Welcome to another instalment of “Great Subjects”! Today we’ll discuss how to photograph weather and make the most of snow, rain, fog, clouds, wind and even sun.
Outdoor photography is highly dependent on the weather, which can often be a little bit unpredictable. Depending on where you live you might be enjoying sunshine on the snowy streets, enduring a storm, sloshing through rain puddles, or basking in the heat of the desert.
Every great landscape photographer needs to know how to make the best of any type of weather. After all, photography is less about the subject itself, and more about the light it’s seen in.
In fact, bad weather can create some of the most beautiful lighting, imbuing your images with a unique sense of energy. Plus, if you’re out shooting while everyone else holes up inside, you’ll be photographing scenes that nobody else even sees, let alone captures.
Snow and Ice
The first thing to know about snow is that you’ll have to increase your exposure higher than what your camera’s light meter thinks is correct. The intense whiteness will invariably fool the light meter, which will try to compensate by underexposing the image, turning your snow a muddy grey. Use your exposure compensation to overexpose the picture by a stop or two. Shooting in RAW format will also allow you to adjust your tones in post-processing.
When snow blankets the world in white, you lose a lot of the contrast that makes a photo interesting. Try to seek out dark subjects and backgrounds that offer contrast to your snowy scene. Even a clear blue sky looks great against the white snow.
If you’re trying to emphasize the gentle loveliness of snowfall, use a longer lens with a wide aperture to create a shallow depth of field which makes your foreground and background appear velvety soft, as the fuzzy flakes drift around.
For starker images, the sharpness of a small aperture will emphasize the cold rigidity of the season, and a wide-angle lens will feel less intimate, having a more distant and objective eye. And remember that a slow shutter speed will blur the snow’s descent, while a fast one will freeze it mid-air (no pun intended).
Another technique to try in the snow is to photograph in the early morning and late afternoon, when the low-hanging sun is casting deep shadows over the texture of the landscape.
Ice is another alternative for cold climates. The patterns of icicles hanging in a row, bubbles in the ice on a pond, or small plants poking through the ice are all great subjects for conveying a cold feeling.
Where I’m from in the pacific northwest, rain is one of the main features of our weather systems. Most people say that the world looks completely different in the rain, but we say that it looks completely different in the sunshine. Either way you phrase it, rain and sun are like night and day – they each make us see a place differently, and bring out different aspects of it that you may not notice in other conditions.
Just take a look at the difference between these two images, made only a day apart in Glacier National Park in Montana:
With a good waterproof jacket, waterproof shoes, and a protective rain sleeve for your camera, try getting out and capturing the emotion that rain creates. Capture that dreary, grey, feeling!
If you really don’t want to be out in it, try shooting from a covered position – under patios and awnings, and inside cars and buildings make great vantage points. People are scarce in the rain, so you can take advantage of empty spaces that would otherwise be filled with crowds. Shoot towards a light to bring out the shine refracting through every falling drop. Just like with snow, the shutter speed you choose will either blur or freeze the water’s motion, and a large aperture will separate the rain from the rest of the picture.
If fortune smiles on you, the moment just after a rainfall is wonderful, imbued with rich colours, gorgeous reflections, and maybe even a rainbow if you’re really lucky. The drops lingering on flowers and leaves make great macro shot opportunities.
You may have noticed that after a rainfall colours are much more saturated. As the sun begins to shine on the drenched landscape its surface twinkles in the light. There can be a lot of glare at this time so use a polarizing filter to cut down on unwanted glare while at the same time enhancing the appearance of the clouds in the sky.
If you don’t photograph the rain itself, don’t let those beautiful clouds pass you by!
Dark clouds are extremely dramatic, and at any moment they can part slightly and bathe the scene in heavenly beams of sunlight. Even if you don’t have a great landscape scene to photograph, you can always just photograph the clouds.
Remember to use a polarizing filter when you want to emphasize clouds.
When it’s windy outside, you’ll have to take into account the increased movement within your scene, and how that affects your shutter speed. Again, if you want to freeze the motion, you’ll have to use a fast shutter speed. Sometimes the very position of trees, people, and other movable subjects can imply movement quite clearly. The use of a slower shutter speed, though, actually helps to convey the movement taking place.
Be aware of your equipment in a wind storm. A good gust can knock a tripod right over, and even blow away some lighter-weight accessories. Goodbye lens cap! Always weigh your things down or keep them tucked away and protected.
The tiny floating water particles that make up fog scatter the sun’s light, creating a soft, hazy atmosphere with low contrast and no shadows. This will make the light level very low so you’ll need to use longer shutter speeds and/or wider apertures to get a good exposure. The refracting light can confuse the camera’s light meter, too, which will tend to underexpose in reaction. Just like photographing in the snow, you’ll need to compensate by turning your exposure up a stop or two.
Fog is wonderful for creating an ethereal or obscured effect, isolating foreground from background in a similar way as a shallow depth of field. Fog is great for emphasizing distance and space.
Wonderful compositions can also be made when beams of light shine through fog.
I feel a little guilty here enjoying the sunshine in the American Southwest while writing about bad weather conditions. But sunshine is weather too and I don’t want to exclude anyone who is also enjoying good weather at this time of year.
After what we’ve already talked about in this lesson, you might realize that making compelling images can be more difficult when there is not a cloud in the sky. What do you do then?
My favourite way to take advantage of sunny days in winter is to appreciate the short days by going out and photographing sunrise more often. It’s really a lot easier to photograph sunrise when it happens at 7:15am than when it happens at 4:30am! When the sky is perfectly clear, the most beautiful soft pastel colours fill the sky just before the sun rises above the horizon.
Another way to convey a bright sunny day is include the sun in the frame.
Remember if the sun is in your frame, it can harm your eyes to look in the viewfinder! This is a perfect time to use your LCD screen when creating your composition. Use a small aperture like f/22 to create the sunburst effect.
I have an exercise for you that will help you with this lesson on photographing weather. It will have a lasting impact on your understanding of light, how weather affects light, and how light affects your scene. In fact, you can do this exercise for months if you want. You’ll keep learning from it the more you do it.
Here it is: you take the exact same photo over and over again under different lighting conditions. Don’t worry about whether the photo is the most fascinating scene or the best composition. You’re probably not going to share these with anybody. They are just for you to learn about light. Pick something that’s right outside your front door and make the same photo every day, at different times of day, when it rains, when it snows, when it’s sunny, when it’s grey, in the morning, and even at night.
After awhile, you’ll start to notice little differences, and those little differences will affect your understanding of light so much that it will impact every photograph you make.
So go out and make that photo – whatever the weather! Don’t wait for the weather conditions to be perfect, or even good, just go out right now and photograph something. Then photograph the same thing the next day and the next.
Now that you’ve come to appreciate the profound effect that weather has on the atmosphere of a place, and a photograph, I want you to think about using various camera techniques to emphasize that particular atmosphere or mood.
For example, if your location feels gentle and romantic, try to convey that feeling in your photograph. You can emphasize the romantic feeling by making your photo appear soft. Use a shallow depth of field, a slow shutter speed, or even reduce the clarity in post processing.
If you find winter cold, wet, and dreary, try for muted colours, and low contrast. You could even add a bit of motion blur to create the effect of people moving quickly to escape the weather.
For an icy crispness, use fast shutter speeds, high contrast, a cool white balance, and smaller apertures to increase sharpness.
Try to think of other creative ways to emphasize the mood you’re trying to convey – you could use props, particular types of subjects, or specific locations. Most importantly, make sure you are photographing at the right time of day to give your scene the perfect light to convey the mood.
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