|Out in the Storm
by Jim McGee
You've finally traveled to that spot you always wanted to visit. When the alarm clock goes off you jump out of bed and look out the window and - it's raining, cold, windy, and generally nasty. You turn on the Weather Channel and they're saying there's a storm warning posted. Heavy weather is forecasted for the rest of the day.
Upon hearing this you should:
The correct answer folks is D. The grumbling is optional.
There's Drama in Heavy Weather
Puddles of rainwater create surreal reflections of the city and it's lights and sharp images of people or buildings against those surreal reflections can make for great shots. But if you spot a cool looking reflection don't settle for just shooting the reflection alone. Be patient. Wait for the right person, car, or thing to enter your frame to add interest. Look for brightly dressed individuals to stand out against the gray light who will pop out of the image.
Snow can dramatically change the look of the city, softening hard edges, and drawing you in. This is especially true around the holidays when you can combine fresh snow and Holiday decorations to create iconic holiday images. With snow however your window of opportunity is short. Fresh snow gives a cityscape a clean fresh look. But in short order the effects of people, cars, and trucks will change that fresh landscape into a gritty dirty mess.
Storms Make for Dramatic Skies
Snowstorms, thunderheads, hurricanes, and tornados can all make for dramatic skies. This is particularly true if you're in a location where you can shoot those skies against a dramatic landscape.
Nighttime offers another interesting possibility - shooting lightning. The idea is to hold your shutter open for long exposures at the peak of the storm hoping that lightning will strike while the shutter is open. There is a real element of luck here. You may expose a whole roll of film and not capture anything interesting or you may take one frame and get the shot of your life. The trick is to expose a lot of film while the storm is passing. The more shots you have the better your chances of getting something really good on film (or in memory for you digital guys).
Be Patient, Watch for Clearing Light
This kind of changing light is especially common in mountain storms where clouds can change altitude as well as position.
The passing of a storm can also affect the quality of light. A storm can seemingly wash away haze and mist leaving behind clear sharp air that allows greater sharpness and depth of field in your landscapes.
Bracket Some photographers have a real aversion to bracketing. It's almost as if you're insulting them by asserting they can't get the proper exposure. They can have their ego. After all isn't the "best" photographer the one who brings back the image?
In the kinds of light we're talking about there is an amazing range of light levels. Far more than you can capture on film or digitally. If the light is changing quickly and there's a really great opportunity at hand I'll bracket my exposures to make sure I capture that light. Often times it's one of those over or under exposed images that brings out a detail that makes the image.
Proper footwear is especially important in bad weather. You want your feet to stay dry and warm and you want to make sure you'll have good traction. It's hard to get good pictures when you're falling on your butt!
Being prepared also means protecting your gear. Pro-level cameras are built to deal with the elements but even they don't take kindly to water inside film backs or in mirror boxes. Digital cameras are even less forgiving about water getting in, around, or on, the image sensor. Your best bet for really wet conditions is an underwater housing that will keep your camera dry and safe. A low tech option is to cut a hole in the bottom of an over-sized freezer bag, slip your lens through the hole, and secure it with a rubber band. You stick your hands in through the top of the bag or even work the controls through the bag - keeping your camera dry.
You'll need to make sure that your camera bag is waterproof as well. If it's not cover it with a trash bag or with an all-weather cover (available from several manufacturers).
Heavy snows can mean that it's a lot harder to hike back out of a location than it was hiking in. They can also change the look of the land, obscuring landmarks, and making trails difficult to follow. If you're in the mountains storms can come up quickly and white out conditions can be especially dangerous.
Thunderstorms can mean flash floods. Shooting up at a landscape from a dry wash might seem like a good idea, but a storm that's miles away can produce a torrent of water rushing down a wash or small streambed. If storms are all around you avoid these low areas.
Being safe also means learning about the area you're shooting. Out west places like Zion Narrows and Antelope Canyon are famous for their beauty. But thunderstorms far away from you, well beyond your ability to see them, mean sudden flash floods in the canyons. Every year hikers die in these beautiful locations when checking the weather or checking with the park service would have alerted them to the danger.
In snow country it's also important to watch the weather and to let someone know where you're going. Better yet don't hike in alone and if you're hiking into the backcountry check with local authorities about avalanche warnings - and take them seriously…
Driving can also be dicey in storm conditions. Falling tree braches, low visibility and ice-covered roads are all potential hazards you may need to deal with. It may seem like common sense but if you're in an unfamiliar rental car take a few minutes before you head out to locate wipers, headlights, heat, and defrosters.
If you're driving to a location to shoot have a good map and take a few minutes to get familiar with your route before you leave the parking lot. If you drive into a particularly nasty stretch you don't want to be blind and searching for the wipers as you drive past your turn.
It's simple, while everyone else was back in the hotel they were out there. When you're out there enough you get lucky.