If you live anywhere in the northern hemisphere, you must have realized by now that fall is over and winter is slowly but surely creeping up on us. The days are getting shorter, the leaves are changing color (or gone) and here in Chicago, the rain is your constant companion until it gets replaced by snow!
Now if you are primarily an outdoor natural light photographer, you quickly understand that one of the most challenging aspects of your work is the fact that you are so dependent on the weather. You have very little control over it in spite of what the weather man says!
The weather can change almost instantly and ruin some of the best-laid plans for photography excursions and photoshoots. One of the best things you can do is to be prepared to photograph in any kind of weather. With these few simple tips and prep-work, you can continue working in the natural outdoor light as opposed to indoor studio light.
#1 – Full Sun / Bright Light
The sun in all its glory is a beautiful light source and can make any subject pop. Regarded by some as the ideal photographing conditions, bright sun can create a scenario where you have beautiful light and the ability to experiment with shadows.
Sure, some people may think that bright light is bad for portraits, but it all comes down to how you use the light. A great tip for photographing in the bright midday sun is taking pictures in open shade. This is when you position your subject in a shady part of the frame that’s closer to the light. You can also use a reflector if needed to bounce light from the sun onto the subject.
Add a fill light
You can also choose to use a flash to light your subject. In a pinch, use a natural reflector like a bright sidewalk or light color building to do the same if a flash or reflector is not handy. When you are photographing landscapes, it is likely that the whole scene is evenly fit. Here you can try exposing for the whole scene or even underexpose a tad in order to not blow out the sky and retain some detail in the clouds.
Of course, if you are photographing in raw these edits can be done in post-processing also.
#2 – Cloudy / Overcast skies
Photographers love overcast skies. Here the clouds act as a large natural diffuser and spread the light from the sun evenly all over the surface area. Overcast days are known for their diffused light. For some photographers, these are ideal conditions for shooting portraits as your subject will be evenly lit and there are no undesirable shadows or harsh lighting. If you find this type of light too flat and lacking dimension, you can always add an external flash to add some drama to your images.
If you’re shooting landscapes in this type of weather, you will soon realize that a gray sky doesn’t add much to the scene. This is not to say that these types of images are bad. I try and photograph architecture shots with some creative negative space when dealing with overcast skies. I find that this sort of weather is great for bringing focus to the subject alone without any distraction from a blue sky and puffy clouds.
If you want to add some drama to a landscape shot during overcast conditions, perhaps you can wait for some dark, stormy could to roll on in and capture the weather-related drama in your landscape shot.
#3 – Rain
A rainy day presents its own challenge in terms of keeping expensive gear and your subject dry and comfortable. You can always use an umbrella to protect your gear and as a creative prop in your portrait shots by simply using it as part of the shoot. As an alternative, look for areas that are shielded from the rain, such as alleyways, tree canopies, building overhangs, and other such elements.
Try taking a wide-angle shot that takes in the area, subject, and the atmosphere to tell your story and make it a little bit more interesting. The biggest challenge you face is the need to protect your gear as well as be creative in your shots. There are many options out there to protect your gear but sometimes just a simple grocery bag over the camera will do the trick!
Photographing in the rain or snow for that matter presents another challenge in that the rain/snow may cause your autofocus to change mid-shoot. A good tip would be to focus on the subject and then lock it. Also, try using a lens hood so no rain/snow falls on the actual lens surface. My feathered friend was either having a bath in the rain or waiting patiently for me to leave so he could get back to his hunting! I lost focus a couple of time but then used the focus lock (or you can use back button focus) and the lens hood to eliminate that problem.
#4 – Fog
I don’t know about you, but the fog is probably my favorite kind of weather in which to photograph. I love the way fog adds an element of mystique and interest without doing much. In technical terms, on a foggy day, the water particles in the air redirect the light rays, spreading them out more evenly. This almost acts like a giant softbox along the area in the fog giving you beautiful diffused light.
Experiment in the fog to find the camera settings that best suit your needs but I have found that foggy conditions require longer exposures than normal since you are essentially dealing with overall less light. You can use a tripod to help reduce any camera shake. Keep in mind that like snow, fog is reflective, and it can fool your camera’s meter into thinking that there’s more light in the scene there actually is. Use exposure compensation just as you would when shooting a snowy landscape and even overexpose by a few stops if needed.
Again, if you photograph in RAW you can always edit to taste in post-processing. But I have found that when your image is underexposed, increasing the exposure in post-production adds noise in the shadows.
Another thing to note is that on foggy days finding focus might be an issue because everything around you is hazy and not quite clear. Here you can use manual focusing if your camera is having trouble focusing on the subject among all the fog.
#5 – Snow
If you’re taking pictures as it’s snowing, be sure to cover your camera as it is essentially the same as shooting in rain. If you are out and about after it has snowed, keep in mind that the road conditions and walkways can be treacherous.
I have slipped and fallen a couple of times in the snow with my gear and it always makes me very nervous. The worse was when I fell in Yellowstone National Park right before attending a Winter Landscapes workshop. My wide angle lens suffered some damage and I was unable to use it during the class because let’s face it, Yellowstone is in the middle of nowhere so no chance of an urgent repair!
Another thing to ensure is adequate protection for yourself from the elements. Being outside in the snow can get quite uncomfortable especially if you are outdoors for an extended period of time. Make sure you cover your extremities from overexposure to the elements. Hand warmers and foot warmers are great for keeping fingers and toes warm and cozy when out photographing in the cold.
Also, keep in mind that camera batteries tend to drain faster in colder weather, so ensure that you have fully charged spare batteries handy. From a technical standpoint, snow is a very reflective surface, so ensure that your camera is metering effectively and not blowing out the snow if it is part of your frame.
I hope you have realized by now that mastering photography in any weather conditions really boils down to being prepared and knowing exactly what to expect. Go out and practice in each of these situations so that you know all the things that you need to be aware of. Then the next time the weather gods decide to have a little fun at your expense, you will be well prepared.
Do you have any other tips to help master photography in any weather, feel free to let the community know in the comments section below.