Make the Best of Bad Weather - 6 Challenges for Photographers

Make the Best of Bad Weather – 6 Challenges for Photographers


The biggest secret in photography, that isn’t really so secret when you think about it, is the art of photography is all about light. The more artistic photographers often like to say photography is about painting with light. Strangely many people when they first start out in photography consider good light mid-day sun with clear blue skies. When I was first bit by the photography bug I suffered from this misconception, but quickly saw the light. Sorry I couldn’t resist the pun 🙂 No matter what genre of photography piques your interest bad weather has a transforming effect on most subjects. To take advantage of this transforming effect photographers have to over come a few challenges first.

San Francisco Fog Jimgoldstein 520Cc

Challenges facing photographers

Challenge #1: Over coming our comfort zone of staying at home/indoors when the weather looks menacing.

One of the more counter-intuitive things for a photographer to do is leave their warm home or car in pursuit of a dramatic scene with bad weather in route or in place. If you think about it though counter-intuitive actions are what make some of the most compelling images. Case in point is photojournalism. Photojournalists make their living going into the face of conflict and/or disaster. I would argue that all photographers could learn from this tactic… with in reason. You shouldn’t take unnecessary risks or put others in harms way in the pursuit of a photo.

Napa Sunset2 Jimgoldstein 520Cc

Challenge #2: Not looking ahead to track weather conditions for photo opportunities

For a few lucky folks great photos fall out of the sky. For most everyone else getting a great photo requires planning. When it comes to using weather to add impact to your photographs a little research will go a long way. Pre-planning/monitoring is great, but it doesn’t end there. As you’re out and about you should be monitoring the weather conditions to improve the odds of getting your shot and also to ensure your own safety.

Challenge #3: Failing to recognize how weather can set mood to a scene

This initially can be tricky as it takes some time to train your eye to consciously see “mood”. My recommendation is look at a lot of photos on Flickr and take note of the weather. Ask yourself what mood it brought to the scene. Think about your image observations and apply it to the way you view your subjects while on a shoot.

Turning Tide Jimgoldstein 520Cc

Challenge #4: Being in the right place at the right time

Being in the right place at the right time is seldom about luck. To do this you’ll need to look at past photo shoots as scouting missions. A particular location photographed with good weather conditions will look completely different when the weather is bad. Familiarity with an area before photographing in bad weather will allow you to get into position quicker and with a little luck allow you to minimize your exposure to the elements.

Yosemite Breaking Light Jimgoldstein 520Cc-1

Challenge #5: Always being prepared

The art of being prepared is critical and goes beyond tracking weather or being familiar with a particular location. Being prepared entails having the right gear, having your gear ready to go, having non-photographic gear such as GPS, umbrella or a cell phone and taking precautionary steps to buddy up with a friend or tell people where you’re going. Being prepared is as much about getting the shot you want as it is about returning home safely.

Whitney Predawn Jimgoldstein 520Cc

So what is it about bad weather that gives it its transforming power?

Light and shadow are the first qualities that come to mind. Various weather conditions can rapidly change how a scene is lit. Clouds can diffuse the sun for even lighting, the sun can poke through the clouds for spotlight effects, rain can create reflections, etc. Shadows on the other hand can enable the isolation of a subject, create visually interesting layers to a scene, form leading lines, frame your subject, etc.

Contrast, the play of light and dark against each other, can add another level of complexity to a scene. Scenes that contain a good degree of contrast, say for example from bands of clouds in the sky, can be used to highlight or isolate your subject. Conversely foggy conditions can reduce contrast creating completely different atmosphere to a scene.

Brightness of a scene will impact the length of time needed to expose your subject. Brightness will also influence your choice in using artificial lighting to illuminate your subject or not. For longer exposures bad weather provides an opportunity too highlight motion, while the use of artificial lighting will enable you to create dramatic highlights to accentuate your subject

Dimension is part of our everyday visual experience. Photography being a 2-dimensional medium requires a creative approach to composition to trick our viewer’s brain. To do this including compositional elements that are familiar and provide both perspective and scale are critical. Clouds, fog banks, sunbeams, etc. in conjunction with subjects in your image can easily lay the groundwork to create dimension in your photographs.

If you play your cards right managing these challenges correctly and looking to leverage the transforming qualities of bad weather in your work you’ll find the photographic world is your oyster. Scenes that you otherwise would have ignored become great photographic opportunities. Most importantly your images will gain impact to wow your viewing audience.

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Jim Goldstein is a San Francisco based professional photographer. An author as well as a photographer Jim has been published in numerous publications including Outdoor Photographer, Digital Photo Pro, Popular Photography and has self-published a PDF eBook Photographing the 4th Dimension - Time covering numerous slow shutter techniques. His latest work and writing can be found on his JMG-Galleries blog and on 500px

Some Older Comments

  • Michael Grijalva April 8, 2010 10:02 am

    I've been disappointed a lot in the past with my "oh, the weather is bad, guess I wont shoot today" judgement. It's always a downer when suddenly the weather breaks revealing lovely clouds. By that time it's too late to make the drive to where I was planning.

    This is great advice that we all need to keep in our heads.

  • juan August 13, 2009 03:38 pm

    I wish they have a good sample of photos during sandstorm.

  • car floor jacks March 14, 2009 10:43 pm

    I must say, that I could not agree with you in 100%, but that's just my IMHO, which could be wrong.
    p.s. You have an awesome template . Where did you find it?

