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Photo masterclass part 12: Wet weather
It’s a mistake to assume that you need good weather to take good photos – sometimes the opposite is true. In part 12, we reveal how stormy skies and pouring rain can be your friends, bringing intriguing light, mood and emotion to your images.
We are fortunate as photographers in Britain – we have lots of wet weather. But how can that be good?
Heavy cloud, drizzle, showers and rainstorms put a stop to most people’s photography and, since camera equipment can be fragile, taking it anywhere near rain is usually considered foolhardy.
But when the going gets tough, the opportunities for picture taking increase exponentially. Those who stay indoors are missing out.
Non-photographers mistakenly believe that the best pictures are taken on sunny days with cloudless blue skies. But they couldn’t be more wrong. Bright overhead lighting produces horribly contrasty pictures with washed-out colours.
In fact, many serious photographers are prepared to wait hours and hours for the sun to disappear behind clouds. They know that cloud cover filters out a lot of the blue and ultraviolet wavelengths in daylight, making other colours appear more saturated.
Most of all, photographers love dramatic weather. Dark, stormy skies lend an air of emotion and depth that is missing from sunny, chocolate-box skies. When the heavens finally open and the rain comes, there are opportunities everywhere, from broad, sweeping landscapes to the raindrops themselves.
And finally, when the storm has passed and the rain has stopped, everything glistens – enhancing picture-taking potential even further.
In this class, we’ll stop being negative about wet weather and start getting up in the morning thinking, “Yippee, it’s raining!”
MEET THE EXPERT: JIM BRANDENBURG, USA
Wildlife photographer Jim Brandenburg has produced 19 magazine stories for National Geographic, published many best-selling books (including White Wolf and Chased by the Light) and won a multitude of awards.
“I was brought up on the prairies,” says Minnesota-based photographer Jim Brandenburg, “where extremes of weather are the norm.” He laughs when I mention the vagaries of British weather. “We experience everything from Saudi Arabian heat and tornadoes to high-Arctic cold and hail the size of grapefruits,” he says. “So, as a photographer, I’ve learned to embrace it all.”
“Bad weather for many people,” says Jim, “is good weather for me. While others are running for cover, I’m grabbing my camera gear.” He loves fog, snow and rain. He protects his camera with a simple rain jacket or an umbrella, but doesn’t get too upset if it ends up soaking wet. “Most modern cameras are surprisingly waterproof,” he says optimistically, “and they usually dry out in the end.” However, it’s probably wise to take precautions.
Jim has travelled the world taking photos, but now works mostly in his beloved Minnesota. He lives in boreal forest on the edge of a vast wilderness complete with wolves and loons. “But everyone has something interesting in their backyard,” he says.
One of Jim’s most famous pictures – Black Ducks in Rain – was taken near his home. “We were having lunch when it started pouring, so I rushed outside to photograph some white waterlilies against the clouds. I took off my shoes, rolled up my trousers and waded into the lake. Then the ducks happened by and I fired a few shots before they disappeared from sight.” His picture has become a wildlife classic – shot in the kind of weather most photographers detest.
Jim Brandenburg’s top tips for wet weather photography
- Don’t worry about your equipment
Too many photographers get caught up in the modern-day obsession with cameras. But camera equipment is far less important than we are led to believe. Many professionals occasionally go back to basics and dumb down their equipment specifically to focus on the art of wildlife photography rather than the technique – often with remarkable results.
- Work in a place you know and love
The best way to develop your creative eye (and photographic skill) is to return time and again to a place you know and love. The more intimate your knowledge of an area, the better your pictures will be. This is particularly true when shooting in wet weather, because you will be able to react quickly to get the best shots.
YOUR STEP-BY-STEP GUIDE: Mark Carwardine shows you how to apply the theory to get the perfect picture.
Work with cloud cover
- Experiment by shooting the same subject in bright sunshine and then with varying degrees of cloud cover. The differences can be subtle – flat, shadowless lighting is ideal for showing detail, for example, but if it is too dull, the colours become gloomy.
- Learn to interpret conditions as they develop, so you can anticipate moments when the light is likely to be really good. By reading clouds, for example, you can predict the weather ahead.
- Try using clouds to fill space in an otherwise empty sky. Look for attractive colours or interesting shapes.
Seek out stormy skies
- Make the most of stormy skies – when you see a storm brewing, look for something interesting to put in front of it. An otherwise mediocre scene will be transformed by a threatening sky.
- Take advantage of sunlight, or use fill-flash, to brighten your main subject and make it ‘pop’ against the dark background.
- Look for shafts of sunlight bursting through clouds, especially if they are spotlighting a tiny part of the landscape – but be careful to take your light-meter reading away from the shaft to keep it bright in the final picture.