The Traveling Photographer: A Guide to Great Travel Photography (2014)
15. There's No Such Thing as Bad Weather
It’s Just Rain, Fog, Snow, Storms...
“It would have been such a nice day for shooting if only the weather had cooperated.” Who isn’t familiar with this complaint? When we travel, we’re often met with rain and fog instead of sunshine, or ice and snowfall instead of pleasant temperatures, or stormy winds instead of a gentle breeze. But what we call bad weather doesn’t have to put an end to photography. As is so often the case, you get what you make of a situation.
Initially, “bad weather” just means that you need to prepare yourself for the conditions at hand, which implies protecting yourself and your gear appropriately (see the chapter “Better Safe Than Sorry”, page 196). It also means you’ll need to look for photographic opportunities amid the prevailing weather. There were fairly typical weather conditions when I took the picture of a King penguin on the island of South Georgia (opposite) – four seasons represented within a single hour. Rain, sleet, and wind gusts all appeared. It’s partly because of their oiled plumage that King penguins can withstand harsh weather. In the photo of the sleeping animal whose feathers are covered in raindrops, I intended to reveal exactly this.
Often when we think of traveling and the photos we produce on holiday, we automatically think of sunshine and pleasant conditions. And while it is frustrating when it rains throughout an entire vacation, we don’t have much control over the weather. It’s worth thinking about the photos you can create with the weather you have rather than the photos you could have taken with the weather you don’t have. Bad weather is often synonymous with dramatic or exceptional lighting, so the opportunities are many.
When the weather is gray and foggy and the sky is thick with low-hanging clouds of a single color, it can be difficult to produce breathtaking landscape photos with a wide-angle lens. The nuances of color that the human eye can naturally perceive even in gray light are lost on the camera’s sensor. Raindrops add to the veil of gray, further limiting visibility. Pictures shot under these circumstances often lack the color intensity and contrast you would hope for. But these conditions also allow you to create nearly monochrome landscape photos that have their own charm. In any case, you’ll need to contend with the broad brightness contrast between the sky and the landscape, as these photos from Venezuela show. The contrast here would have been tough to manage without a graduated ND filter or some subsequent post-processing. One solution to this problem is to push the sky out of your photo entirely, if your subject lends itself to this treatment – many pictures turn out well without a horizon line at all. If you want to integrate a person as a point of reference for the proportions within your image, or to serve as an initial eye-catcher, colorful clothing fares best in dull conditions. Red and yellow tones in particular can be real attention grabbers.
The vivid hiker: The rain parka red provides a welcome splash of color in an otherwise dreary picture in the rain and fog on the summit plateau of the Auyán-tepui, Venezuela. | Nikon D700 • 17 mm • 1/200 s • f/7.1 • ISO 400
For photographing details at close range, these gray conditions can actually prove useful. The gentle, diffuse light highlights subtleties and, as long as you leave the sky out of the picture, contrast is much easier to manage than with bright, harsh sunlight. If you’re working close to your subject, raindrops and snowflakes in the air as well as fog or clouds pose less of a problem, and your images will have a greater clarity compared to a landscape image, for example. You can also use fill flash (see page 112) to revive some colors at close range. Using flash in these circumstances requires some caution, however. Falling raindrops and snowflakes may reflect the flash and show up as white specks in your photo. This effect can be put to creative use, but it can also cause distractions.
Dark foreground, blown out background: Another photo from Auyán-tepui, Venezuela. The bizarre rock formations stand out from the sky, which lacks any detail. | Nikon D700 • 17 mm • 1/250 s • f/14 • ISO 1000
Fascinating cloudscapes such as those that emerge during thunderstorms, and that are also quite common in regular April weather or in late summer, serve as a subject in their own right. Documentary exposures of thunder-heads rolling in are just as feasible as studies of abstract shapes and colors or long-exposure captures that show the movement of clouds. Dramatic lighting often emerges in the first moments when the sun breaks through the clouds after a downpour. Patience is a virtue here. Find yourself and your gear a bit of shelter from the elements, and with some luck the weather will reward you with stunning light, clear air, and intense colors.
Natural hatching made in Zimbabwe: The raindrops streaked across the image area during the relatively lengthy exposure time of 1/25 second to create a curtain of individual threads. This effect works especially well in front of the dark background of trees. | Nikon D300 • 190 mm • 1/25 s • f/16 • ISO 500
Treat rain, snow, wind, and waves in the same way that you would treat other moving objects. A fast shutter speed freezes raindrops, snowflakes, swaying branches, sea foam, and clothes and flags blowing in the breeze, and slower shutter speeds make their movements visible. The photo above of a downpour in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe, was taken using a shutter speed of 1/25 second, causing the individual raindrops to streak across the entire image area. In contrast, I used a fast shutter speed of 1/200 second to freeze the snowflakes in place in the photo from Antarctica (opposite page).
Fog can also produce fascinating pictures. In most instances, a camera’s autofocus won’t be able to settle on an object if the object is shrouded in fog. To get around this you can focus on a substitute object in roughly the same distance or you can rely on manual focusing. Similarly, an exposure metering system is often just as confused in fog as it is in snow landscapes, and tends to underexpose photos in these conditions. A look at the histogram can tell you if you need to use exposure compensation – an allowance of one-third to a whole stop is not uncommon.
Photographing snowfall: In this image shot with a shutter speed of 1/200 second, the single flakes are visible – not perfectly sharp, but clear enough to be recognizable. This photograph was taken en route to the Antarctic Peninsula. | Nikon D300 • 105 mm • 1/200 s • f/7.1 • ISO 500
You can also turn bad weather into an interesting subject by documenting it indirectly. Rather than showing the weather conditions themselves, show their consequences: colorful umbrellas, people with white clouds of breath in front of their faces, puddles, reflections on wet asphalt, raindrops trickling down a window pane, wave crests torn apart by the wind, a rainbow spanning the desert, trees enveloped by snow... This list could easily go on; in the end, it’s your creativity that determines the photographic implementation.
If, despite all of your precautions, your camera gets wet while taking pictures in bad weather, dry it as soon as possible, and once you get back to your lodging or car, remove it from your equipment bag (which is likely no longer dry as well). You should also be cautious when moving quickly from a cold to a warm environment, since condensation can materialize on and inside your camera. You might consider not bringing your camera indoors between two outings into the cold. Alternatively, you can set your camera in a plastic bag and clasp it shut as tightly as possible. When you bring it into the warm room the moisture will condense on the bag rather than the camera. Then some gradual warming becomes the task of the hour for both the photographer and his or her equipment.
The Southern Ocean, seen through a porthole: Floating iceberg and high waves on the way to South Georgia. | Nikon D700 • 70 mm • 1/800 s • f/10 • ISO 800
A rare spectacle: After a cloudburst, a rainbow forms above the sandstone walls of Wadi Rum, Jordan. Nikon D700 • 60 mm • 1/640 s • f/6.3 • ISO 400 • polarizer