Fog. It's eerily beautiful, potentially dangerous and can transform almost any setting into something either ominous, or quiet, moody and introspective. It's also notoriously difficult to photograph. Have you ever tried? This is one of those situations where you feel certain your photos are just going to take themselves. The landscape is bathed in this amazing gray mist, there's beauty everywhere, but for some reason your photos fail to recreate what your eyes see. Why?
The answer, as it so often and redundantly is in photography, is light.
[ Top image Tress in Fog by Flickr user Wayne's World 7]
You may have heard cloudy-day lighting situations referred to as "nature's softbox." The same is true for foggy conditions, except that you are literally inside the clouds, which amplifies that softbox effect. Where photos taken on cloudy days can sometimes seem flat, photos taken on foggy days are even more so. There may be no shadows at all on a foggy day, and color saturation may be particularly weak. This is no reason to avoid shooting in the fog, though. These are just foggy day quirks that you need to understand and work with.
Foggy Day Idiosyncrasies
First let's talk a little bit about what happens to light on a foggy day. Understanding this is really a matter of understanding how a softbox works. On a foggy day, the air is full of water particles that redirect light rays. When there are a lot of water particles in the air, they randomly scatter those light rays rather than allowing them to travel on a direct course from light source to subject. These water particles do the same thing that a softbox does, only on a much larger scale. The result is heavily diffused light, which can be good. Or bad, depending on your perspective.
Morning Fog by Flickr user AR Nature Gal
Another feature of fog is that there is less light overall, which means longer exposure times. But not too long, because fog is often in motion and shooting it with exposures greater than, say, one second, can result in blurry fog. Experiment and make sure you have a tripod with you. Shoot some images with your tripod, and for others turn up your ISO and shoot handheld. A range of different shots will give you the best chance at good results.
Although it seems counter-intuitive, fog is actually reflective, which can fool your camera's meter into thinking that there's more light than there actually is (all built-in camera meters measure reflected light rather than ambient light), resulting in underexposed images. You will probably need to add exposure compensation to your foggy day photos--anywhere from +1 to +2.
Anticipation by Flickr user ecstaticist
Foggy conditions may muck with your autofocus
...so be prepared to switch to manual focus
Shooting in RAW has advantages in many different types of photography, and fog is no exception. Foggy days may do odd things to your white balance, so it's nice to have the option to fix this later in post processing. If you don't want to shoot in RAW, use your "overcast" white balance setting for the best results. If you do find yourself adjusting white balance in post-processing, try adding a slight blue cast to your images and see if you like the results. A blue cast can enhance that foggy day mood.
Keeping those little idiosyncrasies in mind, let's talk about composition. Now you've heard me say many times that including something in the foreground of a landscape image can help create depth and dimension in the final image. This is doubly true for photographs shot on foggy days, because the poor contrast created by foggy conditions can make images seem flat and dimensionless. This quality increases with distance; closer objects maintain more color and contrast while color and contrast drops off rapidly the further away you get from an object. To create a feeling of depth in your foggy day images and to make sure those images have adequate contrast and color saturation, try to include something close to the camera.
Misty autumn dawn by Flickr user James Jordan
Remember that fog creates a classic mood, which is not something you can easily change. It's far better to work within its limitations and create images that exemplify the natural moody, quiet and surreal feeling that fog gives to a landscape. You can accentuate this quality by turning your subjects into silhouettes rather than trying to recreate detail where it may not really be necessary to have detail. Often the fog itself is your subject, and everything else plays just a supporting role. Try shooting each one of your foggy day images twice and compare to see which one best captures the mood of your scene. First, expose for the dominant object in your scene; second, expose for the fog itself. In the first image, you'll capture the object while losing some of the fog's natural qualities; in the second image you'll get more detail and texture in the fog, while losing detail in that dominant object.
Everyone loves that shot of light rays shining down on a footpath or illuminating a lonely object in a forest. Shooting in foggy conditions can be a great way to capture that coveted shot, because the scattering effect of the fog will often create beams of light if there is a concentrated light source in the scene. This could be natural light or it could be manmade light--your job as a foggy-day photographer is to seek out those defined light rays and capture them on camera before the fog gives way to sunshine. As a general rule, the closer you are to the light source the more pronounced those light rays will be, as long as the light source itself remains at an angle to your camera.
Road Through the Woods by Flickr user CaptPiper
Foggy days are a golden opportunity for any photographer, so don't pass them up. Just remember that foggy days aren't always friendly, and they're going to try to trick you. Bring a lens cloth in case of condensation, and make sure that you know those foggy day idiosyncrasies inside and out. If you know ahead of time what challenges the conditions are going to throw at you, you'll be able to use them to your advantage and come home with a set of beautiful, moody photos you can be proud of.
"Don't play what's there, play what's not there" - Miles Davis (Explored) by Flickr user sara biljana (account closed)
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