10 Fall Photography Ideas

By: Dave Roos
Asian woman with camera
You can capture some really spectacular images in the fall. d3sign/Getty Images

What is it about the fall season that convinces otherwise rational people to spend thousands of dollars and several coveted vacation days on a "leaf-peeping" tour of New England? What is it about the crisp, smoke-tinged air, the promise of warm apple cider and those wild colors -- an explosion of red, orange, and yellow -- that transforms even the biggest city slicker into a ruddy-cheeked nature lover? A big part of fall's charm lies in the scenery.

Fall time is photography time. The lighting is warm and subdued, the kids are everywhere, and you can't seem to turn around without spotting another frame-worthy shot of an apple-hued maple leaf dangling from a branch, a toppling pile of gnarly gourds or just about anything outside at dawn or dusk.


But before you fill your hard drive with 3,000 pics of leafy vistas, consider these 10 fresh fall photography ideas along with some tips for capturing the sharpest colors and best memories.

10: Farmers Markets

Farmers market.
A farmers market is a perfect setting for your fall photos.
Full House Images/Getty Images

In temperate climates like the northern United States, the arrival of fall weather signals the waning weeks of the harvest season. It's no accident that Thanksgiving is an autumn holiday. Cultures around the world celebrate similar harvest festivals to give thanks for the bounty of the growing season and feast on its last fruits.

For those of us whose "farm" consists of a dying basil plant in a window box, farmers markets and roadside stands are excellent places to get into the harvest spirit. They're also a prime setting for stunning fall photos.


As with any good photo, farmers market pics need a focal point. While it's nice to step back and take the occasional wide shot of a towering pumpkin display, it's usually more visually effective to focus on a specific subject, employing the rest of the scene as colorful background. That doesn't mean you have to pose a person in every photo. Just be mindful of what exactly you want to capture when you're framing your shot. Otherwise, the beauty of the real-life bounty will be lost in a lot of visual noise.

9: Halloween Costumes

If you want to capture your little ones in costume, you should do so before it gets dark.
Sean Locke/Getty Images

On Halloween night, every parent has a camera in hand, taking group shots of the neighborhood ghouls as they go house to house in an undying quest for more sugar. Even though Halloween seems like a natural photo opportunity, it doesn't always result in a lot of great shots. And there's good reason for that.

For starters, most Halloween photos are taken at night. Anytime you use the built-in flash on your camera, be prepared for a lot of washed out colors and red eyes. The best solution is to take most of your pictures at dusk, when the light is appropriately shadowy, but strong enough to disable the flash.


Also, when was the last time you saw a really impressive group photo? There are so many things that can go wrong with a group shot, especially when kids are involved. Somebody is always going to have his or her eyes closed or finger in his or her nose. Plus, what's the subject of a group shot? What is the arresting image that draws the viewer's focus?

After you've taken the requisite group shot, get a close-up of your kid with his or her mask tipped up as your child sneaks a bite of Snickers. You could also capture your three-year-old daughter's heavily made-up eyes in that ridiculous princess costume. Those will be the pics that survive the delete key.

While we're talking Halloween, let's share some tips on taking good jack-o'-lantern pics.

8: Jack-o'-lanterns

Lit from within by a flickering candle, the eerie orange glow of the jack-o'-lantern is one of the oldest and favorite Halloween traditions. Whether it's a simple gnarled smile or an elaborate recreation of the shower scene from "Psycho," jack-o'-lanterns never fail to catch the eye and the camera lens. But just like other Halloween photos, jack-o'-lantern pics are often doomed from the start.

First of all, the whole visual allure of the jack-o'-lantern is its otherworldly internal glow. The only way to get the full effect of that glow is to photograph the subject at night. The last thing you want to do is activate the flash, which spoils the whole idea of internal lighting. But if you don't use the flash, you're likely to end up with a blurry shot.


