Bad Weather makes for Great Photographs

Little Butano Creek, Butano State Park
Little Butano Creek, Butano State Park

I recently gave a photographic workshop along the San Mateo county coast (about 45 minutes south of San Francisco), and there were a few last minute cancellations. I suspect they’d checked the weather report, temperatures were expected to be in the high 40s with clouds and drizzle. It’s a pity these folks didn’t talk to me before cancelling, they missed out on some phenomenal photographic conditions. I knew better. Many of my favorite photographic images were taken under or at the edges of clouds, mists, fog or rain. While blue skies sell postcards, interesting photographs often require interesting light, and it’s emphasizing that lesson that’s the topic of this post.

Let’s look at how that workshop worked out. Heading first into nearby Butano State Park, we worked along a small stream running through a grove of coast redwoods. In full sunlight, the contrast between the things illuminated by full sunlight and those i shade would have been far too large to capture. Any single exposure would have suffered from with blown highlights, large areas of flat black shadows, or most likely, both. Close in on a patch of soil and you’d see a pale, dusty brown, dusty green ferns, dull tree bark and dry stream beds. Our rain and clouds lit the forest like a giant softbox, reducing the contrast range of the scene to something that can be easily captured in a single exposure. Moreover, the rain left the dirt a rich brown, the ferns shiny and emerald, and the streams flowing.

After working the redwood forest, we returned to the beach. The sky was overcast, but a little less thickly clouded over the local lighthouse, leaving that lighthouse brighter against the dark clouds behind it. Often variations in clouds work to dodge and burn the landscape in ways that create depth, this is even more true of scenes in scenes where the sun can sneak through an otherwise cloudy sky and spotlight elements of the landscape.

While the mist and clouds had left me optimistic about most of the day’s shoot, I did expect sunset to fizzle. For most of the afternoon the sky was completely overcast. Still, I knew better than to leave, and much to my surprise, a half hour before sunset a thin band opened up at the western horizon, glowing yellow, then orange, and eventually letting the sun’s disks show for twenty seconds or so, and eventually leaving us with pink crepsucular rays. Even with a small section of real “interest” in the sky we were able to explore a number of options for compositions combining the surf, sea stacks, and the band of sunset color.

There are challenges to working in adverse weather, protecting both you and your camera from the elements. (I’ll be posting more about some of the tricks and tools I use to protect my own gear soon.) But you’ll find those small efforts more than repaid in photographic opportunities if you try, bad weather really does make for great photographs.

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