Tips for Shooting Fall Color in the Eastern Sierras

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I grew up on the east coast, where you got lots of fall color.  Unfortunately, I didn’t really shoot much of it at the time, I was too busy with teenage angst (it’s a full tme thing! lol).  

Living in Los Angeles, you rarely find fall color, much less fall and winter here.  In recent years, driving up 395 for fall in the Eastern Sierras has become a favorite and a must do.  It’s a long drive, and there’s always lots of questions about when, where and how to shoot fall color, so here are my answers based on my experience so far.  

When

Now mind you, I only have a couple years of experience to draw from, but in 2018 I went on the first weekend in October, on the 7th.  in 2019, I went two weekends in a row, October 6-7, and October 13-14, just to make sure I didn’t miss anything.  That year, everyone was saying that fall color was late, but to be honest, I didn’t find the second weekend to be significantly better than the first.  By the second week, many of the best spots from the first week had started fading, and I couldn’t say I found great new spots the second week.   If anything, my guess is that mid-second week might have been best, but my conclusion so far – always go the first weekend or mid-week the second week.  

You will be tempted, as I was, to follow the blogs and posts and such.  What I found was that by the time the blogs said “Go Now!”, it would be too late a few days after.  So for example, a blog may say “Go Now!” mid-week.  By the weekend, it was too late, the leaves were already beginning to turn brown.  Even last year in 2019, when every blog was saying it was a late fall color season, I found many spots to be disappointing the second weekend.  One or two spots – like the Conway Summit – was better the second weekend, but that was the exception rather than the rule. 

Where

This is a tough one.  I followed the blogs and again, i was disappointed.  The best source was word of mouth on the road.  I shot dawn one day at Mono Lake, and other photographers who had been there for a couple days were honestly the best source of information.  In 2019, the best areas for me were South Lake and Lundy Canyon.  I think, regardless of what the blogs say, I’d check these areas first next time I go.  

How

Surprisingly, there’s several technical details to keep in mind.  Light is always a big thing, of course.  So you want to plan your route with the direction and amount of light in mind.  

  • Light.  Keep in mind, the sun may set around 5pm or so, but you will lose sunlight by 330pm.  That’s because often, the best color is in the canyons and valley floors, and the north side of the canyon will block out any sunlight by 330pm.
  • Backlighting.  We usually talk about backlighting for portraits, but backlighting fall color can make a big difference in a fall color shot.  That means you will want to account for the direction of the sun and time of the day.  In the afternoon, when I was driving west in the South Lake area, the best shots were from the west.  The first weekend I thought, i’ll catch that shot on the way back – and no, that will not happen.  
  • Type of Shot.  Before you go, it’s good to think about what kind of shot you want to take.  For a broader, landscape type of shot, I like backlit trees with leaves that pop.  For water reflection shots, more even, shaded light is better.  And for tighter, more intimate shots, I prefer even, shaded light.  
  • Camera Settings.  For focus, you want to be at f/8 or above.  And to take out any motion from wind, you want to shoot at higher shutter speed – probably 1/250 or more.  Often, I fix these settings and end up pushing the ISO, esp toward sunset.  I did take some shots of f/4, but I prefer not to if possible.  
  • HDR – just because of dynamic range, and especially for the sky, I often shoot HDR, +/- 2 stops.  Worst case, you don’t use all the shots.  

Where To Stay

Unfortunately, almost everything will be booked – so plan ahead.  

Now, for some photos!

Here are some of my fall color shots.

This was one of my first shots on the first weekend.  Of course, I got there late, it was pretty close to sunset.  But the even, shaded light was great for this little scene by the creek.  Plus, it allowed for a little blur in the water.  By the way, as is often true with water shots, the mosquitos were crazy.  I got bit a lot.   

This was lake Sabrina, south side of the lake, first weekend in October.  It was already close to sunset so the south side was already shaded.  

Here’s a view on some shaded trees in Aspendell.

Here’s the same shot, a week later in bright sun.  Notice first, the change in color in a week.  Bright yellows, but to be honest, I don’t think the shot would be as interesting without the sun.  Here’s a brighter sunlit shot.  

Another shaded shot – I like how the even light helps make it more intimate.  

Here’s the Conway Summit on the second weekend in sun. 

Here’s a few shots from Lundy Canyon.  

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