Here are some tricks from the New York Institute of Photography. First, load up the jack-o'-lantern with several candles, not just a single flicker. The more light you can generate from within the pumpkin, the sharper your photo will be. Next, you have to use a tripod. When shooting in low light, there's no other way to get clear results. Lastly, don't shoot when it's fully dark outside. Try to capture that late dusk light where just enough of the skin will be visible to give the shot some depth [source: NYIP].

7: Day of the Dead

Try taking photos of traditional Day of the Dead artwork, like the Mexican wedding figurines shown here.
4 Eyes Photography/Getty Images

Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, is a traditional Mexican holiday that blends the religious imports of Catholic Spain with indigenous spiritual practices of the ancient Americas. Families build lavishly decorated home altars on which they place ofrendas (offerings) to deceased loved ones, including the person's favorite foods, framed photographs, decorative breads, playful sugar skulls and pungent bouquets of orange or yellow marigolds. Similar altars are erected in the town cemetery, where the living conduct an all-night vigil on Nov. 1, inviting the deceased spirits to share one last feast.

This is a great time of year to learn more about Mexican culture, eat some fantastic traditional foods and take some brilliant photos. Look for some of the traditional handicrafts sold during the Day of the Dead, like the famous catrinas -- stately skeletons in elaborate dresses -- or the increasingly creative and colorful collection of sugar skulls and figurines. Larger Hispanic communities also hold Day of the Dead parades, the perfect place to snap pics of a wild-eyed diablo or a skeleton family on the town.


6: Portraits

With all of the natural beauty that competes for our attention during the fall, it's easy to forget that this is the ideal time of year for portrait photography. Golden fall light is flattering, especially at dawn or dusk, when colors are muted and shadows are long.

One of the challenges of portrait photography can be filling the rest of the frame. Fall makes that a lot easier. With the subject of the portrait in sharp focus, you can let the background remain a blurred collage of fall foliage. Or bring everything into stunning relief, shooting your subject from above lying on a bed of golden leaves.


Not all portraits need to be planned and posed, of course. Fall is also a great time to capture candid portraits. Think of all of the fun family events that we celebrate in the fall: harvest festivals, Halloween, Thanksgiving. Use these naturally joyous and colorful opportunities to catch your family and friends smiling big in beautiful settings.

5: Landscapes

Cloudy skies can really make fall colors pop.
Jason Hosking/Getty Images

The danger of going on a leaf-peeping tour -- or, yes, leaf-peeping cruise -- is coming home with hundreds of pictures of rolling mountainsides covered in a patchwork quilt of orange, red and yellow. While these vistas are undeniably beautiful in person, they lose much of their power out of context. Ever sat through someone else's vacation slideshow? Now imagine that your friend took nothing but pictures of trees.

But that shouldn't stop you from photographing landscape shots during the fall. You just want to be a little more conscious of the subject, the lighting and how you're framing the shot. For starters, look for a specific focal point that automatically catches the eye. Maybe you can shoot a single red-leafed tree in a sea of yellow or a swollen river cutting through a line of majestic oaks.


Take advantage of overcast or even rainy days. Cloudy skies have an interesting effect on lighting. They diffuse light, allowing the natural colors of the leaves to really pop. Also, try to take shots of the trees from someplace other than the window of your car or the railing of the boat. Get up close to the trees and take pictures of the canopy from below. And don't forget to look down. What about the field blanketed in leaves, or leaves floating on a calm river's edge?

While we're getting creative, let's talk about time-lapse photography.

4: Time Lapse Foliage

Document the drama of the changing leaves with a series of photos that captures a single tree at different stages. The technique of time-lapse photography is particularly effective at speeding up imperceptibly slow processes like the blooming of a flower or the subtle blush of fall foliage. How you choose to use the technique depends on the sophistication of your photo equipment and the time you want to commit to the project.

The simplest form of time-lapse is to take three or four photos of the same tree at the same time of day in similar lighting and frame the photos in a series. To make this work, position yourself on a spot that's easy to find again, like a tree stump or a large rock.


