Fallen Leaves: How to Appreciate and Photograph Post-Peak Fall Color

Nothing lasts forever, and peak fall color is no exception. Every year it seems that just as quickly as the dog days of summer transitioned to crisp and foggy fall mornings, the once vibrant colors of fall have faded and the trees are left solemnly standing bare, ready to face another long and cold winter. Fall color can be as unpredictable as it is fleeting, and even when planning months in advance and booking that perfect campsite or cabin during what is supposed to be peak color, oftentimes autumn throws us a curveball and decides to peak early, which has happened throughout much of the Northeast this year. While it’s difficult to not feel at least a twinge of disappoint when fall has passed its peak, there are still a bounty of picturesque wonders to be found in the late-autumn forest.

Credit: Joey Priola

Look Down for Color

Fallen leaves can be just as colorful and pretty on the ground as they were on the branches from which they came, especially after a strong wind has blown them from the trees before their color began to dull. Different trees tend to lose their leaves at different times, and strolling down a trail littered with fallen maple leaves while the beeches and oaks still retain their golden leaves is a joy to the senses. Fallen leaves make for interesting photographs, and are perfect for abstract and macro shots. Leaves covered in dew or raindrops are a particularly interesting late-autumn photography subject, and can make for truly unique images that stand out from the crowd. This is a great time to utilize a macro lens to create frame-filling shots of colorful fallen leaves, revealing an incredibly intricate world of textures and shapes that often go unnoticed.

Credit: Joey Priola

Find Moving Water

Another way to appreciate fallen leaves and use them for creative photos is to seek out eddies in creeks or small rivers where fallen leaves have gathered. These nooks in the shore often cause the water to slowly move in a swirling circular motion that’s difficult to perceive with the naked eye, but can be revealed in a photo by using a multi-second exposure. Depending on how bright it is out, a natural density filter, which reduces the amount of light that reaches the camera sensor, may be necessary to facilitate an exposure that’s long enough to capture a pleasing swirling motion. This type of photography is fun and dynamic, as no two photos are the same. Experiment with different shutter speeds and try tossing a handful of leaves from the nearby ground into the water to see how the number of leaves can drastically alter the photo outcome.

Credit: Joey Priola

Who Needs Leaves?

Bare trees that have bid adieu to their leaves until the spring also make for an intriguing photography subject. These trees are interesting in their own right as a standalone subject when isolated from the grand landscape with a telephoto lens, especially when a thick veil of morning fog obscures the background and simplifies the landscape. Mountainsides with trees that still have colorful leaves and some that are bare make for a thought-provoking contrast in color and form, and on a deeper level can make one think about the fragility and ephemerality of life. Forests and mountainsides on the edge of open meadows are great places to view and photograph this contrast of life and death, especially at sunrise or sunset when colorful clouds fill the sky.

Just because the majority of leaves have fallen and autumn is well past its peak, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t still beauty to be found in the fall forest. So the next time you look at a foliage report and see that colors are past peak, don’t hesitate to still get out and discover the splendor that the late-autumn season has to offer, likely in much more solitude than during peak color.