One of the biggest misconceptions in photography is that you need fine, sunny weather to get your best shots.
In fact, cloudy, overcast days can be much better for certain subjects, such as gardens, as the overcast sky means the daylight is much softer and more diffused. Anyone who’s tried to take a group portrait in very strong sunlight, with people squinting as hard shadows conceal their best features, will know exactly what I mean.
Dramatic, stormy, and other kinds of extreme weather can also provide a great opportunity to take shots that really stand out. Not only do ominous-looking skies make a great backdrop for landscapes, particularly when converted to black and white, but mist, fog, rainbows and frost can all serve as really interesting elements in your photography. Read on for some essential tips for getting great shots in all kind of weather; the images were taken by winners of the Weather Photographer of the Year competition which you can find out about here.
The winner of the 2019 competition, Gareth Mon Jones, shows that hard work and ingenuity is needed for really first-class weather class images. He took this incredible shot half way up Mt Snowdon, with his camera set up on a tripod. He then positioned himself in the frame and remotely triggered the shutter button to get the picture. To keep a good exposure, he used a 0.9 Neutral Density grad filter to balance the darkness of clouds and the pre-dawn light, without losing the highlight detail in the sky. Practice using lens filters so when the opportunity for a great picture arises, you can work quickly, particularly if it’s cold.
Of course, you don’t need to go half way up a mountain to get impressive weather shots. If you’re observant, you can also take memorable pictures in a rain shower. Try and keep your camera and lens as dry as possible – a lens hood comes in really useful – and increase the camera’s ISO or lens aperture as necessary to cope with the gloomier light. Patrick Hochner’s winning image from Kyoto wouldn’t be half as successful without the rain. You can also use a bit of on-camera flash to illuminate the rain falling in your immediate vicinity, or take creative shots of city lights reflected in puddles.
Snow is a really photogenic subject, but your camera’s metering system may get confused and show it as grey rather than white. To avoid grey snow, add some extra exposure compensation, using the relevant dial or menu function. Just don’t push it too far and blow out the highlights in the snow so it’s a featureless mass. Shooting in raw, rather than JPEG, means you can adjust the colour balance to ensure your whites look right, and you may need to shoot in manual focus if your camera’s autofocus is struggling to lock onto the subject in a snowy scene. Focus peaking on mirrorless cameras makes this a lot easier. Polarising filters also come in useful in frosty scenes with strong winter light, as they reduce glare and deepen blue skies.
Mist & Fog
Mist and fog, while less dramatic than snow, can also really make a landscape image. As with snow, your camera may underexpose, so increase exposure compensation. With mist and fog images, you really need to provide a sense of context, so think about the classic rules of landscape photography – lead in the viewer’s eyes using paths, roads or similar devices, and try to include interesting elements draped in the mist or fog, such as buildings or trees. This image by Michelle Cowbourne is a great example.
For more dramatic weather, such as lightning, the possibilities start to get really exciting, but you need to be careful at all times. Make sure your camera’s aperture is wide enough to capture every bit of available ambient light, but you also want enough depth of field to keep lightning strikes in focus. A tripod is usually necessary in order to avoid camera shake, as you are shooting at slower shutter speeds and focussing manually (autofocus usually struggles with lightning unless you are lucky). As with mist and fog, include other elements to give a sense of place and context, as with this image from Hugo Begg, the Young Weather Photographer of the Year.
With stormy seascapes, safety is also paramount. Don’t get too close to the crashing waves – sadly, some photographers have been swept away by the sea – so a zoom lens is usually essential. If you are in a safe spot, a tripod is very handy, as you can carefully compose the image and use slower shutter speeds for some really nice creative effects on the waves. Including a pier, lighthouse or even more reckless people standing closer to the waves, gives that all important sense of context. This image by Bastian Werner is a great example of the genre.
Last by not least, rainbows are another highly photogenic weather phenomenon. You will need to work quickly, and get in a good spot so you can capture the rainbow’s stretch across the sky. Use a polariser filter to reduce glare and haze, and keep the colours bright. You may not have time to set up a tripod, in which case select a narrower aperture for maximum depth of field and a faster shutter speed to keep everything else in the scene sharp. Don’t be scared of pushing up the ISO as necessary to achieve this. This image by Michelle Cowbourne is another example of how to do it right.
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