone with a career in a creative field. Among the many views the author posits (you can read some of the more profound excerpts on Tim Ferriss’ blog, How To Undertake the Artist’s Journey) is that the artist’s intent should not necessarily be one of self expression, as you might have heard and believed most of your creative life, but rather a journey of self discovery. 

“Artists discover themselves by the work they produce,” Pressfield asserts.

Those eight words above have haunted me now for weeks. As I pored over this year’s work to make the following selections, I asked… What matters to me most? What is my life’s purpose? What three words describes me best? I had relatively adequate answers to those questions already yet I searched for new meaning in my most recent work, making little to no progress. But since I’m insanely self-critical (there are no framed pictures of my work adorning the walls of my home or office, for example) I did manage to extract the following threads of introspection: Is this really all you’ve accomplished this year? Seriously, what an utter waste of twelve months. You really should spend more time actually doing photography and less time writing and talking about it. Okay, fair enough.

In addition, he implores artists to “put your ass when your heart wants to be” – an inelegant way of phrasing, Do Whatever Inspires You. Great advice, I’d say, which is exactly what I’ve been doing for the past 15 years, including this most recent one. So with regard to Pressfield, his book, and my journey of self-discovery, let’s just say it all evens out and continue to my favorite images of 2018, shall we?

Lilac Wine
Acadia National Park, Maine USA
October 12, 2018

Perhaps subconsciously inspired by Claude Monet’s series of impressionist water lily paintings, I caught the sunset sky reflected in a beaver pond along Duck Brook Pond in Acadia National Park in Maine. I liked the combination of abstract qualities with a touch of the literal found in the lily pads and reeds. Getting the right amount of balance and spacing of literal elements within the image frame was key. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon 100-400mm @ 400mm, 1/125 second @ f/16, ISO 500.

Dark Karma
Praia da Adraga at dusk, Portugal
June 1, 2018

Praia da Adraga is a place of dangerous beauty. The waves are big and powerful, the surf thunderous, and the rocks either too slippery, too sharp, or the lethal union of both. I anticipated an epic fail at every turn but managed to avoid disaster with each visit made. I wanted my images to convey this feeling of impending doom I carried in the pit of my stomach and Dark Karma came as close as any others. But alas, on my final evening at Adraga, while walking out in the dark, I suffered a violent, if not comical fall on the rocks, leaving a hockey puck-sized bruise on my thigh with all the colors of a Mediterranean sunset. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Irix 15mm, 30 seconds @ f/11, ISO 100.

Turning Away
Humpback whale, Johan Petersen Fjord, Eastern Greenland
August 21, 2018

Most of you know that wildlife conservation is a passion of mine, particularly the preservation of endangered species. The humpback whale is one of our rare success stories, with its conservation status upgraded from endangered (1988) to vulnerable (1996) due to the cessation of commercial whaling practices. But now the ocean’s plastics crisis threatens them once again. I like to imagine the displayed gesture as an anthropomorphic middle finger to the most “advanced” primates of the planet. If you look closely above the tail, you can see not only the outline of an iceberg, but also the edge of Greenland’s massive ice sheet. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon 100-400mm @ 158mm, 1/1600 second @ f/5.6, ISO 125.

Daughter of the Sun
Etosha National Park, Namibia
June 25, 2018

This Etosha giraffe appears to be bowing before the sun mere minutes before it dropped below the horizon. The sun is so large in the image from because of the focal length (560mm) and I battled all the usual bugaboos associated with shooting directly into the sun: flare, ghosting, autofocus problems, underexposure, and real possibility of being blinded in the process. All in all, however, it seems to have worked out well enough. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon 200-400mm w/ 1.4x @ 560mm, 1/500 second @ f/10, ISO 250.

Lake Clark National Park at Cooke Inlet, Alaska
August 10, 2018

My love-hate relationship with bears continued in 2018 with a visit to Alaska’s Lake Clark National Park at Silver Salmon Creek Lodge. The chosen image here teaches a valuable lesson for wildlife photographers who instinctively reach for the longest lens in the bag and zoom in as close as possible. Many just aren’t happy until every detail of fur or feather can be resolved fully in the frame. And let’s face it, this tendency is also an opportunity to show off some of your technical proficiency, am I right?  But the more compelling image is often the wider option. Here we have layers of sky, mountains, water, shoreline, bears, and their reflections. This is much more interesting than the conventional close up. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon 200-400mm w/1.4x @ 560mm, 1/2500 second @ f/5.6, ISO 800.

