The Viewfinder: Photographing the Autumn Colors
November 1, 2023
By Gary Randall
I recently returned from a trip to Colorado where I was co-lead in a photography workshop with my good friend Chris Byrne. The workshop took us from Aspen, to photograph the amazing Maroon Bells at sunrise, and to the little town of Crystal to photograph the iconic Crystal Mill. Then we were off to Ouray and Telluride to carry on our quest for autumn colors and breathtaking views of the Rocky Mountains.
Colorado and the Rocky Mountains, in my mind, are synonymous. There’s much more to Colorado, but the mountains steal the show. I am sure that they are beautiful any time of the year, but after photographing the snow-covered San Juan Mountains entrenched in peak autumn color this September, I can’t imagine them being more breathtaking.
As it is with photographing any seasonal condition, preparedness, timing and luck must converge to give the best results, and this year they all aligned during my visit. The aspens and the willows were a bright yellow and the hillsides covered in scrub oaks were dark orange and red. Inside an aspen grove, the yellow leaves of the trees were striking against the complementary blue sky, with their white trunks a stark contrast to the colors. I can get lost in creative thought while wandering inside an aspen grove.
Aspen groves also look amazing on a distant hillside in a sweeping territorial view with rugged, solid rock mountain peaks that exceed 14,000 feet as a backdrop. My favorite view from that area might be that of Mount Sneffels but there are incredible perspectives from the Dallas Divide near Ridgeway, to views of Wilson Peak (the mountain on the Coors beer label), near Telluride. During our time there a storm came through and dusted the mountain peaks with snow, enhancing their beauty.
If you go for autumn colors, plan to go around the first week of September, keeping in mind they can vary from year to year. But once the leaves start to turn, they turn quickly. When we arrived, the majority were green but within a couple of days they were changing fast. Dress in layers: it can be cold in the mornings and the evenings. Also keep in mind that you are in high elevation locations. We flew into Montrose at almost 6000 feet and then went up in elevation to almost 11,000 feet (going over a couple of high mountain passes), but were at 8000 feet most of the time. I felt the altitude the first couple of days but adapted quickly.
I used my 24-70mm lens a lot, but used my 70-200 to capture a few tight landscapes and for focusing into the distance. I rarely used my ultra wide-angle lens. There weren’t many close-up foregrounds for the photos of the mountains in the distance, which allowed me to zoom in, compressing the scene and enlarging the mountain in the frame. Take a sturdy tripod and a circular polarizing lens-filter to polarize the sky or to take the shine from the surface of the foliage, releasing the color.
Remember that you will not be alone at many of the best viewpoints so if you plan on a sunrise or a sunset arrive as early as possible. I arrive before sunrise and stay through the morning light. The sunset is the same: arrive early and find a good composition. I always have fun visiting and conversing with other photographers.
Mount Hood is majestic in the Fall with the vine maples and the red huckleberry bushes. The Columbia River Gorge is breathtaking, especially when the broadleaf maples are in full yellow. The larch on the east side of the Cascades and the Blues and the Wallowas in Eastern Oregon are incredible in their autumn color, but Colorado is simply different. It may be the influence of epic motion pictures or because of beer commercials with backdrops of the Rocky Mountains, but there was a familiarity – as if I had been there before. I am counting the days until I can return to another autumn in Colorado.