When you read this article’s title, you probably thought it was just going to be another tutorial about photographing the rain, or the fog, or rainbows or snowstorms. But in this case, I am going to be talking about photographing the weather as an entity - because the weather isn't just about the temperature or what falls from the sky, it’s also about how those things impact us and the world around us.
[ Top image A Perfect Weekend for a Campout by Flickr user DaveWilsonPhotography]
If you live in California, you know exactly what I mean. California experienced an El Niño last year, but for years prior to that it was in the midst of one of the worst droughts in history (and experts still say that the drought is considered ongoing). How did that drought impact the California landscape, and how can you capture that in a photograph?
And of course this idea applies not only to California and other drought-stricken places, to but to pretty much anywhere, because the weather has a profound impact on every part of this planet, from the artic to the equator.
If you live in a place that doesn't get a lot of rain, whether it is a temporary situation or a permanent one, it's very easy to give your viewer a sense of how that weather affects the landscape.
For example, there are places in the United States where there just isn't a lot of water at any time of the year. Certain parts of New Mexico are naturally super-dry, as are parts of Arizona, Nevada and California. If this is the natural state of the place that you're photographing, consider capturing some images of how the people who live in these places cope with the dry conditions. For example, some people have to have their water trucked in—instead of digging wells or paying for city water, they get their water from cisterns kept on their property. Other people collect precious rainwater in a barrel, which they use to maintain small gardens throughout the year. You could take a photograph of a garden flanked by one of these barrels to demonstrate how the weather or a lack of water impacts the residents’ ability to grow food or even just a simple flower garden.
If there is poverty in these dry areas, you can also try taking a photograph of the people who live in these conditions, surrounded by the sunbaked environment. Be aware, though, that there is a fine line between taking a meaningful photograph and one that exploits the people who are subjects of that photograph, so make sure you get permission and that you explain to your subjects what you are trying to accomplish with your photographs. Try not to profit off of images that you take of people in difficult situations.
If you do live in a drought-stricken area, visit some local reservoirs or ponds that are dried up. Cracked, dry mud usually does an excellent job of demonstrating the effects of a drought, as do shorelines littered with recently-exposed buildings, debris, tree trunks or other objects that are revealed only when the water levels are very low. Remember to also capture photographs of how these dry conditions affect the people who live in these places—an empty dusty field flanked by an idle piece of farm equipment is one way to demonstrate the economic impact of drought.
Cold weather is another great source of inspiration. Remember that your goal here is not necessarily to take a photograph of the weather itself but rather to demonstrate the manner in which the weather impacts the environment and the people who live there. Try going out on the very coldest days—days where there is a lot of snow or where the snow is still falling, for example. Look at how the cold weather affects the animals who live outdoors. Horses grow very shaggy coats during the winter, as do cattle, and they can all look pretty miserable standing out there in white fields surrounded by all that snow. Try capturing some pictures of the animals foraging through deep snow, but don't neglect the way that humans are affected by the weather as well. If shoveling snow out of your driveway is something that you do every morning during those cold winter months, then take a wander around the neighborhood and capture some photographs of your neighbors engaged in the same activity.
No matter what subject you choose, you're going to really have to brave the weather for this. Put on your parka and make sure that your camera is well-protected, too. And remember to let your camera warm up again slowly after you come in out of the cold—put it in a plastic bag before you bring it inside, that way condensation won’t form on those delicate internal parts.
Walking on the Mall by Flickr user Cosmic Smudge
Rain can also have a profound impact on people and on the environments they live in, both positive and negative (depending on how much rain and how much it is needed). Rain in drought-stricken places can be a very positive thing (although drought stricken places can also be more prone to flooding, so proceed with caution). Try going back to that mud-cracked landscape during a rainstorm and take a picture in which the water is juxtaposed with that previously dry landscape.
The rain can be very destructive if there is enough of it—I certainly don't advocate flood-chasing because that can be very dangerous, but if you do live in a place where the water is prone to rising during an usually wet season, try to get some photographs of it on the move. Again, please exercise caution whenever you're photographing fast-moving water—make sure you keep your distance (use a telephoto lens) and take precautions with your camera by covering it with a rain guard. I know I don't have to tell you that falling into fast-moving water can be very dangerous and potentially deadly, so give the water the respect that it deserves.
It's fairly simple to photograph wind—you can capture a person with their hair blowing around in the wind, or you can use a tripod and a slow shutter speed to capture some motion blur in stalks of wheat or tree branches that are bending in a stiff breeze. But how does the wind affect human beings and the environment? The answer is simple—we have harnessed the power of wind for centuries to operate mills, to generate electricity or even for simple pleasures like making wind chimes play pleasant music. If there are any windmills or windfarms in your local area, try getting some pictures of them at work. If you can, take a few shots that also include people working in these places in order to help convey a sense of what that wind is doing for the community or for a farmer.
If you live in a place that’s prone to ice I know I don't have to tell you how dangerous it can be—ice is both a nuisance and a hazard. It can cause cars to crash and it can delay your departure to work every morning while you scrape it off your windshield. Again, I don't necessarily recommend that you stand at the most dangerous corner in town waiting for a car to spin out of control on black ice, or that you stalk an accident scene and capture photographs of people in distress after such an accident occurs, but there are other ways that you can demonstrate the way ice impacts your community. You can capture that windshield after you’ve scraped off the ice, for example, or you could photograph ice warning notices against an icy backdrop, or you could even go the opposite way and show the positive things that ice does for the community, such as kids ice skating or playing hockey down at the local pond.
Heat waves are never any fun but they can do great things for us—solar panels operate at their very best on very hot, sunny days, so try to incorporate that into your photographs of weather. Of course you can also include images of people experiencing the heat—some people don't do very well in hot weather, and animals can certainly suffer when it's very hot outside. Capture pictures of dogs panting in the shade or people cooling down in lakes and rivers, or just capture people relaxing with bottles of cold water.
The weather itself it does make a wonderful subject, but you can create an even more emotional photograph if you show your viewer the ways in which that weather can have a profound impact upon the people who live in those climates. The next time you are tempted to photograph a storm or a heat wave, make sure you do it with some context in mind—what is this doing to you and your community, and how does it affect you/them on a personal level? If you can capture that in your photograph then you have succeeded in creating an image that’s really going to make people think.
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