How To Take Photos Of Mist On A Lake After Sunrise :: Digital Photo Secrets

How To Take Photos Of Mist On A Lake After Sunrise

by David Peterson 2 comments

The sunrise and the fog. They are two of the most dramatic elements you can add to any photograph. When you combine them, they can create the feelings of mystery and foreboding. Today, we’re going to learn how to take pictures of mist on a lake just after the sun has risen. There’s a special trick to this, and once you figure it out, you’ll have some pictures that are no less than awe-inspiring.

What role does the mist play?

That’s the first question you need to ask yourself in each of these photos. It’s not too difficult to get the exposure correct when you’re taking pictures of the mist, but it won’t mean anything if you haven’t organized the photo correctly. So before you even begin, you need to ask yourself if the mist plays a primary or secondary role.

By getting a little further away from the thick fog, this photographer managed to turn the fog into his main subject.
Photo By Flickr User Ian Sane

Have a look at the photo above. Would you say the mist is the main subject? Probably not. The big tree stands out more than the mist does. Your eye is first drawn to the tree, and then it is drawn to the mist. If anything, the mist emphasizes the tree and adds drama to it. You’ll find that to be the case with most of the morning mist photos you take.

Even so, fog can still play a fairly central role. The following photo shows one way it’s possible. Notice how there is virtually no detail in the background. It is a complete silhouette. Because fog reflects light so well, it tends to light up faster than the dark trees in the background. This difference in reflectance allows you to get detail in the fog while the background remains obscured.

Here the morning mist plays a more central role. Because the photographer used a longer shutter speed and a more narrow aperture, the mist is more clear and defined.

Subjects and the morning fog

The morning fog tends to turn people and other subjects into silhouettes. That’s because you’ll be using a shutter speed fast enough to capture the fog but still too slow to get all of the light from whatever is obscured by it. Fog, just like any kind of moisture, appears white because it reflects whatever light comes its way. The further something is inside of the fog, the more obscured it becomes.

Notice how there’s a lot of detail in the trees up front, but they’re a total silhouette further back. That’s how fog affects your subjects.
Photo By Trace Nietert

Here’s the takeaway. If you want your subjects to be vibrant and colorful, put them up front. If you want them to be mysterious, capture them from far away. The density of the fog plays an important role too. If you have very dense fog, your subjects will probably be silhouettes no matter what you do.

Which camera settings should you use?

The big factor at play in these kinds of pictures is the early morning light. It tends to be much more faint than most of the light throughout the day. You most certainly will need a tripod when taking a picture of mist on the lake. You can expect to be using longer shutter speeds to collect all the light you need to make a bright enough photo.

Shutter speeds for these kinds of photos range between 1/5s to 30 seconds. Whenever I’m taking a picture like this, I like to experiment with a wide range of shutter speeds to see which one ultimately looks best.

With apertures, I like to pick the smaller ones (large F-numbers) so I can get a little more depth of field. Sometimes you’ll need to pick a higher f-numbered aperture anyway as a means of controlling the light. Fog is very bright compared to the rest of the scene. It is rather easy to overexpose it. By dialing up the aperture, you allow less light in, and that will help you give your fog a more defined look.

You should also realize that the definition and character of the fog changes as you increase the length of your exposure. At a shutter speed of 1 second, the fog is fairly well-defined, but at 15 seconds it spreads across the frame like butter. You probably can’t see the fog moving with the naked eye, but it definitely is. This is something worth considering if you want your fog to have a specific kind of texture.

You can create a highly textured and defined fog when you use a faster shutter speed and a darker background.

Backgrounds are important too. Fog placed against a light background will tend to blend in with it, and fog placed against a darker background will stand out in stark contrast. It’s all about the effect you’re trying to create coupled with what you have around you. Use what you have to the best of your ability.

What should you avoid doing?

Flash is a big no-no when photographing fog. That’s because fog is highly reflective. When you shoot a flash at fog, it reflects through the entire cloud and turns it into one big white blob on your camera. If you brought a tripod, there should be enough light to capture the image without any issues.

One last thing. When I said early morning, I really meant it. You should be awakening at least a few hours before sunrise so you can get to the location you want to photograph ahead of time. It’s much better to be set up and ready to go before the sun rises than to miss it entirely and have to wake up early again. Your call of course, but I can only get myself out of bed at 4 A.M. every now and again.

(Top thumbnail © Bevan Timm)

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  1. Keith says:

    Re your artical Photos of the Mist, should exposure compensation be used?

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.