Making the Most of Bad Weather

by Bret Edge | June 29, 2010

© Bret EdgeWouldn’t it be grand if every photo vacation involved puffy clouds filling an azure sky above rugged peaks, deep canyons or vast deserts awash in alpenglow every morning and every evening of our trip? Perhaps some photographers are so lucky. I am not one of them. Twice now I’ve spent the first two weeks of June in Yellowstone and the Tetons and twice now I’ve been met with dull gray overcast skies, rain, snow, thunder and lightning and only fleeting glimpses of that big ball of fire in the sky. What’s worse is that both times, the bad weather seemed to disappear just as soon as I’d left. I have to assume that I have somehow angered the Gods of Photography.

Given the circumstances I could sit in a dingy hotel room bemoaning my bad luck or I could muster up some creativity, head out into the weather and make some images. I’m not much of one for lazing around a hotel room all day so it was easy to make a decision. I grabbed my camera and tripod, a Gore-Tex jacket and an umbrella on my way out the door.

Tetons Jackson Lake fog © Bret Edge

I think if you polled your ten favorite nature photographers you’d probably find that most of them rank the ability to adapt to changing conditions as one of their top secrets to success. Learning to adapt to whatever you’re given not only makes you a better photographer, it makes you a happier and more productive photographer. Bad weather often creates opportunities that simply don’t exist on blue sky days. In this photo from Snake River Overlook, which is about as iconic a scene as any, I was able to create an image that differs from the thousands of others of this scene because I didn’t give up when I looked out the window and saw nothing but clouds. As tempted as I was to lie back down in bed I headed out into a drizzle with hopes that something special would happen. And it did. As I approached the overlook the rain stopped and little gaps started to show in clouds to the east. I found this classic composition, mounted my camera to the tripod and waited. As I stood there I watched with awe as the clouds began to clear. Fog drifted into the valley just as the sun shone through a break in the clouds, illuminating the majestic Tetons in early morning light. The show lasted only a few minutes before the fog turned into thick clouds that completely obscured the Teton Range for the remainder of the day. Those few minutes of amazing conditions were well worth the early start in the rain. Had I not crawled out of bed and set up my camera even though things looked bleak I would have missed out on photographing this amazing moment. So, step one is get your butt out of bed!

Snake River fog © Bret Edge

Now that you’re upright, you can make the most of the day by learning to identify how to use whatever light and conditions come your way. On a solid overcast day the soft, filtered light is perfect for intimate landscapes, macro and wildlife. This image of indian paintbrush blooming in the company of a weathered juniper snag was made on a day when the sky was uniformly grey. Overcast skies act as an enormous diffuser. The resulting light is very soft and casts no hard shadows. It’s the perfect light for this image as it minimized the contrast range of the scene, lowered the dynamic range and allowed me to create an image full of detail with no blown highlights. On a cloudy day look for wildflowers, textured rocks or trees, interior forest scenes or wildlife. The best thing about an overcast day? You can spend the entire day making images, not just a few minutes at sunrise and sunset!

Okay, okay…that’s all fine and good but what if it’s raining? Surely you can’t make images in the rain, right? Wrong! Photographers in the Pacific Northwest are masters at dealing with water while photographing. If it isn’t falling from the sky as rain it’s rising as mist from a waterfall or spray from pounding surf. My first concern when photographing in the rain is keeping my camera as dry as possible. There are several ways to do this. Options range from ghetto (hotel room shower cap or a plastic shopping bag) to effective, durable and easy to work with (rain covers by AquaTech, Kata and Think Tank) to expensive, heavy and totally weatherproof underwater housings like those by Aquatica and Subai. Once I’ve protected my camera my next concern is keeping the front lens element free of water. Realistically, drops of water are going to find their way on to the glass. There are a couple things you can do to minimize it, though. The easiest: use your lens hood. Most lens hoods protrude at least an inch past the front of the lens, which offers some protection from rain. Even better, carry a small umbrella and use it to shield the camera and lens. Keep your lens cap on as long as you possibly can. You can also shield the glass with your hand until you’re ready to make an exposure. Finally, when water inevitably lands on the glass, a microfiber cloth is the best way to remove it. In a pinch, a 100% cotton t-shirt will also work but I can’t recommend this method if it’s a shirt you’re wearing because tiny grains of dust or sand embedded in the fabric may scratch the glass. Don’t forget a raincoat to keep yourself dry!

