Fall Foliage Photography

Fall Foliage Photography

It’s October 1st and it’s getting to be that time of year again. In some areas it’s already happened. This is the time of the year when the temperature starts to cool off and the leaves on the trees start to change to brilliant colors of yellow, orange, and red! If you are interested in getting out and doing some fall foliage photography around the Washington DC area, keep reading and I’ll help you with deciding when is the right time to go so you’ll capture the leaves at their peak color.

If you are in the Washington DC area and you are looking to capture beautiful autumn scenes of the fall color, it normally means a day trip to Shenandoah National Park.  But if you are in the city or developed area, how do you know when is the best time to go so the leaves are at their peak? That’s what we’ll cover in this article, knowing when to go. But knowing when to go is only half of it, you need to be ready to go at the last minute! In this area, peak color on the trees sometimes only lasts a couple of days. High color and leaves falling of the trees seems to happen about the same time, and with mild fall storms, a lot of the peak colored leaves can be on the ground quickly. A lot of the times the peak color will happen during the middle of the week, and if you wait till the weekend to go take pictures, you’ll miss out on the best shots. So try to clear your schedule so you can take a quick day trip at the last minute, it really helps a lot to get the best pictures.


How Do I Know The Best Time For Peak Fall Colors

The biggest issue with catching the fall colors at the right time is knowing when to go. If you live by the city or in a developed area and you want to go out to the country/mountains to take pictures, you can’t just go by what you see where you live. If you wait till the leaves change color in the city to go out to the country/mountains to take pictures, you will completely miss the fall colors. In fact, you’ll probably find that most of the leaves are off the trees in the country/mountain by the time you go!

One of the factors that plays a role in when the leaves change color is the air temperature. In the city or developed areas, we have lots of concrete, steel, and asphalt. These trap and store heat during the day from the sun and release the heat back at night. We also have lots of automobiles driving around, again, adding heat to the area. When the air temperature starts to fall at night in the country and mountain regions, we’re still fairly warm at night in the city. By the time the city gets to having cooler nights and the leaves start changing color, the leaves in the country and mountain have already changed colors because they had cooler nights a couple of weeks before. This means you don’t want to wait till you see the leaves changing around you before going out to the country, you need to get out their earlier!


The Foliage Network

There’s a couple of ways to check how the colors have been progressing, and one major way is by using The Foliage Network website. As stated on the website:

“The Foliage Network was developed to provide accurate foliage information for various locations across the United States. During the months of September, October, and November, The Foliage Network collects data from our foliage spotters twice a week. This data is collected, plotted, and analyzed by The Foliage Network. The end result is The Foliage Network Report, which is used by travelers to find the best foliage conditions. The Foliage Report uses actual data unlike other “reports” which use annual averages.”

What’s great about The Foliage Network is that you are getting real data every season. This isn’t a prediction of what it might be, or using historical analysis of past years, but how the leaves are changing this current year. While I think The Foliage Network is great to use to know how the color progression is happening, I also think there’s a trick to reading the data so you will get to see the leaves at their peak.

The data used to create the maps are submitted by foliage spotters. The maps are created AFTER that data has been submitted. Since the maps are updated twice a week, that means there is 3-4 days between map updates. Let’s take the example that the map is updated and the area we are interested in going to is at High Color, but we want Peak Color. We have three days before the map is updated again and during the three days the color changes to Peak Color. In fact, the day the map is released the color has changed to Peak Color. For the next three days the foliage spotters report Peak Color. Now a new map is created and released indicating Peak Color in the area we want to go to. If the map is released on Wednesday and we wait till Saturday to go see the colors, we will have missed 3 days of Peak Color and another 3 days! By the time we get there, there’s a good chance a lot of the leaves will be on the ground.

The trick in reading The Foliage Network map is to always keep in mind that the data reported is what has happened over the past 3 to 4 days. If we wait till it’s reporting High Color or Peak Color, then by the time we go we might have missed some really great pictures. It would be great if The Foliage Network was more real-time, so we would know as of today what the leaves look like. While The Foliage Network doesn’t give us that information, there is a another way to get it.

Fall Foliage Photography

Fall Foliage Web Cams

To get real-time data, we can use web cams. There are a couple of web cams we can use that will give us a real-time look at how the colors are progressing. The only real downside is that the images sometimes aren’t that high of resolution, so it can be a little harder to see. But if you combine The Foliage Network with the web cams available, you’ll get a much more accurate idea of what the current color is in different areas. Now that we know what the current leaf color is, you need to be ready to go at a moments notice! Like I said before, having a fairly open schedule so you can make a last minute trip out to take pictures is pretty important. Waiting just a day or two can make a big difference in the images you get.
For Shenandoah National Park there are a couple of web cams along Skyline Drive that you can use. There’s the Mountain View web cam at the Pinnacles and also a web cam at Big Meadows. If you want to venture into West Virginia there’s a web cam at Dolly Sods Wilderness.


Other Fall Foliage Tracking Websites

There are a couple of other websites that track the fall color that you can checkout to see how the leaves are changing. There’s one for Shenandoah National Park that’s updated weekly, it’s a written report to tell you how the trees are changing in the park, but also gives you information on the wild flowers and animals. Weather.com also has a fall foliage tracking web page that’s updated to track how the colors of the leaves are changing across the country. Finally, the Virginia is for Lovers website let’s you know about events in Virginia during the fall and also about the leaf color change.



If you’d like more information about the fall color change in printed form, Amazon has a couple of really good books on the subject. Not only will you learn about the changes that happen during the fall that causes the leaves to change color, they are also great guides on planning trips to get those beautiful autumn photographs.

National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees: Eastern Region

Fall Color Finder: A Pocket Guide to Autumn Leaves

Fall Color and Woodland Harvests: A Guide to the More Colorful Fall Leaves and Fruits of the Eastern Forests


Fall Photography Tips

And lastly, how about some great tips on capturing those images. There are lots of websites that have pages up giving tips on getting the best images you can during the fall. There are lots that can be written on the subject, but instead of me reiterating what’s already been written I’ll give you a couple of sites that have some good information you can read.

the Photo Argus – A Detailed Guide to Photographing Fall Foliage

Bob Atkins – Fall Foliage Photography

Canon Digital Learning Center – Fall Foliage

Adorama – Fall Foliage Tips


Get Out There!

Only thing left to do now is figure out where you want to go, start checking the maps, and get out to take some beautiful fall foliage photographs!

Fall Foliage Photography


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