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

Bear Necessities

Bear Necessities

Bucket List

Bear Necessities

bear necessities

I’m at 36,000 feet on a flight from Seattle to Anchorage, blissfully dreaming about another rendezvous with Alaskan Coastal Brown bears in a remote, fly-in lodge. Suddenly my body is overcome by a wave of paralyzing dread. Have you ever had a dream where you show up for a final exam in college, but you forgot to study? Or you attended no classes? Or you weren’t wearing pants? Well, that’s the feeling.

The meaning is obvious and unmistakable. There’s an upcoming event for which I’m unprepared. This could be the result of packing fantastically light for a remote photography location in the Alaskan wilderness. For example, I’ve packed only two lenses. On my first trip to Alaska more than ten years ago, to offer context, I hauled in 37, give or take a few. Doctor Freud could easily have demonstrated a symbolic link between the number of lenses carried and pants – or the lack thereof.

However, the anxiety would wane within moments as my left-brained rationality laid out the game plan for this expedition. I had two Canon R5 camera bodies, a Canon 100-400mm lens with EF-RF adapter, a Canon 24-105mm lens, and 4 TB of Lexar CF Express cards. That’s all my photography gear.

The practical excuse for this minimalism was the weight limit imposed by the air service from Anchorage out to the lodge. If you wanted to board the plane, your clothes, boots, jackets, toiletries, photography gear, and anything else necessary for five nights in the Alaskan hinterlands couldn’t exceed 50 pounds. In years past, this limit was more of a suggestion to help reign in chronic over packers. I was advised this year would be different.

But even before the newly enforced restriction was known to me, I had decided to leave the 500mm f/4 lens, bulky tripod, and gimbal head at home and adopt a light and nimble approach to the bears this year. I was convinced that super-telephoto primes were becoming less necessary for most wildlife photography and, in many cases, a liability. To creatively compose or to ensure I achieved the right balance of negative and positive space in the image frame, I would need to continually “zoom with my feet” – moving closer and farther away with every shooting encounter. Zooming with the lens while keeping my feet stable and in one place is a tremendous advantage.

bear necessities

“Illiamna” Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, Alaska, USA

Then there’s the obvious fact that bears are large mammals and don’t require the same image magnification as songbirds, for example. Coastal brown bears in this specific area were relatively well adapted to a human presence, so I could approach these bears closer than grizzlies in the interior parts of the North American continent. The 45 megapixels of the Canon R5 also allow generous latitude for cropping in post, making the decision even easier. In fact, replacing the heavy prime telephoto lens with the 100-400mm wasn’t really much of a radical option at all.

The decision not to bring a tripod was more psychologically uncomfortable, however. Before I left for Alaska, I experimented with some settings. I knew at 400mm I would need at least 1/1000 of a second to ensure consistently sharp images when handholding the camera and lens. I tested the combination of 400mm and 1/1000 of a second in a variety of lighting conditions I expected to encounter while working with bears in Alaska. Under no reasonable lighting situations did I need more than 4000 ISO to produce a shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second. Most ISO settings were at least half of that, and in sunny conditions, I could use ISO 400 or less. With the low-light capabilities of the Canon R5, I felt those numbers were easily manageable. Plus, handheld photography gave me more freedom and mobility to capture those decisive moments that make wildlife photography so captivating. I’m confident I captured images handheld on this trip that I would have missed had I been using a tripod.

A second camera body is an essential safeguard against accidents or electronics failure, especially in a remote place like Alaska. I mounted the Canon 24-105mm lens on the second R5 body for wider “bearscapes” with background tree lines, mountains, clouds, and sky. Environmental portraits are some of my favorite wildlife images.

In the end, the two camera bodies gave me a necessary peace of mind, the 24mm to 400mm range offered no unnecessary overlapping focal length redundancies, and the 4 TB of storage in the CF Express cards allowed me to leave the computer and external hard drives at home. Best of all, I made no real sacrifices to the quality of my photography work while still weighing in a few ounces under the limit.

Sometimes the bear necessities are all you really need.


