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Making Good Photos of Bad Weather

Posted By Jeff Wignall On December 16, 2008 @ 11:41 am In Art of Photography | 2 Comments

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Having lived most of my life in New England, I can tell you that the old weather cliché “if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes, it’s bound to change” is a lot more true than most photographers would like. It often seems that the moment I hop out of the car to set up the tripod and photograph a sunny scene, I start to feel raindrops on my back.

The funny thing is, I also spend a lot of time in the southwest deserts and in Florida — and after shooting in sunshine for a week or two, I start to miss those unexpected changes in the weather, including the raindrops.

Changes in weather not only provide variety to the look of landscapes and outdoor scenes; they instigate shifts in the emotional climate as well, and that is a wonderful thing. While it’s certainly simpler to take good pictures in nice weather, I find that a sudden bank of fog or a passing rainsquall can instantly transform an ordinary scene into an unexpectedly dramatic one.

Sometimes the changes are gradual and you can see them coming — fog creeping into an early morning harbor scene, for example. Other times the changes are so sudden that there’s simply no way you could have prepared mentally for the transformation. That’s when having a mental plan for handling those situations is invaluable.

And while I refer to this in the title as “bad” weather, in reality, I love unusual weather. It’s a very good creative stimulus for taking better photos, especially landscape and travel pictures.

Fog and Mist

It was Carl Sandburg who wrote:

The fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

Sandburg (who incidentally was married to famed photographer Edward Steichen’s sister Lilian) was right. Fog does just creep in silently, and it usually fades away just as quickly and mysteriously. While it’s there, however, fog has a wonderful ability to transform common landscapes and scenes into very romantic and evocative photos.

If you’re lucky enough to live near a river or lake or in a hilly area, fog and mist are fairly common occurrences; they occur most frequently when the humidity is high and there is a drop in air temperature. Both fog and mist (mist is really just a less intense form of fog) tend to be quite intense after a cool night, before the sun has risen too high and caused the air to warm.

As the sun rises higher in the sky the moisture evaporates and the fog and mist begin to thin rapidly, so it’s important to shoot as quickly as possible or the atmosphere will literally burn off. On a number of occasions I’ve watched the fog disappear as I try to decide on a composition.

What's a fishing boat photo without a little fog? [2]

What's a fishing boat photo without a little fog?

Fog is particularly appealing when it’s used with a thematically linked subject, as in the shot shown above. Because we associate harbors and fishing boats with fog and mist, they seem to go naturally together and, in fact, we almost expect to see fog in photos of harbors and fishing boats. Long lenses intensify the look of fog because they compress the fog and the subject, causing detail and colors to soften and melt away in the fog.

Exposing for fog is tricky because the moisture reflects a lot of light, fooling the camera into thinking there is more light than is really there. If you photograph a foggy or misty scene using a matrix meter reading, for example, the scene will undoubtedly be underexposed and the fog will appear as a dark gray, rather than the lilting gentle blue color you want. To bring the tones back to a softer color, use exposure compensation (or bracketing) to add between a stop and one-and-a-half stops of additional light. Because thick fog can sometimes be too blue-looking, I usually set the white balance to “cloudy” in order to warm it up just a touch.

Longer telephoto lenses will magnify the effects of fog, so if you want thicker-looking fog, choose a longer lens. But remember that the more you magnify the lens the more the reflected light will fool your meter, so you may have to add additional compensation as the focal length increases. Also, don’t depend on your LCD screen with fog because images tend to look somewhat brighter on the LCD.

If you want to take fog photos but just can’t seem to catch a foggy day, consider buying an inexpensive “fog” filter for your lens. Fog filters mimic the look of fog and mist by diffusing the entire image and you can buy them in varying degrees of intensity. You probably won’t fool anyone into thinking it’s real fog, but the effect can be attractive nonetheless.

Rainy Days

It’s tempting to stash the camera and head for the nearest café (or stay home and guard the TV) when the rain starts to fall, but like fog and mist, rain also has its pretty side. Rain also has some unique photographic advantages: it saturates colors, puts a glossy surface on subjects like leaves and grass and, at night, drips colorful reflections across rain-soaked streets. Also, like fog and mist, rain adds atmosphere to landscape and travel shots.

This is a good photograph to take from a covered doorway. [3]

This is a good photograph to take from a covered doorway.

You don’t necessarily have to get soaked to get good photos of rain, either. It’s easy to hide out under awning or in a doorway, which is exactly what I did to get the shot above of the umbrella-hidden people watching (of all things) a fountain show at Longwood Gardens during a downpour. Your car also makes a nice dry vantage point from which to shoot (and has the added advantage of letting you listen to music while you work).