  • Lau March 1, 2008 01:52 am

    Heh... I don't really think there is such thing as "bag weather". In photography, at least, there is only good weather.

  • Rajan February 26, 2008 12:57 pm

    Great Advice! While I'm up early to catch a sunrise or wit for the sunset, I put away my camera if the weather turns nasty. This post inspires me to think twice about that and look for that unique light possibility under those conditions. Thanks much!

  • Jim Goldstein February 24, 2008 11:43 am

    @Rudolf My post and photos were not to define what bad weather is. Having lived in Alaska I'm all too familiar with bad weather. The point of the post is to introduce the point that bad weather can provide excellent photographic opportunities.

  • Jim Goldstein February 24, 2008 11:38 am

    @Gary Thanks and I can assure you the Mt. Whitney photo is pre-dawn. See my podcast "Mobius Arch" which discusses this shot and the circumstances around it.

  • Rudolf Leitgeb February 22, 2008 09:02 pm

    Very nice photos, but .... maybe I'm accustomed to really bad weather, these photos presented here don't really show bad weather IMHO.

    The golden gate bridge may be covered in fog, but above you have blue sky and beautiful light ... hence the nice colors.

    Same thing holds for the tree picture and the yosemite picture: I see nice colorful light patches, so the sun must be breakign through somewhere.

    The remaining photos even show big patches of blue sky ...

    I suppose when many photographers say "bad weather" they have all overcast sky or even pouring rain in mind, where everything looks washed out and dull and where points further away from the camera disappear into white haze. Of course you could do portrait work in these conditions, but that's not always the point of going to a nice place.

  • Gary Anthes February 22, 2008 02:27 am

    Good article, great photos. Just a nit: The photo of Mt. Whitney is definitely not "pre-dawn" unless you illuminated the arch a la Michael Fatali.

  • Michael February 21, 2008 11:12 am

    Great advice, and something I discovered a long time ago. Some of my best photos have been taken during not so perfect weather. I love what it does to the light and shadows in the scene I'm trying to capture.

    Some of the best photos from great photographers I've seen were taken during inclement weather.

  • Jim Goldstein February 21, 2008 10:04 am

    Thanks to all that have commented. Don't be fooled no matter where your location great photographs are possible even with flat neutral gray weather. If you are faced with flat neutral gray weather than look for less obvious subjects that benefit from that type of lighting until conditions change.

    Here are a few sites that I recommend looking at for inspiration:

    Note: a couple photographers from the UK and Scotland for those in the area that think no great photographic opportunities await you.

  • Jill February 21, 2008 12:44 am

    Beautiful examples Blythe and hfng! Thanks for sharing! I also agree with your comment Blythe...the grey certainly adds a moody atmosphere to your picture.

  • hfng February 21, 2008 12:14 am

    Textured bad weather can be a good thing as long as not flat neutral gray weather .. hehe.

  • Mark February 20, 2008 09:25 pm

    One thing about clouds is that they really CAN add drama to pictures. The only downside is that there is no middle ground in that you have to have either no clouds at all (kind of detracts from the whole point) or have thick thick clouds. With prolonged exposure, the contrast can be a wow factor. Also, when there's loads of clouds and there's some light trying to peek through them, you can get some amazing shots, even on a crappy camera like mine.

  • Hilde February 20, 2008 07:13 pm

    Here in my neck of the woods (Oslo, Norway), I find the weather to be frustratingly difficult in this time of year. It's just grey, grey, grey - which just makes for flat light and boring pictures.

    Can anyone provide a link to some cool images taken in this kind of weather, just to boost some inspiration?

  • parag February 20, 2008 12:52 pm

    This is great! stunning pictures and apt article.

  • Lou Ann February 20, 2008 05:56 am

    I love the contrasts that an "exciting" and dramatic sky will add to an image ... some of the photographers who chase tornados and other storms get some amazing images! Some day I'll learn to shoot lightning.

    In the meantime, when the sky is about 50% clouds, whether they're puffy clouds or the streaky, stratus clouds ... it's fun to shoot them with a very wide lens. A 10mm (converts to 16mm on my dSLR) and keeping the horizon at about 20% of the bottom of the image will make for a fun shot!

  • AC February 20, 2008 05:08 am

    I'm a big fan of overcast days and early morning fog. The former as it is the perfect light for flower and light photography and the latter for the surreal effect that it adds to the snap. The only weather I don't shoot (at least outdoors) is in pouring rain.

  • Ste February 20, 2008 04:44 am

    Nice pictures.
    I agree with Mark, cloudy days here in the UK can make dull photography, but for my pictures on the moors I think it adds atmosphere.

  • Blythe February 20, 2008 04:06 am

    I think cloudy days make beach pictures much more interesting than they would be normally...

  • Mark February 20, 2008 02:57 am

    These are beautiful shots. And what's even more beautiful is that these people get to go there. Then again, that's what professional photographers do. Here in England, we get loads of cloudy days - all 364 of them - but no such beautiful scenery. Lots of rise rise buildings from the 60s though. And foreigners.

  • Jill February 20, 2008 02:49 am

    Bad weather means different things to different people...I took the following photos on a freezing cold, foggy morning, so it was certainly not 'ideal' conditions as far as I'm concerned, but I LOVE the result!

    Sometimes it's worth freezing your #@* off for a little bit! :-)