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Legend of the fall

  • Written by  Keith Wilson
  • Published in Geophoto
Legend of the fall Shutterstock
01 Oct
From glorious reds to captivating oranges and scintillating yellows, when it comes to the colours of autumn, you can’t get much better than the vibrant state of New England

Although the calendar will tell you that autumn lasts for three months, the reality is that the leaf colours that define this season have a much briefer life and vary in timing and intensity according to the climate. That said, there are few photographers who don’t rate autumn as the most exciting season for photography. The combination of changing foliage colour, morning mists and more angled sunlight proves to be an irresistible combination for many.

Of course, what Europeans call autumn, Americans refer to as ‘fall’ and it is in the northeastern states of New England – Maine, Vermont, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Massachusetts – that the colours of this beautiful season are most celebrated.

At this time of year, the changing colours of fall in New England are followed avidly in the media, often getting more space and airtime than the weather forecast, and photographers plan the location of their next day’s shoot accordingly.

The colours of fall in New England are well-known and many people make the journey from all over the world to witness this annual phenomenon in a setting of quiet rural towns, winding mountain roads and lakeside viewpoints. Timing your visit is crucial because in just a few weeks the deep greens of summer foliage give way to the golden hues of yellow, orange and red before falling at last to the ground, in many cases carpeting verdant green lawns with a fiery brilliance.



Generally, the colours of fall move across New England from north to south and the season begins around mid-September in Maine – the most northerly state – and at higher elevations. Planning, therefore, is paramount. It’s not simply a case of just driving around randomly; instead you need a very special type of map, one that changes from year to year. This is a fall foliage map and there is one available online for each state of New England.

Each map divides the state into regions and a foliage colour key is updated every few days to show the changes to foliage colour across the state. For example, on Maine’s fall foliage website, the state is divided into seven regions and updated by the US Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry to depict the gradual change in leaf colour from north to south. This year, peak conditions in the state are expected in late October.

Printed maps also have an important role to the play in the plans of the dedicated follower of foliage. There are many celebrated fall foliage drives for the motorist, which take in some of New England’s prettiest landscapes and rural towns. One such example is the Kancamagus Highway in the far north of New Hampshire, while the villages of Litchfield County in Connecticut are favoured locations for fall colours from mid-October. Vermont is the most heavily forested New England state and widely considered to have the most vibrant range of fall colours in America.



To find the best scenic views and locations, it always pays to talk to local residents. They have seen it all before and in all weathers too, so they can tell you how and when the colours will develop in their locality. Also, they may know of places and back roads not on the map, but well worth making the detour to visit with your camera.

Of course, the timing of fall foliage maps varies each year because of the conditions of the preceding summer. A long dry summer or drought will cause plants to lose their leaves early, colour change will start prematurely and the peak period will be brief and less spectacular. A summer with sufficient rainfall will ensure good tree health, leaf retention and colour production for the fall. That said, a wet and stormy season can knock leaves from branches even before they’ve reached their peak. The ideal conditions for good fall colour are cold, dry, sunny days with little wind.



Part of any photographer’s preparation before embarking to New England should include some basic research into the trees and foliage to be encountered. You need to know which deciduous trees to expect, what their leaves look like and the colours they change to; also which trees are likely to change colour first and how long this will last.

Once you have identified the deciduous trees that you will be photographing, you will then know what to expect in terms of colour and can improve your chances of making visits to the right places at the right time. Trees which produce predominantly red leaves during fall include black cherry, hobblebush, red maple, sugar maple, scarlet oak, red oak, white oak, white ash. Yellow-leaved shrubs and trees include American beech, American chestnut, grey birch, yellow birch, striped maple and witch hazel.



It would be easy to allow bad weather to curtail your photography for the day, and periods of heavy rain can be expected in New England at this time of year, particularly from October onwards. While that may put a dampener on your experience, make sure you resume once the rain has ceased as wet leaves literally saturate the natural colours for a more vivid result.

And don’t feel all is lost if high winds have blown most leaves to the ground: simply focus on the fallen reds & golds and emphasise the contrast with the green of the grass.

