Although our instinct is to take cover when a storm approaches, winter weather provides many opportunities for dramatic images in light that is softer, less harsh and of lower contrast than at other times of the year.
Of course, rain clouds overhead mean lower light levels, so a higher ISO setting or wider aperture may be needed to keep your shutter speed up. A slow shutter speed isn’t necessarily a bad thing in such conditions, as an exposure of 1/15sec or slower will be needed to capture heavy rain or hailstones as tell-tale streaks slanting across the frame and bouncing off the road.
Such images convey the drama of a storm on a small area, and you will need some means of camera support – monopod or tripod – or a vibration reduction facility on your camera or lens, to render the surroundings sharp. It’s also worth trying a burst of flash to add points of light reflecting off the nearest water drops. Fortunately, the flat grey light of wintry conditions makes accurate exposure meter readings more likely.
Of greater concern is ensuring your camera remains dry, as water and camera electronics do not mix. There are a number of waterproof digital compact cameras, which are fully submersible to several metres, making them ideal for all-weather photography, but many more digital SLR cameras are now weather-sealed with O-rings in key areas to prevent moisture from leaking inside.
However, they cannot be relied upon when working outdoors in very heavy rain. Therefore, the only reliable way of protecting your camera from heavy showers is to buy a waterproof housing. These are standard issue for underwater photographers and available for most makes of DSLR. They are hard-wearing, securely sealed and designed to ensure the clarity of light reaching the lens is not adversely compromised.
READING THE CLOUDS
Whether in a deluge in Dublin or Dudley, photographing people’s responses on city streets, especially if caught without an umbrella, can provide wonderful images of spontaneity and emotion that tell a story in a single frame. In such a downpour, shelter isn’t usually far away: a shop awning or a covered doorway can provide the perfect viewpoint to photograph those hapless individuals without you or your camera getting wet. Being alert to the daily weather forecast goes without saying when preparing to photograph bad weather, but even then conditions can change quickly during the course of the day. These weather changes can be anticipated by studying the clouds and a basic understanding of the different types can help you ‘read’ what they may lead to. For example, Cumulus clouds may look harmless enough on a cold, still morning, but they often grow to become Cumulonimbus, the biggest storm cloud of all. Rising to 40,000 feet, these clouds are commonly described as looking like a blacksmith’s anvil and make a dramatic subject even before the arrival of rain and lightning.
Sometimes, the underside of this anvil is home to a series of rounded Mammatus clouds, also known as Mammatocumulus (meaning ‘mammary cloud’). The combination of Mammatus and Cumulonimbus filling the sky is the dramatic precursor to many a storm.
Less spectacular to photograph, but worth noting in the winter months, is Stratocumulus. These low-level clouds are common around hills and mountain ranges and form a grey overcast blanket that fills the sky. Although not the most inspiring of backdrops, these clouds invariably lead to light rain, or even snow, which makes virtually any location more attractive to photograph.
The most spectacular bad weather photographs are electrical storms at night. Of course, lightning is dangerous and while it allegedly may not strike in the same place twice, no one wants to be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Lightning is most dangerous in exposed areas, or near elevated landmarks, but if the storm is beyond the horizon rather than overhead, you are in a safer position for taking a photograph.
The technique for photographing lightning is quite simple: once you have observed where the strikes are occurring, simply aim your camera in this direction and choose a lens focal length that suits the composition you’re seeking. Your camera needs to be on a tripod as the shutter speed dial will be set to Bulb (B), meaning it will stay open for as long as you keep pressing the shutter button. Autofocus (AF) is irrelevant here too as the focus distance is infinity, so switch the AF off. Set the aperture to between f/8 and f/16 and use a remote release to trip the shutter when you’re ready. Because the exposure setting is on, you can keep your finger down on the button for as long as you want.
There’s no need to look through the viewfinder while the shutter is open as this will be blacked out by the mirror of your DSLR being up while the shutter is open. Instead, keep looking ahead at the area of sky that is framed by your camera and count the number of times that lightning strikes in your framed area. When you think there has been enough for a striking result, take your finger off the remote release to close the shutter. Check the result on the camera monitor and repeat the process if you so desire. This same technique can also be applied for photographing fireworks.
Not all bad weather photography involves exposing yourself to fierce storms, lightning strikes and downpours. One of the most popular weather-related images is a rainbow. Of course, the appearance of a rainbow requires the breaking of a rainstorm and the emergence of bright sunshine. The closer you are to a rainbow and the brighter the sun, the more brilliant the colours are likely to be. Colour saturations can be emphasised further by adding a polarising filter to your lens to darken any background clouds. Remember that a polariser will reduce your meter reading by two stops.
