What do you do when it's raining outside? How about when it's snowing, or when the wind is fierce or the air is cold. Do you sit inside in front of the fireplace and dream of the day when you can get back out there with your camera and capture some wonderful fair-weather photos? Then I have to say, you are missing out. Because you can get awesome photos at any time, no matter what the weather. Here's how.
First: protect your camera
Before you grab your camera and go running outside in a thunderstorm, let's first talk about some basic safety. I don't mean for you, of course, unless you happen to be the sort of person who melts in the rain. I mean for your camera. Unless you own a camera in the “tough” or “rugged” class, you’re going to need some way to protect your investment from the elements. If your camera is a DSLR, a great way to do this with a rain guard. Just cover your camera up and go, and it will be protected from snow, sleet and rain. Just make sure you pick a lens and stick with it—if you try changing lenses in wet conditions you could get water inside your camera, and I know I don’t have to tell you how bad that could be.
But you have to take precautions in other weather, too, particularly in cold weather. Cold weather can be hard on your battery (you may find you don’t get as much battery life in cold temperatures), but one of the greatest dangers you will encounter in cold weather is condensation.
This is not going to be a problem for you while you are outside taking pictures—rather, it’s going to become an issue when you come back inside your nice warm house. Outside, the air is cold and dry, but inside there’s almost always going to be some moisture in it—particularly if you like using a humidifier. And what this means for your gear is that all that moisture will condense onto the cold surfaces of your camera, including the internal parts. You definitely don’t want this to happen, because water and electronics do not play well together. Fortunately, the fix is simple: place your camera in an airtight bag and then bring it inside. The condensation will form on the outside of the bag, but the camera will stay dry. You can use a simple Ziploc freezer bag to get this done—no need to splurge on an expensive dry bag. Just make sure that you put the camera in the bag before you open up the front door.
Finally, keep safety in mind particularly when you are taking pictures in a thunderstorm. I'm sure I don't really have to tell you this—your mom probably did a great job of letting you know how dangerous it is to be outside when there is lightning. When you are shooting a thunderstorm, it’s generally a good idea to do it from inside—either from indoors through an open window or from the inside of your car. You’ll still have to protect your gear with that rain guard in case rain comes in through that open window, and you may have to protect the inside of your house too—but the plus side is that you won’t become one of the few people who succumbs to a lightning strike every year around the world.
Rain makes people feel emotional. It can make them feel upset or miserable, or it can make them feel like dancing. When you go out in a rain storm, look for moods. Try to capture the way that people and animals feel when they are surrounded by all that wet weather. And look for contrast, too—brightly colored umbrellas amongst all the drab colors, for example. And don’t forget to look down. Reflections in mud puddles (especially at night) can make for some really interesting and unique photographs.
When the rain stops, try to find interesting objects with drops of water clinging to them. Flowers are great for this—all those beautiful raindrops add extra interest and texture to an already beautiful subject.
If your goal is to capture the rain as it comes down, you’ll need to know a few tricks. First, shoot into the light. Backlight can help to illuminate those individual drops of water as they fall. If it’s raining at sunrise or sunset, this is a great time to get pictures. Just remember to keep your camera at somewhat of an angle to the light so objects in the frame don’t become silhouetted. You can also use your flash to illuminate the raindrops—don’t use it on full power, but rather set it to about 1/3rd power for a more subtle effect. And don’t forget about your shutter speed—a slow shutter speed (1/125 or slower) will make the rain show up as a long streaks, while very fast shutter speed (1/1000 or faster) will freeze the individual drops as they come down.
You can use the same shutter speed tips for snow, although snow does tend to come down much more slowly than rain does, so some adjustment may be required.
Whether shooting in snow or just in frosty weather, make sure you go out early in the morning. All those delicate icicles, gatherings of frost, or patches of snow clinging to certain surfaces is always going to look best early in the morning—not just because the light is better, but also because if you wait too long the sun will strike those delicate structures and melt them almost instantly. It’s a good idea to go out a little bit before the sun comes up so you’ve got plenty of time to find your subject and get a great photo before it’s too late.
