2014 September 12     Weather   Photography


Autumn is a very special time for most anyone who photographs natural landscapes.    Anywhere with a deciduous forest can become a wonderland of colorful leaves.

The prospect of a colorful autumn is something we look forward to for the whole year. 

How good will the colors be?  Will the weather conditions be right?  Let's see if we can guess how 2014 2015 is going to be.


Apart from day length, temperature may well be the biggest factor.  Unusually hot days and warm nights can fade the fall colors. 

Even a few degrees above normal can be enough to dull the colors. 

Once the leaves begin their autumn changes, they need cool temperatures.  Preferably, the weather should stay cool for the whole time. 

That's really the most important thing. 

Don't put too much stock in "average" temperatures.  They don't tell you how widely the temperature varied.  If you had one day of 0 degrees F and one day of 100 degrees F, your "average" temperature for those two days would be 50 degrees.  Sounds comfortable, but the reality is quite different.

Cloud Cover

The most vivid reds are produced when the leaves make anthocyanins.  You've probably seen red cabbage, even if you've never eaten it.  How about raspberries and blueberries?  These all get their pigments from anthocyanins.

I almost overlooked the role of cloud cover.  It's worth paying attention to, because anthocyanins are made from sugars. 

Trees make sugar via photosynthesis.

So, if the leaves don't get enough sunlight, there's not as much sugar.  And if there's not as much sugar, there's not as much anthocyanin production.  

I have to research this aspect, but I believe the formation of anthocyanins from sugar also requires sunlight.  That is to say, there are really two processes that would require sunlight.  This reaction takes energy.   Trees are solar-powered.  No sunlight means no energy to drive reactions. 

There is some critical time window when the leaves have to get enough sunlight.  I believe it's that early color-change phase when you don't want too many cloudy days.

Here's what I know from experience, though. 

If the trees are stressed from drought, too much sun can wither the leaves and make them go brown.  You won't get anthocyanin production when the leaves are dead.  I've seen wilting September foliage actually recover a little bit, just by getting a day when it's cloudy and cool.  Even better if it gets a day of rain.

So, clouds and rain can be good;  it's just that you don't want every day to be cloudy.  Especially not in late September and early October.


Drought doesn't always ruin the autumn, but it can. 

The severe lack of water can cause wilting.   This is especially true when it's too warm for the season.  Trees lose quite a bit of moisture into the atmosphere, no doubt more of it on a hot day. 

Drought-stressed trees can drop their leaves without showing any real color change. 

There's a point where drought damage spells the end of a leaf.  If leaves survive this challenge, they can still produce good autumn color.

An Early Fall

If you see leaves start changing in early- to mid-September, but the normal color peak should be in October, pay attention. 

Look at the trees and see if it isn't leaves dying early. 

Healthy autumn leaves turn color gradually, with the green giving way to bright yellows, oranges, or reds.

Shocked leaves change color quickly, then they turn brown around the edges.  Within a couple days, they're done.  This can happen by the second week in September.

Canon 6D  /  Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 USM Macro
Landscape picture mode, +3 sat

An early fall?  Maybe not.  In two or three more days, these orange leaves will be crinkly brown.

Some leaves don't even turn nice colors at all.  They just start to wither and crinkle around the edges.  This can lead to...

The Dusty Drab Autumn

In terms of color intensity, this is the worst kind of autumn.  The green fades to a dusty, drab color. 

Quite often you'll see half the foliage on a tree wilted.  Or, the edges of all the leaves will be withered.  This is not usually a good sign for autumn color.

The dusty-drab autumn seems to happen when there's drought during August and through September. 

I believe temperature swings are also a major cause.  Here's why I think so.  When I started seeing trees with drab, dying leaves in mid-September, I began looking along the streams.  Trees with roots at the water-line were still affected.   Therefore, it has to be the temperature swings.

Mild stress at the right time is good for fall color.  Severe stress at the wrong time is very bad for fall color.  A cold snap in the summer, followed by record heat in September, could be enough to mess up the autumn. 

