Dramatic Weather Photography

Should we turn back?” a workshop participant asks between breaths. “Those thunderheads look really nasty.”

“No way!” I reply. “Those clouds are going to make this day exciting. Just be ready to head down if you see lightning.”

We’re in the middle of an uphill slickrock slog to Delicate Arch in Arches National Park. I’m teaching a photography workshop, and right about now my group is thinking I’m nuts. Turn around with towering dark clouds approaching and electricity in the air? Never! All I need to do is stand on a pinnacle with lightning flashing behind me and the Captain Ahab impression will be complete.

I can’t count the number of times questionable weather has kept me from venturing out on a shoot. It’s much easier to sit in a warm café and drink coffee, convincing yourself the weather is too nasty. And then the sun breaks through the clouds, illuminating a mountain peak in a shaft of golden light surrounded by purple storm clouds. Suddenly, the coffee doesn’t taste so good. You just missed the photo op of the century.

Not today in Arches. I need to show this group that perseverance is a good photographer attribute. We finally arrive at the overlook to Delicate Arch, sweaty and out of breath after speeding up the hill to beat the storm. Large water drops start to splatter on the sandy rock, and I get some disturbed looks from my group. Not only are they miserable, but now they’re soaked and miserable. I have my response all ready to go, “Well, we would never know what happened if we didn’t hike out here, and besides, this trip builds good karma for the next time.”

And right then an incredible rainbow bursts out over Delicate Arch. Even I can’t believe it. I’ve hiked to this arch countless times and seen some nice storm clouds, but never a rainbow right over the arch. The group is frantically shooting and laughing; no one can believe our luck. I’ll never see this again. Just as fast as the rainbow appears, it fades after a few minutes. The storm clouds start to build, and a light rain begins. But everyone in our group is happy—this shot made the trip. I get a lot of high fives on the trail as if I knew all along the rainbow was going to appear. You never know what the weather is going to do.

Bad weather is good weather in terms of photography. Snow, rain, fog and wind all offer a unique look to a familiar scene. Instead of seeing these environmental conditions as a problem, I approach them as an opportunity. The trick is learning how to photograph in these conditions comfortably and what techniques will help capture the unique weather you encounter. Following is a list of atmospheric conditions and tips to use photographing them. The next time you look out the window and see rain, don’t put your camera gear away—go out and shoot!


Rain


Rain

Rain is probably the biggest reason photographers stay inside, but can be one of the most compelling times to photograph. My favorite places to shoot in the rain are cities. Water on streets, cars and buildings transforms everyday objects into shining pieces of urban art. Neon is reflected in the water, reflections pop up where there was none before and bright colorful umbrellas erupt in the streets. Even better, you can find lots of covered sidewalks and awnings on storefronts to photograph beneath. Try to find high perspectives to shoot down on pedestrians carrying umbrellas. This angle reveals interesting patterns along the streets.

In national parks, rain can form reflection pools to photograph. Sometimes days after a big shower small pools will still exist, especially on sandstone in the desert. Streams and rivers take on a new appearance after rain. I was in Arches National Park after a big rainstorm and found interesting waterfalls with red water cascading down the slick rock. The heavy rain had washed the red soil into the streams, creating this unique color.

With rain come clouds, sometimes thunderstorms, which can result in the most dramatic atmospheric conditions you’ll encounter. Towering, dark cumulonimbus clouds always add drama and tension to a landscape.

The big issue with shooting in the rain is staying dry. Many cameras are well sealed against moisture, but why push it? There are numerous rain covers on the market to keep your camera dry. I prefer the simple covers that pack small so I always have one with me. I use a clear lens-protection filter like a UV haze filter to protect the front of my lens in rainstorms.


Snow

I also use an umbrella to shield me from the rain. Sometimes I’ll clamp the umbrella to a light stand or tripod to hold it in place and shoot underneath it. An umbrella also creates a handy shelter to change flash cards. I use Gepe flash card cases that are waterproof and Lowepro camera bags that have rain covers. If I’m going to be in the same place for a while, I sometimes even set up a tent to stay dry. Tents are very convenient—all your gear stays dry—but are only practical when shooting in one spot. If your camera gets really wet, make sure to wipe it off with a dry cloth.

