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Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Dramatic Weather Photography

Using inclement weather for great shooting opportunities

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Wind
I like to use flash in the snow. Why? All those little ice crystals falling from the sky are miniature reflectors and shine brightly when flashed. After darkening the ambient exposure, I add flash to my subject and the falling snow, resulting in sparkling shots. I cover my Nikon Speedlights with Ziploc® bags and attach them to stands using Manfrotto Justin Clamps. If I’m using larger strobes, I cover them in large clear plastic bags and put the strobe packs into waterproof bags. Since the strobe heads get hot, you need to be careful about melting the plastic bags with consecutive shots.

Most important is how the snow looks in your final frame. The big choice is, do you want to freeze or blur the snow? I like freezing the snow in place, although interesting abstracts can be created using slow shutter speeds and blurring the snow. I often use a long lens to maximize the size and amount of snow in my shot and then shoot fast enough to freeze the snow. I normally go to manual focus when shooting in the snow because autofocus systems can have a hard time focusing in heavy snowstorms.

Another issue that arises is moisture buildup when you return inside to warm temperatures. If I’m photographing in subfreezing temperatures, I make sure to keep my camera in a closed camera bag until the gear has time to warm up. If I’m not using a camera bag, then I put my camera in a sealed plastic bag to keep my camera from fogging up.

Wind
When most people think of wind, nothing positive comes to mind in terms of photography. Flowers blow in the wind, making macro shots impossible, studio lights crash to the ground, and models’ hair flies straight up. But when I think of wind, I think of dramatic clouds. Wind often means a change in weather systems, and with this come interesting cloud formations. In some areas, stunning, saucer-shaped lenticular clouds form, creating dramatic landscape images.

Known for its cloud formations, Patagonia is one of my favorite areas to photograph. This mountainous area on the southern tip of Argentina and Chile has little to block the wind at this latitude, resulting in high winds. One morning I went out to photograph in Torres del Paine National Park and couldn’t believe my luck. Right above the Cuernos del Diablo, lenticular clouds had formed. I quickly set up my camera with the turquoise water of Lago Peho in the foreground, and as the sun rose the lenticular clouds turned orange. I was giddy with excitement, watching one of the most dramatic sunrises I’ve ever seen.

The biggest challenges shooting in the wind are preventing dust from entering your camera and keeping things steady. I try to avoid changing my lenses that are fully exposed to wind. Sometimes I’ll seek shelter behind a tree or car, and even another person if it’s really bad. The worst place to change lenses is in a desert on a windy day; your camera can really take a beating. I take two bodies with the lenses I’ll need to avoid lens changes. To keep my camera steady, I won’t extend my tripod legs fully and add some weight to the hook on the center post.

Using softboxes in the wind can be challenging. Recently, I was photographing camel herders in the Gobi Desert, and the wind was very strong. We decided to park two vehicles in an L shape to create a wind break and moved our model into the lee of the vehicles. This reduced the wind a lot, but we still had a little breeze. To anchor our light stands and softboxes securely, we used photo backpacks and any other heavy objects to weigh down the stands. When I’m on a local shoot, we use lots of sandbags to weigh down our stands.

To keep plants from moving while shooting macros, I’ll attach a reflector to a light stand to create a small wall and block the wind. I also use clamps to hold plants steady. With today’s incredible high-ISO-performance cameras, you also can dial up your ISO and use a faster shutter speed to freeze the action.

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