Namibia: 8 Stunning Locations Photographers Must Visit

Namibia: 8 Stunning Locations Photographers Must Visit

Bucket List

Namibia: 8 Stunning Locations Photographers Must Visit


Namibia Photography Hotspots

Simply put, Namibia is a photographer’s dream. It’s also a big, sparsely populated country so knowing where to go when you arrive can save you lots of time and money while optimizing your photography output. Namibia has the planet’s oldest desert, largest sand dunes, world-class wildlife viewing and many more attractions that you probably didn’t know about but should. If you have the opportunity to visit Namibia, here are 8 must-see locations that will make your photography trip a sure-fire success.

Etosha National Park

Etosha National Park in the north-central part of Namibia is renown for its amazing wildlife viewing and photography. It’s the most important wildlife sanctuary in Namibia and one of the largest savannah conservation areas in all of Africa. Elephants, zebras, black and white rhinoceros, lions, leopards, cheetahs, herds of springbok, giraffe, and wildebeest all call Etosha home in plentiful numbers.

The Park is at its prime during the dry months, which is approximately May through November, when the water holes draw the greatest concentration of animals, especially early and late in the day. The gates into and out of the Park are closed and locked at sunrise and sunset (to help thwart the pervasive wildlife poaching) so the holes nearest to the Okaukuejo, Namutoni, and Halali base camps are where you have the chance to work with the best light of the day.

This is one of the easiest wildlife parks to drive yourself, hopping waterhole to waterhole to find the best wildlife activity. You are not allowed to exit your vehicle at any time. Gates open at sunrise and close at sunset.


(Clockwise from Top Right) Giraffe silhouettes reflected in Okaukuejo water hole at sunset, Etosha National Park; zebras lining up for a late afternoon drink, Etosha National Park; a stately male lion in Etosha National Park; two elephants greet each other at the evening water hole, Etosha National Park; A parade of elephants in sunset light, Etosha National Park; a giraffe at sunset, Etosha National Park.  All Images © Richard Bernabe

Namib-Naukluft National Park

Namib-Naukluft is a large National Park that stretches across much of Namibia’s southern coast. Within its boundaries are the world’s oldest desert and largest sand dunes. Sossusvlei, an area in the southern Namib, is characterized by enormous red sand dunes – the largest in the world. The dune complex is often referred to as Sosusvlei, although the name specifically applies to a hard clay pan located in the center of this region as well as one particularly large dune.

Deadvlei is another clay pan near Sossusvlei with dozens of stark looking camel thorn trees entirely surrounded by giant red sand dunes. The early morning and late evening light is best for photography when the warm, low-angled sunlight intensifies the dunes’ bright orange and red hues.

Access to the Sosusvlei and Deadvlei area is via the Sesriem gate with a forty-mile drive to the dunes. The final 3 miles (which includes immediate access to both Sosusvlei and Deadvlei) are accessable with a 4WD vehicle with high clearance only. The gate at Sesriem opens at sunrise and closes at sunset.


(Top Left) Tree art at Deadvlei, Namib-Naukluft National Park. (Upper Right) The enormous dunes at sunset, Namib-Naukluft National Park. (Middle Left) A dunescape in Sossusvlei, Namib-Naukluft National Park. (Middle Middle) A lone acacia tree is dwarfed by the edge of a giant sand dune, Namib-Naukluft National Park. (Middle Right) Shadows are cast across the clay pan at Deadvlei, Namib-Naukluft National Park. (Bottom Left) An oryx crests the edge of a sand dune and into the light, Namib-Naukluft National Park. (Bottom Right) Tree art during intense dune light at Deadvlei, Namib-Naukluft National Park. All images © Richard Bernabe

Quiver Tree Forest and Giant’s Playground

Near the southern Namibia town of Keetmanshoop sits a unique forest of “quiver trees”, one of the most fascinating photography destinations in Namibia. These are not actually real trees, but rather several different species of Aloe, which are large enough to be referred to as “quiver trees” by the locals, since bushmen once used the branches to make quivers for their arrows.

The plant’s distinctive candelabra-like shape creates ideal silhouettes against a colorful sunrise or sunset sky. The forest is also the perfect locale for night photography with static starscapes, star trails, and streaking clouds through a moonlit sky.

The Giant’s Playground is only a few miles from the quiver tree forest (and contains a respectable number of quiver trees as well) but In the surroundings of the forest there is another site of geological interest (itself a tourist attraction), the Giant’s Playground, a vast pile of large dolerite rocks.

