In 2019, I spent most of the fall chasing colors in New England. It was my first time photographing the leaves changing and my hope was to head to Colorado next to shoot the Aspens during peak, but unfortunately I missed it. So I made a commitment to make Colorado a focus in 2020. This road trip was still achievable with COVID-19 and luckily I arrived just in time for peak colors.
Here are some of my tips if you want to try photographing autumn in The Rockies yourself – or capture the colors of the season in your neck of the woods!
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Planning a trip to photograph the Aspens can be a bit tricky, as the color change happens in a matter of days – so you have to be lucky on the timing.
For this trip, I checked the colors a week out from my departure date and their colors had not started to change. By the time I reached my first destination, the colors were about to peak.
You can keep better track of the changing colors using the Smoky Mountain Fall Foliage Prediction Map. This site tracks and predicts when each part of the United States will begin to change, peak, and die. To ensure you can accurately track the colors, I highly recommend watching the site.
HOW LONG TO GO
Realistically, I recommend spending a week to capture everything you might want on this trip. Colorado is BIG, so you want to make sure you have plenty of time to travel and plan out your sunsets/sunrises accordingly.
If you include traveling to and from Denver, I'd say to give yourself 8-9 days for the route that I followed. This will give you flexibility for any issues, delays or simply bad weather.
ITINERARY AND IDEAL PHOTOGRAPHY SPOTS
If you are not native the area – like I wasn't – the easiest and cheapest option when traveling to Colorado is to fly into Denver. Every now and then, you can find cheap flights into places like Montrose which would put you much closer to the San Juan Range, which is my favorite area in Colorado.
Although most people will head straight to Aspen to search for fall colors, I recommend more secluded and less traveled to areas like Ouray, Telluride, or Silverton. All of these places offer countless adventures, great lodging, and even better food!
For my trip, I started out in Telluride, an amazing ski town surrounded by the Sneffels range. Telluride has a massive grove of Aspens, spaced out throughout the town and moving up into the higher peaks in the area. You can spend some time shopping on main street or take the free (one of a kind) gondola up to the mountain village to check out the world class dining, lodging and even a mountain bike course. Make sure to save time for food, because there is a lot of it and it is some of the best dining in the state. Brown Dog pizza is a must, and if you have time, grab a quick coffee from Cowboy Coffee on main street before you head off to Ouray.
If you visit Telluride, some beautiful locations to photograph are:
- Bridal Veil Falls
- Last Dollar Road
- Alta Lakes
Ouray is just an hour or so away from Telluride. What was once a coal mining town is now host to epic ATV off-road adventures and some of the best hiking in Colorado. There is also a well-known hot spring in town.
Between Ouray and Silverton, there is plenty of free range camping along the road, so if your budget is tight, I highly recommend finding a cozy spot among the aspens. If you have a drone, throw it up above Million Dollar Highway to see how insanely windy this road really is.
If you visit Ouray, some beautiful locations to photograph are:
- Blue Lakes
- Mount Sneffels
- Dallas Divide
- Million Dollar Highway
Silverton might just be my favorite town in Colorado. Much like an old western movie, this town holds almost all of its original buildings and architecture. There is plenty to do in the area including ATV rentals and great dining.
If you have it in your budget, a fun thing to do is to spend one night in the Grand Imperial hotel. It is one of the oldest hotels in the country and the third floor is known for being haunted. I've stayed on the third floor twice before and I can confirm there is definitely something weird happening there.
If you visit Silverton, some beautiful locations to photograph are:
- Columbine Lake
- Ice Lake
- Island Lake
- Clear Lake
If you still have time, Crested Butte has the largest grove of Aspens in the world. It is just a little out of your way when you head back to Denver, but so worth the extra driving. It is easily my favorite grove in the country – it just seems like it goes on forever!
CAPTURING THE COLORS
When photographing landscapes, I prefer to have a wider depth of field, keeping my entire photo evenly sharp - so image stabilization is important. You can take advantage of your camera's built-in image stabilization, features like Handheld High Res Shot Mode, or High Res Shot mode with the use of a tripod. You may also find yourself shooting in lower light conditions, being under a forest canopy so this will also help you keep your ISO low in such conditions.
Backlighting the forest is a great way to get that color-pop you are looking for. Putting the leaves between you and the sun will allow light to shine through the subject without becoming too harsh. This will also illuminate more details in the leaves such as the veins that run through them.
Also consider setting your color mode to Vivid, to capture the saturated colors you're experiencing in the field.
Perspective is huge when photographing fall foliage. It is easy to look straight at a line of trees and take a shot. Push yourself even further by walking in the forest and looking straight up. If you use a wide angle, you will find another amazing perspective, especially with Aspen trees. Try photographing a group of trees while using another tree that is blurred in the foreground. This will add way more depth to your competitions and expand your overall portfolio.
Once you get into the lab, you may have a hard time finding where to start. If you’ve truly photographed a peak, you won’t have to do much to your photos. Sometimes I will add or take away saturation depending on the lighting I had during the shoot. Most importantly, never go overboard with the color grading. It can be so easy to over-saturate these colors but at some point it just starts to look unnatural. If you think you’ve shot just before peak, don’t be afraid to alter the hues just a bit to give it that full fall effect you are looking for.
Lastly, I also highly recommend either having a campervan reserved or finding spots to tent camp in each of these areas. There is nothing quite like sleeping among the Aspens during peak fall.
I've spent days, if not weeks on Google Maps finding these spots and curating this particular trip. It is sure to bring you those epic fall colors you crave so much and I hope this will be a great guide to have on your journey. Keep on creating!
Tyler is a photographer and writer, born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky. His ultimate goal in being a creative is to inspire others through his images, and to care more for the beautiful planet that we inhabit.