Photographing in woodlands in Autumn in the UK is a photographer’s dream setting. The colours are just amazing. On beautifully crisp, sunny days the light streams in through the leaves and the bokeh is to die for.
Bad weather photography
But what about those days when thick black clouds have rolled in, rain is threatening and you can’t reschedule?
Well, on bad weather days you work your backside off and pull out every bit of photography knowledge you have. Like everything in photography, it’s absolutely worth it to get the shots!
That was me a couple of weeks ago
I had a family shoot in a beautifully thick, autumnal forest. So, already low light was going to be a problem. Even on a sunny day, there would be reduced light in the thick of the woods. The weather was far from ideal, with a very heavily overcast sky and it actually started raining at the end of the shoot.
Ideally, I would have liked to postpone it, but we’d already postponed from the day before and my clients couldn’t do any other day. This is the biggest challenge with photographing families on location. Especially in the UK, where you absolutely cannot rely on the weather.
What to do when panicking is not an option
As always, I arrived early to scout the area and decide exactly where we’d be photographing. It’s really important to have a plan, especially when weather conditions are not ideal. The more prepared you are the more you can concentrate on taking great photos.
When it has been raining for days and you’re photographing in thick woods the most important thing is to find non-muddy areas.
Towards the end of the shoot when the first drops of rain started to fall. Because the boys were sitting still for a moment, I could lower the shutter speed to cope with the low light. ISO 640, f5, 1/200
Look for the light
When the sun is shining brightly it is really easy to see shadows, but with bad weather photography, when it’s so overcast that you cannot see a single shadow, what do you do?
One popular trick is to squinch up your eyes a bit so that you can’t clearly see the scene, but can see light and dark. This has never worked for me, so I don’t do it. Maybe I’m not doing it right, but I don’t think there are that many ways to squinch up your eyes.
Another method is to hold out a flat hand with your thumb on top and your little finger on the bottom. Angle your hand fractionally so that your palm is facing upwards slightly. Now turn full circle and watch the light on your palm. When your palm is lightest, it will be pointing in the direction of the light source. In this case, the hidden sun.
Now that you know where the sun is, you know the direction in which your subject needs to be facing. In low light conditions you don’t want the light behind your subjects as their faces will be in shadow. When shooting on a sunny day, you do want the light behind your subject so that they don’t have harsh shadows falling across their face. But not in a dark forest, on an overcast day, where you need to suck out every little speck of light possible.
The next thing is to make sure that there will be a good background behind your subjects if they are facing into the light. If not, move on and find another spot.
Obviously, when it’s so dark you’ll want to shoot in a clearing where more light can get through. Bear in mind that your subjects need to be facing into the clearing and the light, rather than into the forest where it is dark.
Camera settings for bad weather photography
You’ll need to bump up your ISO, open your aperture and set your shutter speed to as low as the situation can handle.
This family had two young boys who were excited and exploring at speed, as young ones do.
I believe in photographing children naturally to capture their exuberance and personality, so I don’t make them stand still and smile at the camera. Much. Maybe just a couple of times I’ll trick them into this, but the rest of the shoot they’re free to have fun.
Shutter speed considerations in bad weather
As a result, I have to have a shutter speed of at least 1/250 so that they’re not blurred. Even then, if they wave their hands about, they will have blurry smudges for hands. So, if they’re particularly busy, I have to shoot at 1/320 upwards.
Read more about shutter speed: The exposure triangle – what role does shutter speed play?
Bad weather photography can require a much higher ISO setting than you would normally use during the day. ISO 2500, f5.6, 1/250
Aperture considerations in bad weather
Because I was photographing four people who were not always standing right next to each other, I had to constantly vary my aperture. When two or more were in shot my aperture was at F8. I couldn’t go smaller, because of the need to maximise the light entering the lens.
When I photographed the boys individually and together, or the parents together, I was able to stop down to F4 to maximise the light hitting the sensor. I didn’t go down to F2.8 though, because of the changing distance between two subjects on the move. The depth of field would have been too narrow to ensure both subjects were sharp.
Read more about aperture: The exposure triangle – what role does aperture play
ISO considerations in bad weather
Because of these limitations, I varied my ISO during the shoot from 640 to even as high as 2200. Noise from ISO is significantly better than noise caused by an under exposed photograph being brightened on the computer in post production.
Further reading on ISO: The exposure triangle – what role does ISO play?
ISO 1000, f3.5, 1/250 Focusing on the children running back to the parents, who are out of focus, shows a lovely moment of family connection.
After a shoot like this, you have the added bonus of knowing that you’ve had your exercise for the day and burnt off enough calories to counteract all that sedentary editing time at the computer.
Bad weather photography is challenging, but it can be so much fun!
Sure, as photographers we’re always chasing after gorgeous light. With good reason – beautiful light makes for beautiful photographs. But don’t let bad light stop you. When you’re staring down the barrel of a Great British winter, if you don’t embrace the conditions, you’ll find you won’t take a photo until lambing season starts. That’s way too long for your camera to be in hibernation!
PS – my clients loved their photos! Happy photographer.
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