Fall ushers in new frontiers for wildlife photography. The shortening of the days profoundly affects both plants and animals, and there’s a sense of quickening to everything, an urgency in the air that’s contagious. Fall wildlife photography provides perhaps the best opportunity to show the connection between animals and their habitats in colorful, vivid ways.

Photo of a great gray owl against a fall backdrop

A great gray owl hunts in shade against a backdrop of sunlit fall foliage in Wilson, Wyoming.

It’s a crucial season for wildlife in North America. Animals are either preparing for migration with its host of challenges or hunkering down in place for winter and the lean, hard times that season inevitably means for any creature that lives outdoors 100 percent of the time. Blue jays and squirrels are busily gathering and stashing acorns, migrating warblers are alternately resting and frenzy feeding before continuing for thousands of miles to their wintering grounds. Though birds and many animals are done raising families until the spring, autumn means mating season for some ungulates such as elk and moose. The young of many species, like foxes, are dispersing from their families and learning to survive on their own.

Finding Your Subject

Fall wildlife photography of a bull moose

Bull moose in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.

This fall, consider investing time in photographing a particular species that interests you. I firmly believe that spending deep time with one species is the best way to come away with unique and powerful images. Of course, this may mean traveling to a place where that species can readily be seen, such as moose in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming; the elk of Benezette, Pennsylvania; or the black bears of Albemarle Peninsula, North Carolina.

Look locally for a spot where animals congregate because of food, safety or water. This time of year, birds are particularly sociable, gathering and moving about in flocks. This is true for birds from warblers to waterfowl. Parks in cities and suburbs are a particularly good place to find them, as they are often more concentrated due to limited habitat and more accustomed to people on foot. Ducks, in particular, are done with their molting process and are back to sporting “basic plumage” when they look their best.

Head For The Water

Photo of ducks on a lake in fall

A common merganser pair on a pond lit by reflecting foliage.

A portrait of a bird, insect or lizard in the water can go from pleasing to extraordinary when surrounded by the reflection of colorful leaves. Look for the still water of a pond or lake, or the moving water of a stream or river for different creative possibilities. More than at any other time of year, water offers the potential for stunning photos in fall. In fact, you don’t even need a wild subject when you have color reflected—the reflections alone can be your subject, whether they are simply abstracts or recognizable objects like leaves or buildings.

Keep in mind that the height from which you photograph will make a big difference. If you want a reflection, you won’t want to be too low. When you find a good situation, make sure you really work it. Try different heights to see what offers the most compelling composition and color. Get inventive and find ways to elevate yourself. With moving water, use a long exposure to make it look silky. Consider bringing along a polarizing filter to cut down on glare from the surface of the water.

Frame Fall Wildlife Photography With Foliage

Photo of a blue jay and fall foliage

A blue jay rests after foraging on the ground for acorns.

Look for ways to use the warm colors of fall foliage to frame your subject. But don’t just stop at photographing a bird among leaves. Look around you for colorful vegetation, and then compose your shot such that those leaves are relatively close to you and shoot through them. This can create a lovely, blurred frame that adds a sense of depth.

Get High

Look for high vantage points around you in order to get a sweeping view of what’s going on with foliage. Maybe there’s an overlook you know about or a particularly high hill. Head there and use a long lens to compress distance, focusing in tight on a small, particularly colorful area. Try taking overlapping photos with a wide-angle lens for later stitching into a panorama.

Look Down

Photo of fall leaves

Fallen leaves and berries from a burning bush plant. Great fall images may be at your feet.

As fall progresses, sometimes the prettiest view ends up being on the ground. When leaves fall and create a multicolored carpet on a sidewalk or forest floor, grab a tripod and a macro lens, and stop down (use a smaller aperture) to get most of the leaves in focus.

Look Up

The colors of leaves along with the shapes of branches can make for stark and stunning graphic images against sky. Lie down under a colorful tree and aim up. Try this with cloudy skies and overexpose for a high-key effect, or make use of blue sky as a contrasting color to the red and orange of the leaves.

Watch Weather Reports

Weather and the ensuing quality of light are as important to your planning as the progression of fall color across the landscape. Low sun at the beginning and end of the day (the golden hours) can greatly enhance red, yellow and orange hues, while sun in the middle of the day can result in harsh brightness and shadows. Workarounds on this are going in super tight on an object in full sun or shooting fully in the shade of a tree. Bright overcast conditions are wonderful for foliage because they allow you to shoot all day long and can often most effectively showcase saturated colors.

Photo of a white-tailed deer

Young white-tailed deer on a hiking trail in upstate New York.

Use wind, or the absence of it, to your advantage, too. Still conditions make precise macro photography much more possible, while wind can present the opportunity to use a slow shutter speed on moving leaves to capture that motion, resulting in a more dynamic and perhaps abstract image.

A special circumstance to always be on the alert for is the presence of frost on colorful leaves. Whenever you hear of frost forecast for the next morning, get ready and get out early. The visual combination of frost and autumn foliage speaks so beautifully to the impending transition into winter.

Get Creative With Your Fall Wildlife Photos

Fall is a wonderful time to try different creative techniques. Double exposure, whether done in camera or later in post-processing, can be a particularly artful representation of the wistful, ephemeral quality of this season.

Taking pan blurs of trees can be a lot of fun, producing an endless variation on a theme. Using a slow shutter speed, pan vertically up or down a tree. Experiment with shutter speed, depth of field and the speed of your own movement as you pan. Or while a passenger in someone’s car, pan horizontally across trees as the car moves past them. The possibilities are limitless. Many of the shots may be unsuccessful, but you’ll find that occasionally an image will stop you in your tracks with its abstract beauty.

Use a wide-angle lens on wildlife in a landscape that is clearly wearing its mantle of autumn. It’s a wonderful chance to tell a fuller story of an animal and the integral way it’s essentially woven into the fabric of its habitat.

Photo of a redpoll bird taken in fall

A common redpoll foraging for seeds among fallen leaves.

Track Foliage Hotspots Online

Check in with online maps that show the progress of foliage across the continent. The data-based, interactive Fall Foliage Prediction Map released annually by SmokyMountains.com reveals how fall will progress for the entire United States and specific destinations within it. You can also simply try searching for “fall foliage map” for your state or country and see what turns up.

There may also be online webcams of vistas around you or of destinations you’re planning to visit. These provide a real-time look at weather and foliage conditions. 

Fall wildlife photography of a wood duck spreading its wings

A wood duck drake flaps his wings on a pond colored by the reflection of fall foliage.

Ethical Considerations For Fall Wildlife Photography

It bears repeating that this is an urgent time of year for all animals, and when in their territory, we must be especially sensitive to their needs and their vulnerabilities. If you find your actions appear to be keeping them from successfully foraging, resting, remaining near young or safely traveling on their journey, consider retreating or leaving entirely. Wild animals face so many challenges in our modern world. Careful field ethics are more important than ever.

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