When shooting in the rain, experiment with shutter speeds and focal lengths. Rain can be stopped in midair and really add drama to a shot; it just depends on how hard it’s raining. Using a telephoto lens will compress the scene and enhance the raindrops in the frame. Shoot at fast shutter speeds to freeze the droplets, or try slower speeds to add some motion to the rain. If you shoot really slow, rain will look like haze in your image.

Snow

After living in Alaska for 10 years, my image files are loaded with snow shots. Snow is fun to photograph, and adds emotion and atmosphere to an image. As with rain, the goal is to avoid getting your gear wet. If it’s really cold outside and snow is fairly dry, you can shoot without worrying about your gear getting wet. Just blow or brush the snow off your camera. In wet snow, use techniques similar to photographing in the rain: rain covers, front filters, umbrellas and waterproof bags.


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 clos
ed 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.


FOG


Fog

Nothing adds more mystery to an image than fog. A location that seems uninteresting and flat can transform into an exquisite image when fog rolls into the scene. And in areas that don’t regularly get much fog, when fog does arrive it produces a unique look to otherwise cliché postcard scenes.

Normally, light objects advance in a photograph and dark areas recede. The opposite is true for fog. Dark objects advance and catch the viewer’s eye while light objects fade into the background. With this principle in mind, I look for interesting trees and other silhouettes to use in my composition. Fog often comes in waves, so shooting the same scene for a long time may result in many different looks. If the fog is really thick, you may have to use manual focus since your camera’s autofocus may not work.

Fog also looks very interesting when using flash. Try adding a colored gel to your flash. The fog will pick up the hue and show a dramatic splash of color in the air where the flash hits. Imagine a film-noir shoot in a foggy alley. A blue- gelled light hits the background, a warm flash illuminates your subject, and a mysterious man in a trench coat is silhouetted on the alley wall—perfect!

The only camera concern shooting in the fog is the moisture. Thick fog can be very wet, so take the same precautions for rainy conditions to keep your gear dry.

Create your own atmospheric effects

I live in Colorado, and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen fog near my home. Snow, thunderstorms and wind aren’t a problem, but I can’t find any fog. So I solved my dilemma by creating my own.

Most guys get excited about a new power tool or set of golf clubs. I get excited about my fog machine. All fog machines aren’t created equal. There are many Halloween-type machines that produce a small puff of smoke but don’t have enough output to be effective, especially outside. I use a Rosco 1700 fogger, and it produces enough fog to get the fire department’s attention. The fog created is nontoxic and quickly dissipates. The Rosco 1700 takes a few minutes to warm up, and then can produce fog for hours. The machine uses various types of fog fluids for different effects, including low-lying fog and thick haze.

Using a fog machine outside can be tough if there’s a breeze. The fog will go with the prevailing wind, so you have to anticipate where you want the fog in your shot. We often set up scrims to block the wind and keep our fog where we need it on an outside set. We also have a designated “smoke fan man” who fans the fog with a reflector to push it in the right direction. If you’re working indoors, it’s much easier to control the fog and you won’t need nearly as much.

Use fog anytime you’d like to shoot in real fog. I love to add fog to my portraits for a moody effect. The best way to photograph using fog is backlighting the fog. Backlighting really highlights the fog and doesn’t overwhelm your subject. I like to use colored gels like blue or red on the backlight strobes for different looks.

The other day I located a maximum-security prison cell that I was given permission to photograph. To reinforce the gritty feel of the prison cell, I shot using hard-edged lights that produced strong shadows. But something was missing. Then I added some fog, creating a scene where the “prisoner,” a model, was escaping. The fog machine made the shot.

The next time you wake up and hear the pitter-patter of raindrops on the roof, don’t roll over and go back to sleep. Now is the time to get up, grab your camera gear and head out the door. Interesting atmospheric effects are occurring that need to be photographed!

Tom Bol is a freelance editorial and commercial photographer based in Colorado. You can see more of his photography at www.tombolphoto.com.

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