Rain really doesn’t create any exposure problems, other than the fact that overcast skies will force you to show at slower shutter speeds or open up the lens (or raise the ISO). Rainy days, like mist and fog, also steal a lot of warmth from scenes, so it’s best to add some back using the cloudy day or open shade white balance. If the rain is falling hard enough, you can also intentionally slow down the shutter speed to turn the rain into long streaks, or you can try and use a faster shutter speed to freeze the raindrops.

The one thing you don’t want to happen on a rainy day is to get your nice digital camera wet. You can protect it completely by carrying it in a zipper bag when you’re not shooting, and then just pulling it out long enough to take the shot. Or you can poke a hole for the lens to stick through and just leave the bag on while you’re shooting.

You can also buy a relatively inexpensive bag-type underwater housing (they’re even available for point-and-shoot cameras) to protect your camera completely (and give you better access to controls). An umbrella, obviously, is a good thing to have as well — especially if you can get someone to hold it for you.

Stormy Skies

Stormy skies are a great by-product of rainy days, and you usually get two opportunities to shoot them — before and after the storm itself. Cloud formations, especially when combined with colorful sunset lighting, often put on transient sky shows that are hard to fathom even when you’re standing there watching them.

Gathering or departing storms can produce dramatic effects. [4]

Gathering or departing storms can produce dramatic effects at sunrise or sunset.

In fact, I often venture out into storms at sunset time, hoping that it will break up and that the sky will get intense with color and passion, as it did in the beach scene above. I’ve shot as many as 100 pictures in a 15-minute period immediately after a storm because the cloud formations morph and re-invent themselves so quickly that no two shots are alike.

Exposing for clouds is pretty straightforward: I usually take a matrix meter reading directly from the clouds and then use about one stop of minus exposure compensation to darken the clouds even further. A warming filter used over the lens (or added later in Photoshop) will really enhance the “hot” emotional feeling of scenes like this while a blue filter (or even just setting the white balance for tungsten light–which adds blue) will give the shot a distant, cool feeling.

Rainbows

The flip side of a rainy day, if you’re lucky, is a rainbow. Rainbows are such a rare treat that it’s tough not to stop everything to photograph one. One of the keys to getting a good rainbow show is, of course, trying to predict them a few minutes in advance by keeping an eye on the sun position as it breaks out of a dark sky. Rainbows occur directly across from the sun — so if you can see the sun beginning to break through the clouds, turn your back on it and face the darkest area of sky you see.

It’s also great if you can find a pretty or interesting foreground to use beneath your rainbow, but unless you’re a storm chaser, it’s largely a matter of luck. I photographed the rainbow show below in Nevada’s Valley of Fire State Park after enduring several hours of nonstop downpour. When the sun unexpectedly broke out, I raced down a trail with a tripod on my shoulder and cameras swinging from my neck looking for a nice rock formation. I climbed about 15 feet up on a boulder to get a clear shot of the rainbow as it grew in the gray sky.

Rainbows are a reward for storm-chasing. [5]

Rainbows are a reward for storm chasing.

There’s only one way to find rainbows and that’s to go storm chasing and hope for the sun to pop out. Usually there’s plenty of light; I shot exposed this scene at 1/250 at f/4.5, on a tripod.

Metering and exposing a rainbow is pretty straightforward, but don’t let especially dark clouds fool your meter into overexposing the scene. Instead, aim your meter (I prefer to use a center-weighted meter) right at the rainbow and then, to saturate the colors even more, bracket a stop or two under that reading.

Rainbows are pretty rare (unless you’re lucky enough to live in Hawaii), so my advice is to shoot them whenever you see them even if they’re not perfect. You can always use a partial rainbow as a background in a homemade greeting card or as a theme icon in a digital scrapbook.

If you own a polarizing filter, keep it handy when you’re out chasing rainbows. By rotating the filter in its mount you can intensify the colors of the rainbow. Be careful, though; rotate it too much and you’ll erase the rainbow! Keep an eye on the viewfinder, of course, and when the colors look their boldest, it’s time to shoot. You can usually saturate the colors even more with a bit of underexposure, either in-camera or later using curves in Photoshop.

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2 Comments (Open | Close)

2 Comments To "Making Good Photos of Bad Weather"

#1 Comment By Santiago On January 9, 2009 @ 11:15 am

Liked reading your article.

Thanks for the tips too.

#2 Comment By Joe Ouellette On January 25, 2009 @ 5:10 pm

Hi Jeff, I've been reading your post. Their GREAT! The one that caught my eye was the one about shooting rainbows. Very informative. It reminded me of the shot I got last year of a DOUBLE RAINEBOW. A stroke of luck to say the least. Thanks for the very interesting reading. Joe


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