An alternative to the polariser is to bracket your exposures by up to +/–2 stops around the meter reading, then check the results on the camera monitor. Because rainbows don’t last for long it makes sense to set your drive to continuous. To save time, you may decide to hand-hold the camera, but supporting your camera on a tripod and using a remote release to fire the shutter is still advisable as it will ensure your bracketed compositions are framed identically and are free of any camera movements.
In the northern hemisphere, extreme weather phenomena such as hurricanes and tornados are more common in countries at lower latitudes. Many people in southern England remember the Great Storm of 1987, which uprooted around 15 million trees, knocked out much of the National Grid, and killed 22 people across England and northern France. This was a truly freak storm, but incidences of hurricane force winds along coastal areas and tornadoes inland are occurring more frequently in the British Isles. Although scarcer and far smaller in the UK, tornados should be photographed from a safe distance, using a short telephoto lens to keep the full length of updraft tail from ground to cloud within the frame.
Of course, at this time of year snowstorms are more likely in the UK and are a welcome occurrence for many photographers. Conditions are often grey and dull when the snow is actually falling, but once it has settled and a new day begins, conditions are ideal for capturing familiar scenes now turned white.
There are few greater outdoor photo opportunities than a bright early morning after overnight snow, when the sun rises to reveal a soft white landscape, unblemished by footprints, tyre-trails and other signs of human activity. Snow creates a blank, pale canvas, emphasising the shape and line of subjects both natural and man-made. Even in densely populated cities, a heavy snowfall will block out distracting colours and urban eyesores, such as red cars parked in the street, or piles of uncollected refuse.
The best tip for shooting any location after a snowstorm is to get out early before anyone has added unwanted footprints to the scene. Camera meters are often fooled into underexposing snow scenes, so overexpose by one to two stops more than your metered reading and try several different exposure values for each shot. Compare the results on the monitor, making sure that the images you save are those that render the snow as close to white as possible. Too many excellent compositions of snow-covered scenery have been ruined by inaccurate exposures that render the snow as grey as the clouds that bore it.
Use a tripod & remote release. Whether lightning, driving rain or hail, shutter speeds of many seconds, even minutes may be required.
Study the weather forecast. Weather forecasting is a more accurate science than it used to be, and local forecasts can supply you with the information that is vital to planning your shoot.
Pack a range of lenses that give you a variety of shooting options: from a wide-angle view of a vast storm cloud, to a long telephoto lens for a tightly framed shot of distant lightning strikes or a rainbow.
Go out with a camera system that isn’t robust enough to deal with water and freezing temperatures. Use a weather-sealed DSLR or a waterproof plastic housing for your camera.
Forget to pack your filters. A polariser will help accentuate cloud detail and a grey graduate can help make storm clouds look even more moody. Also, a filter will protect your front lens from the elements.
Dress unprepared. Expect a soaking, so wear a waterproof jacket with a hood, warm boots, gloves and enough layers to keep out the coldest wind.
Weather World: Photographing the Global Spectacle by the Met Office; David & Charles; sb; £18.99
The Weather Book: Why it Happens and Where it Comes From by Diana Craig; Michael O’Mara Books; sb; £7.99
Extraordinary Weather by Richard Hamblyn; David & Charles; sb; £9.99
Clothing option: Touch screen gloves
Until recently putting on gloves meant you couldn’t use touch screen devices. Fortunately, a wide range of gloves with specially-designed, conductive fingertips are now available. These suede and knitted gloves from Totes (£20) are fully lined and use conductive thread to convey electrical impulses to touch screen devices.
Accessory option: Lightning trigger
Don’t be alarmed, this very useful device does not attract lightning! Instead, it’s a form of remote release that trips the camera shutter release whenever lightning or another brilliant light source (such as fireworks) flashes across the sky. Slide the device into the camera hotshoe and switch it on. The lightning trigger (£210) is compatible with more than 150 different models.
Camera option: Weather-sealed DSLR
Many more DSLR cameras are claiming to be weather-sealed, whereby key areas of the camera are sealed by O-rings to keep out dust and moisture. In some models, such as the Nikon D610 (£1,350), the camera can operate without malfunction in a light shower. The D610 is a full-frame DSLR with a 24.3 megapixel CMOS sensor, broadcast-quality 1080p video, 39 AF-points and built-in 6fps motor drive, all within a compact magnesium alloy body.
This story was published in the January 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine