There are plenty of articles about how to seek out the best light for your landscape photography, things like the time of day you go out, looking at weather forecasting apps, using various filters and so on. Quite often though – and particularly if we’re not on home turf – we’re limited to what we get at the time we’re able to get there. How do you make the best of that?
In Media Res: a Mindset for Photographing the Land as It Is
In a baking sunny summer heatwave or the middle of a grey and rainy stretch, it might feel as if the weather will never change, but our local atmosphere is always in a state of becoming, with one condition passing and another emerging. It's sunny-becoming cloudy. Overcast, then clearing throughout the evening. Winds from the South-East in late afternoon, bringing fog. Risk of frost overnight. A fast-moving thunderstorm rolling down the valley. Weather, and the lighting it creates, is highly variable.
A plan to go out and photograph can so often be upended by a change in weather and light conditions, but that doesn’t necessarily mean needing to cancel or even change what you photograph. Instead, you can learn to see the potential in each scenario and adjust your mindset to enjoy the changing view — and hopefully make some great pictures, too.
This article will look at some of the most common weather and light types, and touch on the best ways to tackle those and what to look for when photographing. Later, we’ll go into each of these in more depth in separate tutorials.
How to Photograph in a Range of Weather and Lighting Conditions
A bright, sunny day can actually be a real struggle. Strong sunlight can blow everything out and create harsh, unflattering shadows, even on a landscape. In summer, bright sun can mean over-saturated colours too.
Some Common Issues
- High Contrast
- Lens flare
- Colouring and exposure clipping problems
If everything is too bright and there's a lot of contrast that you don't feel you could recover in post-production, then try auto-exposure bracketing to help balance a scene. This involves taking several images, each at a different f/stop and then merging them together in software to create one photograph with a greater tonal range.
Use a filter. A graduated filter will help to keep a bright sky from blowing out but if you don’t have one then expose for your highlights because clipped shadows will be less noticeable in a high-contrast image than a blown-out sky would be.
A lens hood is really useful for helping with flare. In a pinch though – and if you’re using a tripod – you can take two images and in one of them, physically block out the sun with something, like holding up something opaque or even using your hand. That way you’ll have a ‘clean’ flare free exposure to blend with your other image in post-production.
Things to Try:
- Water. High sun is great for penetrating the water of rivers, reservoirs and so on. This can give it a lovely clear, bright blue appearance.
- Think about Black & White. If a colour palette is too busy but has a lot of dramatic contrast, it might look great in black and white and remove the distraction of too many bright colours.
- Look for open shade. Find somewhere sheltered from the light but that allows it to filter through, like a wooded area. This will diffuse the light, and the sun coming through trees can create quite a beautiful glow.
- Backlighting and silhouetting. Try blocking the sun with an object in the foreground, like a rock formation or tree. This can create some lovely backlighting and silhouette effects.
It’s usually best to choose your camera settings manually when you can, and for bright sunny days you'll want to keep your ISO low and choose shutter speeds and apertures that give you your desired depth of field but don't let in too much light. If you don’t feel comfortable choosing your own settings or the camera you’re using doesn’t have a manual mode, then use the programme best suited for bright sunshine which is usually denoted by a small sun icon.
Think about flash. If your foreground is very dark and you want to bring out some details, artificially lighting what’s in front of you can really help with that, and help to balance the photo.
Cloudy, Overcast, or Dull Days
Overcast days have the potential to make great photos. Although dull days get a bad press, they’re some of the easiest lighting conditions to deal with, very rarely will you need to worry about exposures clipping your shadows or highlights.
Some Common Issues
- Less light
- Potentially ‘boring’ skies
- Uninspiring landscape
Upping your exposure will help with the lower light, but try to get confident with higher ISOs too, learn what your camera can handle best.
If the sky is overcast but still quite bright, it might be worth adding a graduated filter to knock the edge off so that you can still expose your scene in a way that's balanced. If the sky isn't particularly bright you'll find that an overcast day produces quite soft, even light which leaves you a very neutral canvas to post-process, choosing to either bring out more contrast by brightening highlights and darkening shadows, or choosing a more deliberate flat, matte look.
As with bright sunshine, try lighting your foreground with a fill flash or reflector to bring out more detail and depth to uninspiring shadows, or to help light darker foreground focal points.
Things to Try:
- Look for dramatic clouds. Clouds are a great way to add texture and interest to a landscape.
- Long exposures can add movement, and so, interest. If you have some movement in the clouds, or flowing water for example, you can bring that out with a slower shutter speed. You'll need a tripod though to avoid camera shake.
- Look for light rays breaking through the cloud and falling on the landscape, particularly if you're at a high vantage point and can see the sweep of the land below you.
An overcast day that features dramatic clouds is the best of all worlds. Big clouds in the sky are always a boon in landscape photographs, and if you can catch their reflection in water too, it can make for a really interesting shot.
If you aren't shooting in manual mode, the cloudy day setting on your camera – usually a cloud! – will generally serve you best.
Mist & Fog
Mist, fog, and haze are very atmospheric, but it can be tricky to photograph in those conditions. The trick is to harness that visual interest while keeping your images from looking flat or washed out.
Some Common Issues
- Very little contrast
- Saturation is reduced
- Everything is soft
Make your exposer a little bit brighter than usual to try and bring out some of the beauty of the fog and avoid it being grey and flat. The aim is to add some contrast without tipping into overexposure.
Find leading lines or natural frames to create some depth and to offset the lack of focal point and minimal contrast.
Try faster shutter speeds to avoid further smoothing out the mist or fog and making everything look softer. A long lens will help emphasise the impression of depth but can also make fog appear more dense.
The opposite of this is when you have a vantage point on the fog in a valley below, or looking up on low cloud bank moving around a mountain peak above you. In this situation, a long shutter can give the moving mists the appearance of floss flowing through the contours of the land.
Look for a strong but minimal colour palette that you can bring out in post-production. Deep green trees in layers look lovely with a blanket of soft white fog around them.
Things to Try:
- Go high. Get above the fog if you can and shoot down into it, showing any low-lying fog hugging rivers and valleys.
- Try silhouettes. Fog can make everything a bit non-specific, so go with it and look for layers and shapes, rather than a defined subject.
- Look for crepuscular rays. These are particle-scattered beams of sunlight and you can quite often find them breaking through fog and mist. Any light source in mist and fog has the potential to replicate this effect and it can look really cool.
- Embrace the minimalism. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Fog and mist make for flat images so why not try a minimalist and potentially abstract landscape photo?
- Find a defined shape. Something like rock formations or trees on the landscape can make a good focal point.
If you shoot in Auto mode you’ll find photographing in foggy conditions probably won’t give you the results you want as your camera is going to try and compensate for the exposure and you might also struggle with auto focus, as finding a focal point in mist or fog is difficult, everything looks softer and less defined. Keep an eye on your white balance: fog can make everything very grey but sometimes a tinge of blue or yellow is quite nice, depending on the season and scene
Watch out for noise in your photos, which could be due to water in the air, or could be artifacts, particularly from compression if you photograph in JPEG. Try to shoot RAW if you can as this will give you the best possible tonal range to work from when post-processing.
It's hard to motivate yourself to go out and photograph while it's raining, or if you're already out and it starts, it's off-putting to say the least. Don't be disheartened though, all's not lost if it starts to rain.
Some Common Issues
- Little contrast
- Reduced saturation
- It's wet and I don't like it
Rain can sometimes look like... well, nothing at all. Try using a fast shutter speed to capture the rain 'in action.'
If a lack of contrast and limited palette is a problem, why not embrace it? Soft, rainy shots can feel very artistic and often bring out very particular emotional responses. Try to harness that in your rainy landscape. Low key photography, where you expose for your highlights and underexpose darker areas, can add a feeling of drama, and a certain bleakness.
If you really don't want to get out in the rain, try shooting from inside the car. A stunning landscape photographed through a rainy window can turn out really well.
Things to Try:
- Light raindrops with a flash set manually so you can choose the intensity.
- Backlight rain using the sun or other sources of light, to help create a glowing effect. Works well at night.
- Look for reflections in pools of water. A pool of water can make a really interesting foreground, or even a subject in itself if there's a cool reflection in it.
- Try to capture water splashes. If there are buildings or other objects in your landscape, see if you can get the rain splashing onto those.
- Use natural frames to create interest. Buildings, trees and rocks for example can all make great natural frames and also help to add layers and depth to your rainy scene.
Look out for rainbows or storms. If lightning is a possibility, you'll need a longer exposure for, but not so long that it softens it, somewhere between 5 and 10 seconds should do it. You can also pick up something called a lightning trigger attachment which will fire off your camera automatically when it detects lightning.
Snow can be fairy-tale, winter wonderland beautiful. Or it can be dirty, washed-out and a pain to photograph in. Throughout the day or even moment to moment the look of a snowy scene can change dramatically, and with shorter winter days your time outside is limited too. Let's look at the best ways to make sure the result is a good one.
Some Common Issues
- Everything is white. Everything.
- Everything is blue.
- Too much contrast/not enough contrast
- The snow looks awful
Agh, snow. We love it but we hate it. With a dull sky everything can look very grey and with a clear sky everything can look very blue! Keep a careful eye on your white balance and adjust it accordingly. Usually I'd say don't worry too much about it, leave it on auto and you can tweak it in post but unfortunately with snow it does require a little more attention.
You should also try to expose as brightly as you can without overexposing, so be sure to keep an eye on your histogram to make sure you're not clipping your highlights.
For snow to look good you really need to capture it fresh, before anyone has walked on it and before it starts to melt and go sludgy. If you're out and the snow looks messy, try and get to an area with low footfall. I've found that just walking up the nearest hill can reduce the number of people dramatically.
Things to Try:
- Use contrast within the landscape to add contrast to your photo, again things like trees, walls, gates... things that stand out against the snow. It'll also help focus the eye in what can be a fairly blank canvas.
- Try black and white. Black and white can make the most of a high contrast scene and also simplify it if there's a lot going on. It'll also help if everything is very oversaturated, like a bright blue sky.
- Find a pop of colour. An unusual colour standing out against the snow can make for an interesting subject. For example I was at an iced-over reservoir with snow covering the ground. A life ring at the side of the water provided a bright orange pop against all that white and blue.
The great thing about snow is that it has the ability to declutter a landscape, which can make previously ‘uninteresting’ or busy landscapes suddenly look magical. It's worth revisiting some places you may have dismissed previously because they just look so different in a blanket of white.
Auto focus can be problematic as it is for mist and fog so you should try to focus manually where possible. Other than that it's wise to treat snow in the same way as you would bright sunlight. As mentioned, the most important thing with snow is the white balance, as it can be very difficult to correct afterwards.
Landscape photography can produce great results whatever the weather, and when you're not able to choose your timing then it's best to be prepared to make the most of your weather and lighting conditions. We hope you've found some useful tips in this article; check back to read our more in-depth guides on each of the weather types we've covered here.
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About the Authors
Marie Gardiner is a writer and photographer from the North East of England. After gaining her degree in Film and Media, Marie worked in the media industry, before leaving to set up the business she runs with her partner: Lonely Tower Film & Media. As well as writing about visual practices like photography and video, Marie is also the author of Sunderland Industrial Giant (The History Press, 2017) and Secret Sunderland (Amberley Publishing 2019). Her photographic work focuses on landscapes and industrial ruins, particularly those of the North Pennines as she continues to work on her long-form documentary project Changing Landscapes.
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