You might wonder why anyone would want to photograph in the rain. I’ve got three good reasons for you. First, you’re creating an opportunity for photography where most don’t see one. Second, wet foliage is greener, more lush and much more saturated in color. All that water also means you’ll be dealing with a highly reflective subject and you should consider using a polarizer to eliminate or reduce those reflections for more intense color and detail. Finally, since the vast majority of people hide out when it rains you are virtually guaranteed to have the entire area all to yourself. It’s like having your very own national park! I made this image of Upper Mesa Falls in Idaho’s Targhee National Forest from an overlook on a wooden boardwalk while the rain alternated between drizzling and a downpour. I held an umbrella in one hand and my remote shutter release in the other while my camera was wearing an ever-stylish shower cap that lives in my backpack for just such an occasion. I used a polarizer to both cut glare on the water and saturate the vibrant green foliage of the forest. Working with a tripod-mounted camera on a wooden boardwalk can be aggravating. As people walk by the boardwalk vibrates, making it impossible to obtain a sharp photo. On this rainy day, I was the only person on the entire boardwalk. No worries, no frustrations!

Upper Mesa Falls © Bret Edge

As photographers we should count our blessings when we’re graced with fog. Nothing adds mood to an image quite as much as a healthy serving of fog. Drifting in and out of trees or wafting across the surface of a lake, fog is our friend. In this image of ripples on Jackson Lake, I used the fog to create an abstract, ethereal image reminiscent of a Mark Rothko painting. The fog completely obscured the mountains, but ripples on the water’s surface and blue sky above provides subtle clues that help the viewer piece together just what it is they’re seeing. Only minutes earlier, I made this image of the Cathedral Group rising over 6,000′ above the lake as the fog began to roll in. When the mountains disappeared, I switched gears and started looking for smaller scenes.

Jackson Lake © Bret Edge

Lastly, even on a cloudy day there’s always a chance that you just might be able to get above it all for a unique perspective of a mountain piercing the blue sky while it’s shoulders rise above the clouds. After I finished photographing the earlier abstract image from Jackson Lake I took a chance and drove up Signal Mountain on a hunch. Lucky for me, my hunch was right. At the summit I found Mt. Moran rising above the clouds with nice late morning light accenting ridges on this monster of a mountain. And, I was there totally alone. Apparently, not one other person had the same idea!

Mt. Moran Signal Mountain Haze © Bret Edge

With these tips and a positive attitude you can head out into nasty weather to make images where most people see only a lost opportunity. No more bad vacations, no more long days in a cramped hotel room. Just lots of beautiful, one of a kind images to process when you get home.

About the Author

Bret Edge is a nature and adventure photographer in Moab, Utah. His interest in photography evolved as an extension of his life long passion for the outdoors. He is an avid hiker, backpacker, mountain biker and canyoneer. A visit in 1999 to an exhibit featuring photographs by Ansel Adams, Jack Dykinga and David Muench stoked Bret's creative fire such that he immediately purchased his first SLR camera, a Canon Rebel. In the years since, he has traveled extensively throughout the American West creating a diverse portfolio of dynamic images.

Bret's work has appeared in magazines, calendars, travel guides and advertising campaigns. His clients include Backpacker magazine, Popular Photography, the Utah Office of Tourism, Charles Schwab & Co. and Jackson Hole Mountain Guides.

While Bret enjoys seeing his work in print, he receives the most satisfaction by helping others realize their potential as photographers. He accomplishes this by leading several group workshops each year and guiding photographers on private photo excursions. For information about his workshops and guided excursions, visit www.moabphotoworkshops.com. To view a collection of Bret's images, visit www.bretedge.com.

Bret lives in Moab with his wife, Melissa, their son Jackson, and two All-Terrain Pugs named Bierstadt and Petunia.

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