Photographing Fall Foliage in Subdued Light

Carson River Fall Detail Panorama

Well, the magical season of fall is upon us! The possibilities are endless and, for us photographers, this is extremely exciting. When I consider writing about fall photography, I find it easy to get carried away. Realistically, there are so many locations, so many types of light, so many techniques, and on and on. I decided to narrow things down to my favorite conditions in which to shoot fall colors, which also happen to be represented by the types of images my clients (both workshop and gallery) most often ask about. By far, for my fine art gallery work, I am drawn to subdued light in the fall season. Subdued light comes in several different flavors, so I’ll share a few of my photos as examples and describe why and how these lighting conditions work.

Echo Falls
Conditions: Rain-saturated with overcast skies

“Echo Falls” is an example of, what I would consider, the perfect conditions for fall foliage photography. This one didn’t come easy. I actually waited six years to click the shutter. Physically, this image required an unusually even peak in the fall foliage, as well as an early snow, which then melted to create water flow. I was looking for the contrast between the white water in the converging creeks and the vibrant tapestry of the foliage. However, this image would be mediocre at best without the right atmospheric conditions.

Specifically, I was looking for a rainy, overcast day with little wind. When I awoke to a very stormy day with driving rain, I visited this location with high hopes. I arrived, set up my 4×5 inch film camera, added a polarizing filter to reduce glare on the wet leaves and rocks, calculated my exposure, covered the camera in plastic, and waited. After about 45 minutes, the rain let up, the wind stopped, and the cloud cover thinned slightly. The leaves became still. The overcast conditions, polarizer, and 100 ISO film enabled me to lengthen the exposure time to 4 seconds, softening the flowing water and adding a nice contrast to the crisp leaf detail. The cloudy sky and wet conditions provided for a beautifully saturated color image, as well as allowed for a relatively long exposure. The clouds also gave a soft, even light, eliminating harsh contrast and making it easy for the camera (sensor or film) to handle the dynamic range in one exposure. A rainy, overcast day is ideal for colorful fall imagery.

Oxbow Bend, Mount Moran and the Grand Teton
Conditions: Warm diffused light in early morning with broken cloud cover

“Oxbow Bend, Mount Moran and the Grand Teton” is quite an iconic shot. I chose an angle that is less often photographed (relatively) and used a panoramic perspective in order to minimize the less exciting sky, making the mountain range more “important” in the scene. The contrast between the gray peaks and fall colors really makes this image sing. I was especially drawn to the overlapping layers of water, foliage, mountains, and sky. The lighting conditions, however, are what really made the mood and feeling in this image work. Early morning light, often referred to as magic light, is very soft and warm—perfect for a large percentage of landscape photographs. However, a little morning cloud cover, subduing the light even further and adding a slight soft shadow for contrast, takes the mood up a notch. In this image of the Tetons, the thin cloud obscuring the sun just takes the edge off of the potential exposure hot spots. I was able to retain the full dynamic range in one exposure using no filtration. While this image location can be photographed beautifully with direct full sunlight, I really like the richness of the soft light. As opposed to an image that screams for your attention, I feel as though the softer light provides a feeling of refinement and tranquility. Low angle filtered light is a winner for a grand landscape with color and mood.

Colors of Zion, Zion National Park, Utah
Conditions: Reflected, indirect light

“Colors of Zion” is a wonderful example of reflected, indirect light. After shooting sunrise light early, I decided to scout around for some hidden gems to shoot later in my trip. Just a few minutes into my walk, I came across this very interesting composition. Fine details of moss and lichen on a sandstone boulder contrasted against rich fall foliage in the middle ground, all laid out below the towering sandstone cliffs in the background. This scene screamed to me, and the light was ideal! Again, the light was subdued, but not flat. It was mid-morning and the sun was just rising above the background cliff. That warm morning light was shining across the canyon and reflecting off of the opposing sandstone wall, gently illuminating this scene. The light added very subtle contrast as well as a warmth that is rarely seen in shaded images. Needless to say, I was motivated to run back to my truck, grab my gear, and compose this scene before the light was lost. This version of subdued light—reflected, indirect light—adds a special depth to the scene. When you notice this type of potential, it raises the bar for your image possibilities and extends your shooting time several additional hours into the day. Again, I was able to capture the exposure range quite easily in one exposure, capturing rich colors in a composition that retained great depth.

Lily Lake Fall Panorama
Conditions: Shaded light with the sun behind a mountain

“Lily Lake Fall Panorama” is a very intimate landscape built upon subtle detail and soft lighting. This is a place I know well and have visited often. I have been drawn to the details here for years. I knew I wanted to capture this scene in the fall season but the conditions had to be just right. In the Sierras, I enjoy the contrast of the yellow aspens against the cool tones of the granite. The pine trees and vintage cabins add to the feeling of age and history. The lily pads add a bit of complexity to the reflection, and the morning mist rising from the pond is the icing on the cake for mood and drama. The light, however, is what made this scene possible in one simple, clean exposure. The ambient light was strong enough to add “brightness” and life to the scene. The direct sunlight was blocked by the mountain to my left, enabling me to avoid any harsh cross light and dark black shadows. While HDR can be used to pull out all values in the scene, I find that using this naturally shaded light, and one exposure, gives me a softer-feeling final image that is more pleasing to my eye. Again, one or two simple curves adjustments is all it takes to dial the contrast in for your particular vision of the scene.

It’s all about the subtlety. When it comes down to it, subdued light really suits my style of fine art gallery landscape photography. I’m known for creating images with fine details and subtlety, as well as rich, believable color. The different flavors of subdued light enable me to capture these scenes with one simple exposure and a minimal amount of post-processing based upon the contrast range I envision. While the beauty of fall color can be captured well in almost any lighting conditions, subdued light, which is often overlooked, is my light of choice!

Jon Paul is a landscape and wildlife photographer, focusing primarily on fine art gallery work. He also leads photography workshops and tours in the field. To view more of Jon Paul’s work or to join him for a workshop or tour, please visit his websites and blog:

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