Conversely, on bright dry days where the trees are well covered and leaf colour is at its peak, try zooming on the leaves outlined against a clear blue sky, or take in the wider view and fill the frame to show the mix of colours from the variety of trees before you.

This is also a time for early morning mists, particularly in valleys or over lakes, where a misty foreground offsets the vibrant colours of background trees.

To plan for such images, you need to take note of the local weather forecast and of the sunrise time and position. The low directional light soon after sunrise will bring a warm cast to the scene and boost the natural orange and yellow colours in the leaves.



It may be one of the first lessons we learn in school biology classes but why do the leaves of some trees change colour? The answer lies in the chlorophyll stored in leaves, which helps the process of photosynthesis to create a plant’s food. It is also chlorophyll that gives leaves their green colour.

During winter there is not enough light for photosynthesis so as the days shorten during autumn, trees will begin to live off the food they stored during the summer and the green chlorophyll will begin to disappear from the leaves, revealing yellow and orange colours.

In fact, small amounts of these colours are in the leaves all along, but it remains covered by the green chlorophyll during summer. In some trees, like maples, glucose is trapped in the leaves after photosynthesis stops. Sunlight and cool nights turn this glucose into a red colour, while brown colours in some leaves, such as oaks, are made from wastes left in the leaves.

As well as chlorophyll all leaves have two other major pigments – anthocyanin and carotenoid – which influence their colour during fall. The greater the amount of anthocyanin in a leaf, the redder it will turn, while carotenoid is yellow so when mixed with anthocyanin it produces orange hues.

Most colour change in trees is usually uniform but in some plants, such as sugar maples, the leaves can vary in colour on the same plant. On other trees, such as red maple, the colour can vary on an individual leaf.

In the landscape of New England, fall may not be the sunniest or warmest time of year, but it is certainly the most colourful and memorable.



Your research. Find out the different leaf colours of the trees that you will see in the area of New England you are exploring.

Check the weather forecast. Also, refer daily to the fall foliage maps for each state in order to help plan your route.

Use a standard zoom lens. These lenses are ideal for perfecting your composition as they range from the edge-of-frame-bending wide-angle perspective to distortion-free portrait focal lengths.



Give up if it starts raining. Leaf colours look much brighter and more vivid when wet. If the sun comes out immediately after a downpour you may need to add a polarising filter to cut out any glare from reflections.

Use flash. Natural light is best for showing the range of fall colours at their peak. Reflectors are useful for directing light to the foreground of closely focused subjects

Go out ill prepared. In the north of New England, winter comes early and even snow is possible from October. Take a waterproof, extra layers, wear walking boots and keep your gear packed away when not in use.


Recommended reading

The Colors of Fall: A Celebration of New England’s Foliage Season, by Jerry Monkman, Countryman Press, pb, £11.99

Trees & Forests of America, by Tim Palmer, Abrams, hb, £20

The Field Guide to Photographing Trees, by Allen Rokach and Anne Millman, Amphoto, pb, £22


Equipment Selections

Clothing option: Hiking boots

For hiking through the woods of New England, a comfortable and lightweight pair of walking boots is preferable to trainers. These Timberland Ledge Mid boots (£90) are perfect for trail walking and feature a Vibram sole. A leather and mesh upper, gives protection and support, while a Gore-Tex membrane provides waterproof protection. A lightweight yet durable boot.



Accessory option: Polarising filter

A polarising filter (from £20) is one of the most popular lens accessories and is designed to cut down on glare caused by direct sunlight or stray light reflections. It also has the effect of saturating colour. A polarising filter also reduces the amount of light reaching your image sensor by up to two stops, but the TTL metering in a DSLR will automatically adjust the meter reading accordingly.




Lens option: Standard zoom lens

A high-quality standard zoom lens with a fast constant maximum aperture is a must for any photographer. The best options are from independent lens makers Sigma and Tamron. For owners of cropped sensor DSLR cameras, the Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 EX DC OS HSM (£220) provides a full-frame equivalent focal range of 25.5-75mm. It features optical stabilisation to counteract movement and a hypersonic motor for silent autofocus use.


This story was published in the October 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine

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