Let's say you're headed out to the beach to take some photos of the surf. You check out the weather forecast on your smart phone and learn that torrential downpours are expected for most of the afternoon. Do you A) stay inside and play Mahjong all afternoon or B) reschedule your trip, then play Mahjong all afternoon or C) pack up your camera and rain guard and go anyway?
If you avoided answer C, then you need some tips on rain photography. Because most hobbyists will answer A or B (or some variation thereof), and most have no idea how many great shots they're missing.
[ Top image summer monsoons by Flickr user bloomgal]
summer rain by Flickr user gato-gato-gato
Your first tip: don't be afraid of a little water
Obviously, you will need to protect your camera from all that water. As for yourself, let me assure you that no one outside of the Land of Oz ever melted in the rain. Just put some towels over the seats in your car and have a dry set of clothes ready for you when you get home. Bring a rain slicker and a waterproof hat, if the idea of drenched clothing bothers you. But I promise that being wet won't seem like a big deal when you look at those photos after the fact.
Your second tip: keep your camera dry
Rain sleeves for your camera are portable and very inexpensive, so if you discover that you like shooting in the rain, buy one or two of them and keep them tucked away in your camera bag in case you are ever surprised by a storm. For shoots where you are likely to encounter some weather, purchase a dry bag to carry all your gear around in, and bring plenty of soft lens cloths for wiping water droplets off your camera's UV filter (a must for keeping moisture away from the lens itself). A lens hood can also be useful for keeping the water away from the glass. Finally, don't change lenses if there's even the slightest possibility you'll get water inside your camera. Wait until you find shelter.
I know I just said don't worry about getting yourself wet, but that doesn't mean you should leave that umbrella at home, either. An umbrella can help protect your camera in the rain especially if you don't have a rain sleeve. It has the added advantage of doubling as a lens hood or helping you even out the light in certain shooting conditions.
If you don't need DSLR quality you can also try shooting with a waterproof point-and-shoot--you can take photos under water with one of these cameras, so capturing images in the rain should be completely worry-free. These cameras also have the advantage of being pocketable, which makes maneuvering on slippery surfaces and in stormy conditions a lot more manageable.
Remember of course a few basic safety guidelines--stay away from thunder and lightning storms unless you are in a vehicle, and even then don't go directly into a thunder storm. Lightning doesn't strike humans very often, but you don't want to be that one guy who got unlucky. And of course use common sense: wear shoes with good soles in case you find yourself on a slippery surface, don't take your car down potentially muddy dirt roads and stay away from fast-moving water.
Rain is a transformative force. It can make city streets look clean, it can give life to a dry field, it can make a peaceful tree look fierce and it can bring a sense of action to an otherwise dull scene. Rain can also make people miserable. On the flip side, it can make people happy, introspective or refreshed. As a photographer, it is your job to figure out what affect the storm is having on your scene and to capture that mood in your photograph. Look for that wet and wretched row of birds sitting on a wire with their feathers puffed out. Keep your eyes open for little kids with brightly colored umbrellas stomping in puddles. If you're taking photos in the evening, find a place where the city lights reflect on wet cobblestones. Look for reflections of people and other objects in puddles, also. The rain provides a million different opportunities for a fresh perspective on otherwise ordinary scenes.
It's difficult--though not impossible--to capture actual raindrops on camera. Start by looking for raindrops that have already fallen. Leaves, flower petals, and smooth manmade surfaces like glass are all good places to find perfectly formed raindrops.
Rain Soaked (4) by Flickr user Special
How about falling rain? This can be tricky to capture, but there are a couple of things you can do to get those little drops to show up on your final image. First try using back light. If you're shooting at night you can use manmade lights for this--or you can use natural light. Sunset and sunrise are good times for this; simply aim your camera towards the light source and those raindrops will start to come into focus. You will need to keep your camera at an angle to the light source, since you'll end up with a poorly exposed or silhouetted scene if you aim your lens directly at the light. If you have an external flash, you can set it to about 1/3 power and use that to illuminate the raindrops, too. Your success of course will depend on other factors such as the intensity of the rain, your shutter speed etc.
Out Behind the Shed by Flickr user jumpinjimmyjava
Cheating (just a little)
If macro is your thing you can simulate rain pretty easily--a watering can held by a patient assistant or even a stationary sprinkler can be a good stand-in during those times when you just want to get that perfect shot without waiting for the right weather to come along.
Your camera settings are, of course, going to be different depending on what mood you're going for and how much ambient light there is. But in general, rainy days are usually dark days, so if you're hand holding your camera you will probably need to shoot at a higher ISO and/or wider aperture. It will be useful to bring a tripod along, too, which will give you some extra flexibility if you want more depth of field or to shoot at a lower ISO.
And if you're trying to capture those perfectly-formed raindrops mid-plummet, you'll need to turn up that shutter speed to at least 1/1000. If you want to capture some motion blur as they descend, drop down to about 1/125. You don't want your shutter speed to be too slow, because then the raindrops won't show up at all. A little experimentation will do you some good here, since your results are going to be different depending on the speed of those drops.
Water does play well with cameras! With well-protected cameras, that is. So whenever you're out and about with your camera be mindful of the season and the weather forecast, and don't think of a little bit of rain as a reason to go inside and give up the shoot. Think of it as a great opportunity to get those amazing shots you've been missing out on all these years.
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