I took a break last week from Foto Talk. Hope you all didn’t give up on me! This week I passed by an area that was readying itself for a hurricane. And there’s been plenty of rain besides. So I’m taking the hint and posting on the subject of photography and weather, in particular photographing in the wet stuff.
Shooting in stormy conditions presents both challenges and opportunities. You’ve probably heard the advice to keep shooting right through stormy weather. While I won’t disagree with this in general, I prefer a less absolute, more realistic attitude. It’s a matter of weighing the upsides against the downsides.
On the plus side, depending on the clouds and sky, you may get some of your most atmospheric or dramatic shots during bad weather. On the downside your gear is at risk. In wet weather you are taking the obvious risk of getting moisture inside camera or lens. Since that’s where your sensitive electronics reside, this is of course not good.
SHOOTING IN THE STORM
I’ve lived in both Oregon and Alaska, two places where dramatically bad weather is very common. Here is what I’ve learned over the years about photography in bad weather:
- I just mentioned the risks of water inside the camera. But that’s not nearly as bad as putting yourself at risk. It doesn’t happen often but dangerous weather does occur. Use common sense and know when to beat a hasty retreat, to high ground and/or shelter.
- Find camera protection that works for you. I’ve posted before with tips and recommendations in this regard, and this post isn’t about that. Just realize that no matter how good your rain cover, lens changes and other occasions expose your camera to the weather. So no matter what you do some moisture will likely fall on your camera. If you have a well-sealed professional grade camera and lenses, you can get away with wetter conditions. The key is to know how well sealed your gear is and act accordingly.
- At least as important as having camera/lens protection is having good clothing that keeps you reasonably dry and comfortable. But since no clothing is perfect, be ready to put up with a certain degree of discomfort. I always remember what my grandmom used to say whenever I complained about getting wet. “You’re awfully sweet but you’re not made of sugar. You won’t melt!”
- Unless I see something quite compelling, either while driving or hiking with camera in a pack with rain-cover on, I usually don’t bother getting my gear out when the rain (or wet snow) is coming down hard. Shots I may try when it’s dry I won’t chance when it’s very wet; that is, unless it’s really calling out to me. It’s a simple calculation of risk vs. reward.
- When it’s raining or snowing, contrast tends to be subdued. So I tend to be attracted to compositions where low-contrast helps instead of hurting. Low contrast in the wrong shot can rob it of impact, but in the right situation it helps establish the mood of your image.
- I shoot from within my vehicle a lot more when the weather is bad. And I don’t think it makes me a wimp! It does require sometimes pulling off in odd places. If you do this, take it from me: turn your attention away from the light and pay attention to your driving until you’re stopped, and even then continue to keep one eye out for traffic. Unless the road is truly empty, I won’t block the travel lane. I always make sure there is good sight distance behind and in front. Having good sight distance is key, as is using emergency flashers and being quick about it.
- Being near big waterfalls can be just like being in a rainstorm. So all the precautions you take in rainy weather you should also take when shooting a big waterfall in high flow.
- Normally I don’t use UV filters, but when it’s wet I like to put them on. Lenses seal much better with a filter than without. Any filter will help seal a lens. If I’m shooting in a forest and especially along a stream, I use a circular polarizer instead of a UV filter. CPLs cut down on reflections from wet leaves and rocks, bringing out their colors.
- If you like shooting the stars at night, consider also shooting on moonlit nights when clouds or even storms are around. Lightning is an obvious draw for many photographers, but if you let your imagination roam you can find unusual night compositions.
As I’ve gone along, shooting in weather of all kinds, I’ve learned that shooting on weathery days is all about transitions. Periods when weather is moving in on you or just clearing away very often offer the most rewarding light and atmosphere. That’s why I titled this post Shooting around Weather, not in it.
- Given that weather transitions usually happen quickly, it’s important to be ready. That means, for a start, getting out there. Some people think it strange, but a landscape photographer looks at bad weather forecasts and plans to go out shooting. And it’s not just landscape shooting that can benefit. You’ll get some of your most interesting architecture, people or wildlife shots when weather adds some drama to spice things up.
- So how to plan for something so capricious? First, identify “transition days” ahead of time. They are days when weather shifts from one regime to another, and the weather-person will sometimes call them out for you. Otherwise you can see them coming yourself, once you’re familiar with the weather in your area. Because they are full of change and thus unpredictable, you can easily get skunked with either socked-in conditions or clear blue skies. But you can be rewarded with fantastic light as well.
- Because they are literally defined by change, success on transition days is anything but guaranteed. So instead of trying to outsmart the weather, go out on storm days too. Transitions in the middle of stormy periods, often featuring brilliant sun-breaks and colorful rainbows, occur between fronts and generally don’t show up in weather forecasts (although you can sometimes see them on radar).
- Watch the sky carefully and try to anticipate transitions. This can take practice, and expect Mother Nature to throw you many curves. During dry times, get to where you want to shoot and wait (hope) for the shift to stormy weather at the right time, when the sun is low. During the storm, get to your spot and shelter there with camera & tripod at the ready. As the sun lowers, there is always the chance it will dip below the storm clouds, illuminating everything in beautiful light.
Thanks for reading. Now I’m off to get some shots of the ocean and sky in tropical storm weather. Wish me luck! Have a great weekend and happy shooting!