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Photo of a rocky stream with trees along the banks covered with colorful fall foliage.

A little local color. © Frank Gallagher

By Frank Gallagher, NANPA Marketing, Communications & Blog Coordinator

It’s almost fall, when this not-so-young photographer’s fancy turns to love … the love we have for Autumn’s colors, bird migrations, the elk or bighorn rut, and bears chowing down to prepare for winter.

Hopes for colorful foliage

The primary factor triggering leaf change is the decreasing amount of daylight. As nights grow longer, a complex biochemical process begins. The amounts of various pigments within leaves begins to change. Chlorophyl production stops while carotenoids and anthocyanines remain, giving leaves those vibrant reds, yellows and oranges.

A wet and warm spring that is followed by a moderate summer with adequate rain sets up the best conditions for healthy trees and a colorful fall. Excessive heat or drought during the spring or summer stresses trees. They may drop leaves early, turn color late or have more muted colors (or any combination of the three).

During early Autumn, a lot of warm and sunny days with cold (but not freezing) nights create the best conditions for colorful foliage. A decent amount of soil moisture is also necessary for a forest to put on its best display. Most years, leaves will change color gradually, with different species of tree changing at different times, and those at higher altitudes going before those at sea level. However, a frost can bring about changes overnight.

The long-running drought in the Western United States, coupled with warmer temperatures may result in bland foliage. Some of my New York friends are not optimistic about this fall because they’ve been in near drought conditions most of the summer. Here in the mid-Atlantic region, we had a warm and somewhat dry summer. Many of the rain events have been brief and violent, with too much water falling too fast to be absorbed. I’m seeing a lot of leaves changing straight to brown and falling to the ground. Yesterday, however, I saw a large tree with brilliant red leaves while walking through a nearby neighborhood and today was our first really cool morning. Fall is definitely in the air. Time to start planning a fall foliage photography trip.

Screenshot of the Fall Foliage Prediction Map for the week of September 25, 2022.

Predicting or throwing darts?

It’s hard to predict, with any accuracy, what conditions will be like months or even weeks ahead. But that doesn’t prevent folks from trying. One of the most popular prediction sites is the Fall Foliage Prediction Map, an interactive map run by SmokeyMountains.com, a site specializing in cabin rentals, area attractions and restaurants. See Planning a Fall Foliage Trip from September, 2021, where we talked with one of the developers of the map about how it works and the data behind their predictions. Last year it showed peak color about a week before it actually happened where I live. So far this year it’s tracking just about right.

There are a lot of other sources you can consult when planning an outing. Many parks have webcams that give you a real-time look at conditions at specific locations. Some places that have become popular fall foliage destinations post regular foliage updates on their websites and social media channels. Here in Maryland, the state department of natural resources has a weekly fall foliage newsletter that reports on conditions around the state. The first 2022 issue came out this week. And, of course, there’s social media like Instagram, where you can search for the hashtag of a location and see what others are photographing there. You can reach out to some local photographers for advice or just see what others have posted over time.

You can learn a lot from the internet and social media, but there’s nothing like experience. If you’re in an area year after year, you get to know where and when the action will happen, whether it’s peak color, peak bird migration or peak elk rut. After many years of observation, I might have a handle on some places in and around my area, but I can’t afford to go to New England, or Yellowstone or the Rocky Mountains year after year. That’s where a photo workshop (check the many workshops and tours led by NANPA members) or a NANPA Regional Event makes sense. Let the pros who do know where to find the animals or the color put their expertise to use for my and my fellow attendees’ benefit.

I’ll be off on the hunt for fall color. What’s your favorite thing about fall photography? What resources do you use to help plan your photo outings? Let us know at publications@nanpa.org.

Frank Gallagher is a landscape and nature photographer based in the Washington, DC, area who specializes in providing a wide range of photograph services to nonprofit organizations. He serves as NANPA’s Interim Marketing and Communications Coordinator and manages NANPA’s blog. He can be found online at frankgallagherphotography.com or on Instagram @frankgallagherfoto.