For a true time-lapse effect, you will need to take hundreds of pictures from the same exact spot and string them together in a short digital movie. You'll need a tripod and preferably a digital camera with an interval setting that can automatically snap a picture every few hours [source: Elliott]. Since a movie requires 24 individual frames per second, you would need to capture 240 shots for a 10-second movie. Assuming that a tree takes 60 days to go from fully green to fully red, that means four pictures a day. For more detailed tutorials on time-lapse photography, visit the Digital Photography School.

3: Harvest Moon

Harvest moons only come once a year, so plan accordingly.
Rob Atkins/Getty Images

You don't have to be an astronomer to capture the most famous full moon of the year, but it helps to have a calendar. The Harvest Moon is the full moon that appears closest to the autumnal equinox, which falls on or around Sept. 22 each year. The Harvest Moon gets its name because it rises so close to sunset, extending "daylight" for busy farmers.

All rising moons appear larger when they're closest to the horizon. While the moon illusion loses some of its impact on film, the Harvest Moon makes up for it with a dash of color. Because the moonrise overlaps slightly with the sunset, the moon reflects some of the waning purple or pink light with dazzling effect.


To take the best picture of the harvest moon, try to catch it as close as to the horizon as possible and near some visual points of reference, like a barn, a silo or stand of trees. For the best shot, of course, you'll want a nice clear night, but that's more about good luck than good timing.

2: Back to School

The first day of a new school year can be chaotic, but these milestone moments are also the ones that you'll cherish years down the road. Make sure the camera is loaded with fresh batteries the night before and that it's waiting in a convenient place for those morning photos.

In addition to the standard bus stop pics, capture some of the preparation: the first-day outfit laid out on the bed, kids fighting over the mirror for a last-minute hair check or hands criss-crossing the table during the breakfast rush.


Since the first day of each school year is such an important milestone, make the year-to-year changes more explicit. Pose your children against a homemade growth chart and take a close-up next to this year's hash mark [source: HP Canada]. Or have your child hold up his or her school picture from last year to document how much he or she has changed [source: Orthner].

If you can sneak into the classroom, get a shot of your little one loading up his or her cubby, checking out your kid's new desk or meeting the teacher for the first time. Even if they're embarrassed, your kids will thank you when they're sending their own children off to school.

1: Pumpkin Patch

Pumpkin patches come loaded with fun -- and photo opportunities.
Scott Stulberg/Getty Images

Few photographic opportunities are as rich as a trip to the pumpkin patch. More and more farmers have caught on to the concept of agritainment, turning their workaday corn fields into full-blown fall festivals complete with 10-acre corn mazes (or "maizes," of course), hayrides, pumpkin picking, apple-picking, huge slides, pony rides, carnival games, food vendors and more.

With so many hallmarks of fall, there are almost too many great opportunities to take terrific photos: your little guy or gal lugging an oversized pumpkin; ruddy cheeks warming up with apple cider; sitting on Grandpa's shoulders to reach the perfect apple; emerging victorious from the corn maze; bouncing along on the hay ride; sitting atop an old-fashioned tractor; falling asleep in the car clutching an ear of Indian corn; the list goes on.

Most fall farm festivals run for the whole month leading up to Halloween, so get out there on a crisp, sunny day and don't forget the camera at home!

For lots more fun family activities and photography tips, click the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

  • Elliott, Chas. Digital Photography School. "An Introduction to Time-Lapse Photography"http://www.digital-photography-school.com/an-introduction-to-time-lapse-photography
  • HP Canada. "Back to School Photography Tips" CanadianParents.com.http://www.canadianparents.com/article/back-to-school-photography-tips
  • New York Institute of Photography. "Halloween Photos"http://www.nyip.com/ezine/holidays/halloween.html#ixzz168ieGOXl
  • Orthner, Allison. "Back to School Photo Tips"http://allisonorthner.blogspot.com/2009/08/back-to-school-photo-tips.html