Climate effects on foliage are complex, but there's one thing I'm sure of.  When you see this, you know something went wrong somewhere...

This was not even halfway through October (2012).

Could it have been from a hard frost?

Normally this is supposed to be a time of bright colors.
Most of these trees went straight from green to brown.

2012 and 2013 both saw drab autumns in many parts of the USA.  In some areas it was like a surreal wasteland.

If you look at the temperature averages for many areas in 2013, they are all normal or near-normal.  Same thing with precipitation.  Again, I think it's that pendulum-swing weather.   The same thing is happening in some areas in 2014.

What Affects Fall Color

(A Quick Rundown)

Good For Color

Cool, dry and sunny weather into October

Bad For Color

Drought damage

Cold snap in late summer followed by a heat wave

Cloudy and warm in September, October

Trees infested with pests

Try This

Keep an eye on the weather stations, but pray for good weather.  Not because of good fall color, but because good fall color is one indicator of the overall well-being of the land and climate.  We want trees to be healthy, because, well... our lives depend on it.

Let's be optimistic:  we're going to get good fall color, somewhere, somehow... and we're going to photograph it. 

Weather is a chaotic system.  Science cannot master it.  

The effects of climate on fall color are so complex that only God understands them fully.

Autumn of 2014

In retrospect, it was actually a pretty good foliage season.  There were some regions that had brilliant foliage, although there were also some areas that didn't.  I took a lot of photos in the 2014 autumn.  And there was some pretty fine color, even into November.

This section is being left here for reference, and because maybe it will help you for future years.

In some areas it's only two or three weeks to the expected peak color.  In other places it's four weeks or more, as of the time I write this.  Whether we'll really have any peak at all remains to be seen.

In many places there was a string of cool nights in August.  In some areas it went down into the forties at night... in the middle of August.   Then, it was very hot again for a few days in September.   Now we're getting some cooler nights again;  hopefully this cooling trend will continue into mid-October. 

At this time of year, we want sunny days and cool nights. 

Right now there's a bit of suspense, if you can think of trees as being suspenseful.  I'm already seeing leaf damage in many places.  It seems we could have one of those dreadful dusty-green autumns again.  However, it's not a foregone conclusion.  Until the colder weather moves in and we see how long it lasts, no one really knows for sure.

One thing to remember is microclimate.   Where you live, the autumn could be rather drab... but ten or twenty miles down the road, there's color.  Even closer to home, you might find a small group of trees with just the right microclimate.

Microclimate is important if you're chasing fall color in a difficult year.  It's amazing how much of a difference it can make.  Sometimes it comes down to one tree.  I've seen this again and again on photo shoots.

One Good Tree

This was in 2012, a tough year for color.
In 2013, this same tree was drab.

Photo taken with Fujichrome Velvia 100


Gearing Up

If there's one tree with good color in a sea of dusty-brown and green, it's worth trying to find.  Make it an adventure for the whole family.   Who knows:  the best color you can find anywhere could be as close as your local park.

The autumn is a great time to bring some Fujichrome Velvia 50 and Velvia 100 for the film camera.  This year I might also bring along a couple rolls of Lomography Color Slide 200.  Nothing captures autumn colors like slide film. 

If you shoot digital, though, even a cheap DSLR can make gorgeous photos.  Lately, I've found that I like this one even better than the T3.
Or, for something really special, consider one of these.  

You don't need a whole bag of lenses.  Even just this one can be enough for a fall foliage odyssey.   Nikon users, get this one.

Bring a compass and a map,  pack an insulated bag with snacks and water,  and have at it.  Be careful, be safe, and get some good photos of nature at its finest. 



You might think we could easily understand a thing like fall color.  I thought that, as well.  Actually, there's a lot to it.  Predicting it is very difficult, but look for early signs such as leaves wilting or colors changing too soon. 

As far as I'm concerned, the autumn outlook is still uncertain at this point.  When October rolls around, it may be drab in some areas.  If that happens near you, look for isolated pockets of color to get some good photos.  Then again, it's still possible that your area will have great color all-around.

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