Tips For Successful Colorado Fall Photography

Scrub Oaks and Burnt Trees at Mesa Verde
This is one of my favorite Colorado fall photographs. More importantly it does not even include a single Aspen tree. I photographed this scene a few years ago in Mesa Verde. I was at Mesa Verde touring the ruins and had no inclanation that there would be such spectacular fall color amongst the Scrub Oak's and burnt Pinyon Pines. Technical Details: Toyo 45AX, Rodenstock 150mm APO Sironar-S, Fuji Velvia 100
Finally, fall has officially arrived. Photographers from all over the United States and the World are arriving in Colorado to photograph our beautiful fall foliage. While Colorado does not have the same range of colors the Northeast has, Colorado is famous for it’s large Aspen tree groves. Aspen’s make for great fall foliage subjects. The Aspen tree’s leaves with turn a golden yellow as the cooler temperatures set in and more importantly, the amount of daylight lessens. These displays of color along the mountainsides can make for impress landscape photographs. It’s important to remember that there is a lot more to photographing fall color in Colorado then just the Aspen groves. I’ve put together a short list of tips and recommendations for photographing the colors of Autumn in Colorado.

Tip 1(Use a Polarizer) – One of the easiest ways to make your photographs pop and capture the autumn color is to use a polarizing filter. A polarizer while help to cut down on the glare that comes from shiny and wet surfaces. Autumn leaves, especially when wet, will give off a glare. This glare will tone the color of the subject down and rob you of that ‘pop’ your looking for. Keep in mind that with a polarizing filter you will lose two stops of light. Because of this, when using a polarizer keep an eye on your shutter speed and ISO to prevent motion blur on the subject from a breeze or wind.

Tip 2(Look up, but more importantly look down) – Walking into a large Aspen grove its hard not to start at golden canopy of leaves above your head. Make sure you pay attention to what’s going on around the base of the Aspen trees and along the forest floor. In many areas of Colorado, the Aspen tree’s grow in and around Scrub Oak and Ferns. The Scrub Oak and Ferns will often be peaking at different times then the Aspen trees but using the Aspen boles as part of the subject of the image still conveys fall. Lastly, when the Aspen tree’s have peaked or have been subject to high winds, lots of leaves and color will cover the forest floor and rocks.

Tip 3( Colorado Fall Color is not just about the Aspens!) – While Autumn Aspen groves make for great subjects and are by far my favorite subject in the fall there are other trees and plants which make for great Autumn subjects. Scrub Oak will turn red and orange, Mountain Ash trees in the Canyons will display a vibrant orange color. Ferns located in the wetter areas will turn yellow or orange and don’t forget about the grasses. Many of the grasses of Colorado will turn golden as well.

Tip 4(Remain flexible and be prepared to break from your itinerary) Typically fall color in Colorado peaks from the northern reaches of the state and then moves it’s way through the southern portion of the state. Elevation also has a major role in when areas begin to turn and peak. Many photographers will travel here to capture iconic scenes such as the Maroon Bells from Maroon Lake or the San Juans from the Dallas Divide. It’s important however, to be prepared to give up on attempting to shoot iconic locations if the color or weather are not ideal and move on to locations that have more favorable shooting conditions. While it’s pretty hard to get a bad shot of the Maroon Bells from Maroon Lake, some years the area wont yield ideal conditions. We may have a dry late summer and early fall and the Maroon Bells wont have any snow cover. An area may be subjected to high winds and the leaves may be stripped from the trees. Regardless, it’s important to be prepared to move on and find where the color’s at.

Tip 5 (What is Peak color?, It’s subjective) – I kind of laugh at the term ‘peak’ fall color. I think to myself, what exactly is ‘peak’? Is it when 90% of the trees are yellow?, 50%?. The point is there really is no such thing as peak fall color. People will have varying ideals on what they consider peak. The important thing to remember when photographing fall color is that dramatic images can be capture at 20% peak color, and long past peak fall color. That’s what so great about fall color photography, there are opportunities not only at every iconic location, but also in every nook and cranny as well. It’s important to keep an open mind and look for unique opportunities and compositions.

Follow these tips and you should be able to improve your success rate when out photographing Colorado’s fall color. Lastly, one important thing all photographers need, is just a little bit of luck and serendipity. Sometimes you just end up in the right place at the right time. But like the slogan for the New York lottery states, ‘you got to be in it, to win it’. So regardless of what fall color reports say, get out in the field and make images because before you know it, the season will have passed.

2 thoughts on “Tips For Successful Colorado Fall Photography

  1. That is a superb fall color image. I love the skeletons of the trees in the brush. The whole tableau is almost two-dimensional in nature but that works well here. Found your website googling for images of Lake Helene and the nearby lakes (Two-rivers and such) which I was planning on visiting sometime soon for sunrise and found your gorgeous website. Perhaps we can coordinate sometime?

    1. Jao,

      Thanks for the compliment on the image. I was not expecting to go to Mesa Verde to shoot fall color but this turned out to be one of my favorite shots. Let me know when you think you might be making the hike out to Lake Helene or Two Rivers. If I’m available and in town I’d be happy to make the Hike with you.

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