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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.