Steel Rain
The Vestrahorn at Stokksnes, Southeast Iceland
February 24, 2018

Classic landscape layout; sweeping, wide-angle perspective, compelling foreground with patterns creating perspective progression, diagonal shoreline leading the eye to the mountains in the background. This was captured in some of the worst weather you can imagine with the temperature near freezing, rain, sleet, and wind (I did have friends and fellow photographers nearby with whom I could share the agony) but within the hour, the skies opened up and a rainbow appeared over the mountains. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon 16-35mm @ 17mm, 4 seconds @ f/14, ISO 100.

Chasing the Light
Etosha National Park, Namibia
June 27, 2018

This is my personal favorite from 2018 and the most difficult image for me to describe with mere words. For one thing, I never remember taking the photo; it’s like a dream. I discovered the photo later that evening while reviewing images in my cabin. No animal is displayed in it’s entirety; the photo is all legs and trunks. The light is exquisite. The combination of backlighting and dust kicked up by the herd of elephants produces some curious visual effects such as the double edges where the light bleeds into the shadows and vice-versa. The composition uses layers to frame the young elephant farthest away from us, which is where our eye comfortably rests. I’m reminded of Robert Hunter’s lyrics, “Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.” The camera and lens were pointed in the right direction at the right time for a reason I can’t explain or properly take credit for. Maybe it was just the light. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon 200-400mm @ 280mm, 1/1600 second @ f/9, ISO 640.

Quercus Angelus
Johns Island, South Carolina
November 26, 2018

This is my backyard, not quite literally, but nearly so. I’ve photographed this tree on many dozens of occasions, including this exact composition time and time again. And time is the most conspicuous dimension on display here, as the Angel Oak, as it’s been titled, is the oldest living thing in America found east of the Mississippi River. On this particular morning I had no people to work around, soft diffused light, and a touch of mist in the air which lent a dreamy look and feel to the scene. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon 11-24mm @ 19mm, 5 seconds @ f/16, ISO 160.

Eternal Blue
Iceberg, Angmagssalik Fjord, Eastern Greenland
August 22, 2018

Here’s a perfect example of an intimate scenic; no foreground, no sky, no “sense of place” – just color, patterns, shapes, and lines. Intimate scenics always say much more about the personal vision of the photographer than it does about the place, however if one had to guess, Greenland would have been a good one. Grand scenics, conversely, usually rely more on the specific location to carry the image. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon 100-400mm @ 200mm, 1/640 second @ f/11, ISO 2000.

Take a Bow
Diamond Beach at Jökulsárlón, Southeast Iceland
February 4, 2018

Due to the extremely changeable weather in Iceland, rainbows are not an uncommon phenomenon. Despite this fact, however, they never fail to bring a smile since they always seem to be preceded by the foulest of weather. This 180 degree rainbow perfectly frames this lone iceberg on Diamond Beach at Jökulsárlón. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon 11-24mm @ 17mm, 1/200 second @ f/14, ISO 500.

In 2019 I’ll be traveling to Iceland, Greenland, China, Patagonia (Argentina and Chile), Namibia, Tanzania, Uganda, Gabon, diving with gray whales off Mexico’s Baja California, returning to Antarctica, and more. Follow my adventures by signing up for my monthly newsletter

Here’s to Truth, Adventure, and Passion in 2019 –  Richard

Richard Bernabe is a professional photographer specializing in travel, wildlife, and nature as well as an author of books, magazine articles, and travel essays published world-wide. Richard is a global influencer in the fields of photography, travel, and wildlife conservation with more than one million followers on social media platforms. He leads several photography tours and workshops all over the world and is invited to speak to photography and conservation groups all across the globe. For more great information on new images, gear reviews, book projects, and photography workshops and tours, Sign Up For Our Newsletter.