Storm Day Photography


This post by WildSnow.com blogger  

Most sane folks are practical enough to leave the camera at home on storm days, but those of us with the highly contagious shutter bug would never consider it.

A photo taken in haste to beat a summer storm during a backcountry skiing adventure.

A photo taken in haste to beat a summer storm during a backcountry skiing adventure. 8mm f/6.3 1/600th ISO 100.

Images are easy for most photographers in places such as Montana, Colorado, Wyoming. Weather in those “high desert” states is statistically clear and dry (as we know all too well from our thinner snowpacks), and photography is easy. However, I travel and come from an area that averages 60 inches of precipitation a year. The east facing Appalachian slopes could technically be considered a tropical rainforest if not for its northern latitude. Thus I have been forced to learn a thing or two about photographing on overcast and often wet days.

The images of friends moving through an alpine environment with dark storm clouds looming in the background can be interesting (thunderstorms and snow offer amazing contrast), but they are packaged with a high danger factor and the flat light often washes the photo.

When the bright sun eludes me, my first instinct is to turn my interests towards macro. Close ups of people, pets, petals, and pebbles are fantastic. Many folks don’t realize that brilliant colors spring to life in the macro format with overcast skies. It’s like having a gigantic commercial lightbox such as the ones once used for automobile advertising images.

Very little post production was needed for this photo. It was taken in Ireland on a common dreary day. Capturing this shot was particularly challenging given that my wife and friends were verbally baiting me to move on from standing under an umbrella, fumbling with my camera, in the pouring rain. 60mm f/22 1/5th ISO 400.

On overcast days, I pack two important tools not necessarily present on other sojourns: an umbrella or extra waterproof shell and a cumbersome tripod. Use the water protection because that is the leading cause of death for cameras and the larger tripod because a light tripod is frequently too shaky (though adding weight to a tripod by hanging a stuffsack full of junk can improve stability). When producing quality close-up images, a high f-stop is required because deep depth of field is important (meaning that nearly everything should be in focus, rather than a close point being in focus with the rest blurred). However the tradeoff with a high f-stop is an even slower shutter speed, hence the tripod (even with the high tech image stabilization systems in modern cameras, hand holding a shutter speed slower than 1/30th is nearly impossible unless you’re using a wide angle lens and taking sedatives).

Furthermore on the point of f-stops, most camera/lens setups produce the best images with the least distortion around f/8, but I try to cheat that upwards to the mid-teens in macro situations and use a little wider focus than what visually appeals to me, only to crop during post production. This technique seems to yield my best results.

The true conundrum of storm day photography is that when skiing is incredible, photography is at its most difficult. In a recent trip to Japan this point came into full focus. Snow was falling, untracked and deep, day after day. My photography instincts urged me to shoot as much as possible but the conditions were anything but ideal. So after many sessions of trial and error I resigned myself to the fact of impossibly slow shutter speeds. It became obvious that the best images would result from upping the ISO slightly and either capturing a crisp background with a blurred skier or following the skier and blurring the background (I never like to increase the ISO beyond 400 because most cameras that we amateurs can afford produce significant graininess beyond this point). Without artificial light, which I am neither proficient with or a fan of, these were my only options. The two techniques still produced nice images, though not quite capturing the total essence of the moments in my opinion.

Here is an example of an in focus skier on a blurred background during a storm day. 8mm f/8 1/400th ISO 200.

Another example of the tradeoffs when natural light is not optimal. Blurred skier vs a sharp background. 8mm f/8 1/320th ISO 200.

That’s my take on photography in “full conditions,” I hope you all enjoy — please share any stormy photography tricks in the comments.

Comments

9 Responses to “Storm Day Photography”

  1. Jack August 20th, 2012 1:41 pm

    Love the electric blue-violet of the skier’s shell in the last photograph. Where were these taken, please?

  2. Caleb Wray August 20th, 2012 1:53 pm

    Thanks Jack. From top to bottom, Central Colorado, Ireland, Japan, and Japan.

  3. Sassafras1232 August 20th, 2012 4:14 pm

    Is “8mm” supposed to be the focal length? That seems impossibly wide for those shots, even on a DX body. I have never even seen a non-fisheye that wide.

  4. Caleb Wray August 20th, 2012 11:20 pm

    Sass,

    8mm is indeed the focal length. It was also a fisheye. I really like the fisheye to capture fast moving subjects on overcast days due to its ability to bring in so much natural light. With thoughtful composition and a bit of cropping, it can deliver in situations that would otherwise be impossible. You do have to be very close to the subject though (yet another tradeoff). For instance, I was on a branch just above the skier in the bottom photo. With my ability (a bit suspect), I couldn’t think of another way to capture his image on that day.

  5. Espen August 22nd, 2012 4:56 am

    Caleb
    I find it strange that you have to shoot at such high f-stops. I regularly shoot with my 14mm lense attached to a canon 1d mkII at f-3.2 or even 2.8 when required. With a DX camera and 8mm lense set to manual focus at infinity you will get at depth of field(area in focus) from 2.6ft to infinity. This should give you a lower ISO higher shutter speed and sharper images.

    Follow this link to calulate depth of field:
    http://www.dofmaster.com/dofjs.html

  6. Lou Dawson August 22nd, 2012 6:25 am

    Espen, I think Caleb was referring more to when in macro mode, as well as the fact that some lenses have noticeable defects when opened all the way up. On the other hand, you do have a point. Caleb?

  7. Caleb Wray August 22nd, 2012 1:36 pm

    Espen, you do make a good point. A lower f/stop would allow for a faster shutter speed, but the 8mm lens I was using also produces it’s best images around f/8, so again a tradeoff. I wish I has a 1d mkII, grin.

  8. Espen August 22nd, 2012 3:50 pm

    Yes I understand you dilemma here. I guess we just prioritize differently. That is part of the fun in photography, everyone sees different. The important thing is to be creative and have fun with it. I just visited your webpage. Kudos for a great layout with slideshow and gallery function. Self developed?

    In my opinion as a student my perfect bang for buck camera setup is to buy secondhand press photography equipment. My 1D mkII cost me nothing more that a new Rebel T3i. It is weatherproof and will take my (ab)use. The downside is of course the weigth. When your camerabody weighs more that your ski I know a few people in here that would shake their heads. Grin.

  9. Caleb Wray August 22nd, 2012 6:08 pm

    Thanks Espen. I have to admit that I have spent a lot of time on the internet searching out cheap photo gear as well. A 1D for the price of a T3i is an exceptional find though. And I am also guilty of a camera bag that out weighs my skis. It is worth it for me though.

    As for the website, I designed it, but I used a real programmer to build it!

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