(Top Left) Symmetry represented in the Quiver Tree Forest near Keetmanshoop. (Above Right) he sunburst though the fork in a tree near sunset.(Bottom) The Milky Way hangs over the Quiver Tree Forest during a light painting night photography session, Keetmanshoop. All images © Richard Bernabe

Desert Horses at Aus

On the eastern edge of the Namib Desert near the town of Aus is a thriving population of feral desert horses, the only herd of feral horses in all of Africa. This group of about 90 -150 members has captured the imagination of Namibian tourists and photographers for years as they survive in some of the harshest conditions imaginable. Your best chance to see the horses is at the man made watering hole at Garub, early and late in the day.


(Above Left) Desert horses graze in a rare area of vegetation as the sun rises through the morning fog. (Above Right) A mare and foal in the barren desert landscape near Aus. All images © Richard Bernabe

Kolmanskop Ghost Town

Kolmanskop was once a bustling village built around a productive western Namibian diamond mine. Located just beyond the coastal city of Lüderitz, Kolmanshop is now a surreal ghost town, well preserved by the dry desert climate.

When diamond production ceased in the mid 1950s, the citizens of Kolmanskop abandoned the town and left the remaining structures to fend for themselves against the advancing desert sands. What’s left is well preserved today, if not partly overtaken by the desert in many places. The juxtaposition of the manmade and the visable forces of nature make Kolmanskop a favorite photography destination for visitors.


(Top Left) The well-preserved, colorful paint on the walls provides an interesting contrast with the overwhelming forces of nature that have overtaken the floor, Kolmanskop. (Top Right) Morning light streams through the doors of an abandoned hospital, Kolmanskop. (Bottom) A bright blue room housing an itinerant sand dune, Kolmanskop. All images © Richard Bernabe

Cape Cross Seal Reserve

Cape Cross Seal Reserve sits along the Southern Atlantic Ocean about 80 miles north of the coastal town of Swakopmund and just south of Namibia’s famed Skeleton Coast. What interests photographers the most is the fact that Cape Cross hosts the largest colony of cape fur seals in the world. Depending on the time of the year, more than 200,000 cape fur seals can be found congregating along the shores of Cape Cross to feed and fight for potential mates.

There is an elevated boardwalk that brings you literally face-to-face with many of the colony’s members. Althoguh your initial impulse might be to grab the longest telephoto lens you can find, there are creative compositional options at many different focal lengths, including a wide-angle perspective.


(Top Left) A backlit cape fur seal shows off its whiskers, Cape Cross Seal Reserve. (Top Right) A lone cape fur seal seems to pose in front of a back lit crashing wave, Cape Cross Seal Reserve. (Bottom) A wailing cape fur seal caught with electronic flash and a wide-angle lens, Cape Cross Seal Reserve. All images © Richard Bernabe

Spitzkoppe Mountains

The Spitzkoppe Mountains are a group of smooth granite peaks and boulders that rise dramatically from the flat Namib Desert. The Spitzkoppe or Matterhorn of Namibia is the highest peak in the group at 5800 feet (1780 meters) iand can be spotted and recognized from many miles away.

In addition to the formidable mountains, Spitzkoppe is home to boulder fields and natural arches that can be the source of endless compositional variations. Early morning and late evening are the best times when the low angled sunlight lights of the orange rocks with brilliant color. To gain access to the area during the best light, the nearby campsite is the best lodging option.


(Above Left) Shadows dance across the glowing rocks at sunset, Spitzkoppe. (Above Right) The rock arches can be used to frame the Spitzkoppe Mountains, especially near sunrise and sunset when you experience the best color, Spitzkoppe. All Images © Richard Bernabe 

Walvis Bay

Walvis Bay, a coastal city of 100,000 residents on the Atlantic Ocean, is an important deep-water port for Namibia’s economy. It also attracts an impressive array of wildlife because of it’s plankton rich waters. Southern right whales, pelicans, and two species of flamingos can be found in the area in large numbers.

Both the greater and lesser varieties of flamingos can be easily seen and photographed right from the center of town on the tidal flats. Morning is the best time when the the sun is at your back and it’s not obstructed by the marine layer hovering over the ocean in the west. Longer telephoto lenses are needed for close-ups but catching large flocks of birds with shorter telephoto lenses is also a good strategy as well.