Whenever you’re shooting a snowy scene, do not trust your camera’s meter. All camera meters are designed to assume that every scene averages out to roughly middle gray in tone. A snowy scene, as you can probably guess, does not average out to middle gray—in fact it is considerably brighter than that. So if you count on your meter to give you the correct reading for that scene, you’re going to end up with an underexposed shot. Instead, it’s best to use some exposure compensation—+1 is a good place to start, but make sure you check your histogram to see whether or not you’re getting it right. A well-exposed histogram should be skewed roughly towards the middle—if your image is underexposed, the histogram will be skewed towards the left instead. Make sure you’re not getting any clipped highlights, either. Clipped highlights make the histogram look as if it is just sort of crashing into the vertical right side of the chart, rather than tapering off towards the bottom.
Finally, make sure you set your white balance for a snowy day, or that you choose shady, which will help take some of the natural blue tones out of the scene. Ideally, you want your photos of snow to look white, not to be tinged with any other colors, although a light blue tinge can help your image feel colder.
Fog is probably my favorite kind of weather—it is also one of the more challenging types of whether to take pictures in. On a foggy day, there are a lot of particles of water in the air, and those particles will redirect the light rays. When this happens, you get a sort of softbox effect, but on a much larger scale than you would get with an actual softbox. So you’ll have heavily diffused light—which is great when you consider that you won’t have any problem with blown out highlights or too-black shadows, but you may also end up with images that look really flat and lifeless.
Foggy days often require longer exposures, because there is a less light overall. This means you probably need to bring a tripod with you, and you may even need to turn up your ISO a little. Like snow, fog is reflective, and it can fool your camera’s meter into thinking that there’s more light in the scene in there actually is. So again, if you count on your meter to get to the exposure right you’re probably going to end up with underexposed photos. Use exposure compensation just as you would when shooting a snowy landscape—+1 or +2 should do the trick, but check your histogram to be sure.
Know that you may have some trouble with your autofocus system as well, mainly because of the very limited contrast that you get on a foggy day. So you may have to switch to manual focus to avoid all that autofocus “hunting” that your camera will do when it’s having a hard time finding an edge.
Finally, remember that you’ll need to seek out objects that give your foggy day scene a little bit of extra contrast or color. You’ll need an object that’s close to the camera in order to make this to happen—the further away the object is from the camera, the more fog there is between you and it, and the more dim the object will become. And you may also need to bracket your shots to ensure that you end up with the right exposure.
And finally, we arrive at sunny weather, which ironically is probably most people's favorite photography weather. Unfortunately the problem with sunny weather is that it isn't always the most ideal lighting situation. When you are taking pictures at midday on a sunny day, the scene may simply have too much dynamic range for your camera to handle. This could result in burned-out highlights and too-black shadows. There are a few strategies that you can use to help mitigate this problem —the first is to simply not shoot at midday on a sunny day. Instead, go out early in the morning or late in the afternoon to take advantage of the softer, more diffuse light that happens around sunrise and sunset.
If you don’t really have a choice, then you can do a couple of other things to help make your sunny day photos look their best. If you’re shooting movable subjects, you can simply move them into open shade. You can also use fill flash—your pop up flash will do in a pinch. Or you can use a reflector to bounce light into those too-black shadows, which will even out the light overall.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle you're going to have to overcome when shooting in difficult weather is your own personal aversion to being out there in the unpleasantness. That's a big one for a lot of people—it may be that you would really just rather go out when the weather is nice. But remember that you’re going to be missing out on some really great photos if you limit yourself to only fair weather photography, so try to think of some strategies for how you could make yourself OK with going out in unpleasant weather. Invest in a good raincoat and umbrella, for example, wear a warm jacket, and reward yourself when you arrive at home with a cup of hot tea or cocoa (that always works for me).
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