(Top Left) A group of lesser flamingos taking flight from the tidal flats, Walvis Bay. (Top Right) Flamingos in the cool light of pre dawn, Walvis Bay. (Bottom) A trio of greater flamingos feeding on the tidal flats in the soft light of early morning, Walvis Bay. All Images © Richard Bernabe

Useful Namibia Links

Namibia Tourism Board
Namibia Weather Network
Etosha National Park
Hosea Kutako International Airport (Windhoek)
Air Namibia
Namibia Wildlife Resorts
Namibia Travel Guide
Spitzkoppe Campsites
Quivertree Forest Rest Camp

Chefchaouen: The Blue Pearl of Morocco

Chefchaouen: The Blue Pearl of Morocco

Bucket List

Chefchaouen: The Blue Pearl of Morocco


Nestled into the rugged Rif Mountains of Morocco is the brightly painted blue city of Chefchaouen. The city’s stunning mountain surroundings, brightly-painted blue streets and alleys, and the exotic culture and shopping make Chefchaouen a must-see location for the travel photographer and casual tourist alike.

Chefchaouen is most famous for being the blue city. That’s what most people call it – “The Blue City” or “The Blue City of Morocco” since most tourists cannot spell or pronounce Chefchaouen. The city was founded  in 1471 but didn’t receive its famous indigo hue until around 1492, when a large influx of Jewish refugees arrived, escaping the Spanish inquisition. The color, many say, was chosen since it’s the spiritual color for the Jewish people (also used on Israel’s flag), while some historians believe the color was a tribute to a nearby mountain spring that made this settlement possible in this arid land. Locals today will claim that the blue color keeps the mosquitoes away.

The most interesting (and colorful) part of Chefchaouen is the Old City or medina.  Here you will find a Byzantine maze of narrow streets and alleys through blue and whitewashed homes and buildings of Spanish and Moorish architecture. It’s a great (and fun) place to get lost.
The Plaza Uta-el-Hammam is Chefchaouen’s cultural and commercial center with excellent restaurants and shopping. There’s also a museum in the plaza that’s a converted kasbah, a medieval fortress. You can purchase spices, rugs, ceramic pottery, fresh tea leaves. and locally made leather goods for sale in the many shops, markets, and open air souks. Don’t pass up the Moroccan mint tea while you browse!

Chefchaouen is a 125-mile (200 km) drive from Fez and a 210-mile (340 km) drive from Casablanca. There are also daily flights to and from Casablanca to Chefchaouen on Royal Air Maroc and bus services as well. Once you’ve arrived, you’ll have dozens of hotels to choose from but try to stay in the medina if possible. For more information on visiting Chefchaouen, you can check out the website of Morocco Tourism on Chefchaouen.

All text and photos © Richard Bernabe

My Ten Favorite Photography Quotes

My Ten Favorite Photography Quotes


My Ten Favorite Photography Quotes

Ten Favorite Photography Quotes

A photo may be worth a thousand words, as it has often been said, but sometimes just a few words or sentences can help explain a thousand or more photographs. And while thousands of illuminating remarks may have been written or uttered about photography, here are my ten favorite photography quotes, plus a couple of bonus quotes to make it an even dozen (the list keeps growing).

“Photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them” – Elliot Erwin

“Landscape photography is the supreme test of the photographer – and often the supreme disappointment ” – Ansel Adams

“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera” – Dorothea Lange

“What makes photography a strange invention is that its primary raw materials are light and time” – John Berger

“With photography, I always think that it’s not good enough” – Lynsey Addario

“Photography to the amateur is recreation, to the professional it is work, and hard work too, no matter how pleasurable it may be” – Edward Weston

“I think photographers are too polite. There is not enough anger in photography” – Duane Michals

“Photography, as we all know, is not real at all. It is an illusion of reality with which we create our own private world” – Arnold Newman

“To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

“There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer” – Ansel Adams

“My best photographs always had a strong personal vision. If they didn’t communicate a vision or an emotion, they failed” – Galen Rowell

And lastly…

“You miss 100% of the shots that you don’t take” – Wayne Gretzky

If you have a favorite photography quote of your own, please share it with us in the comments section.