An Introduction to Weather for Landscape and Nature Photographers

Benjamin Williamson
Understanding weather patterns and cloud formations can greatly improve your outdoor photography.

Many of the best landscape and nature photographers, even those who aren’t total weather nerds, follow the weather. Like most aspects of photography, especially when pursued as a personally expressive and creative endeavor, there are no hard or fast rules when it comes to incorporating knowledge of weather into your workflow. Going against the grain and photographing a location in conditions that others avoid can often yield great results. What matters are your intentions. Knowing what the weather may do can help you explore your ideas about your subject and the landscape with greater depth and often stronger emotion, leading to work that communicates your intentions effectively.

 

Weather and Light

The most fundamental element of photography, light, is greatly influenced by weather in outdoor photography. Understanding how light is affected by humidity, cloud cover and precipitation can help you plan your shoots, as well as react to situations as they unfold before you. Some of the most interesting and unique lighting situations come about because of interesting and unique weather. 

Clouds
From perfectly clear to totally overcast, clouds, or lack thereof, can have a profound impact on our primary light source, the sun. 

Take overcast skies for example. Uniform overcast can act as a giant softbox, casting an even light over the landscape. This is especially useful in shooting forest scenes and waterfalls, where dappled sunlight streaming through the trees creates distracting hot spots and too much contrast. However, when it comes to a grand landscape or scenic overlook, most photographers avoid including a flat gray, cloud-filled sky in the composition because it is uninteresting, and often distracting because of its brightness. Of course, there are always exceptions to these rules, and when clouds have interesting textures or when interesting clouds move through mountainous terrain, the resulting light and atmosphere can be quite conducive to making impactful images. 

The opposite situation, a complete lack of clouds, can also prove challenging when photographing landscapes. How many times have you heard someone say, “It’s a beautiful day, you must be getting great photos,” when in actuality you are scorning the cloud-free skies. One way to take advantage of the directional light from the sun, while avoiding a boring sky is to photograph from an elevated vantage point looking down on the landscape without including the sky. This is especially useful near the golden hours when directional light casts long shadows and therefore effectively conveys the three-dimensionality of forms and textures. There are other situations, such as being deep in a slot canyon with sunlight reflecting off the walls, where perfectly clear skies are actually highly desirable to open up the deep shadows. 

Often, the sweet spot for most outdoor photography is to have partly or mostly cloudy skies. Many landscape photographers like to take advantage of the directional light of the sun while having clouds to create interesting shapes, forms, and textures in our skies. While photographing during the daytime with partly cloudy skies can be effective, most outdoor photographers prefer to shoot during the golden hours. 

One of the most important lessons I want to stress to you is that you need a clear window of sky on the horizon where the sun is either rising from or setting into in order to get the best low angle of light and spectrum of hues. How many times has a bank of clouds on the horizon snuffed out a promising sunrise or sunset? This is a common mistake I see photographers make. They shoot sunrise with a departing weather system, in which clouds on the eastern horizon block the rising sun, or sunset with an incoming system where clouds on the western horizon block the setting sun. Remember, it’s oncoming storms at sunrise and departing storms at sunset that are most productive in locations since weather moves predominantly west to east. There are small exceptions to this rule, and one large one: Weather in the tropics moves from east to west. 

Mountains often create their own clouds. When air moves over a mountain range, it’s pushed upward into relatively cooler air where it condenses. That’s why you’ll often find clouds banked up on the upwind side of a mountain range. Clouds moving over and through mountains can create beautiful atmosphere and drama. Think of ragged clouds streaking around tall rugged peaks. Then, visualize breaks in the clouds letting in light and simultaneously obscuring parts of the scene while revealing others. It can be quite dramatic. Mountains often act to wring out the moisture from these clouds as they pass, and sinking air downwind causes them to dissipate. That’s why downwind of high mountain ranges we often find deserts.

Regarding which types of clouds most often create brilliant sunrises and sunsets, I’ve found that high and mid-level clouds do a much better job at catching light because they sit higher above the ground, allowing more light which highlights the underside of the cloud structure in brilliantly colorful hues. In my experience low clouds either catch very little light for a brief period, or more often, act to block the light. Once you understand the weather patterns to look for, you can take advantage of the situations where you have that clear window on the horizon for light to enter thus creating the magical lighting situations you see in many pro landscape photographer’s images. 

Humidity
One of the most visually effective elements to take advantage of when creating a landscape image is humidity. This is not taken into account by many landscape photographers, but it can be extremely useful because increased humidity creates a sense of depth. This occurs because increased humidity can make objects in the foreground stand out with greater contrast resulting in darker blacks, while objects in the distance appear to recede by having lower contrast and more washed out tones. This is often most evident when shooting a grand landscape with many layers, often with an elevated perspective and little obstruction, but the same can be applied to smaller scenes with heavy mist and fog.  

Fog and Mist
Fog can be a landscape photographer’s best friend. Fog forms when warm air is suddenly cooled to the point of condensation, also known as the dew point. On land, fog often forms in fields and valleys at night and in early morning as the land radiates the heat it accumulated the previous day while cold night air comes in above. This is especially true when humidity is higher from lush vegetation and earlier rain or mist. One way to predict when fog is likely to form is to use a website or an app that gives the dew point value. When the temperature reaches the dew point, a situation also known as 100% humidity, fog is likely to form. 

You can use heavy fog and mist to your advantage by using it to eliminate distracting backgrounds. When all you can see is just what is right in front of you, then you can isolate those objects and create a much more effective image than you might have otherwise been able to with clear visibility. My favorite way to take advantage of fog and mist is to photograph it with sunlight streaming through. To capture this, you have to be on the edge. Sometimes you can place yourself in a position just beside or inside of it, but I think it’s even better if you can find a way to be just above it. 

A unique optical phenomenon called a fogbow can appear when you are standing in a layer of fog with the sun shining through at a low angle. Just like a rainbow, a fogbow appears in the opposite direction of the sun. Unlike a rainbow, a fogbow doesn’t have a lot of bright colors. It will appear as a bright white semi-circular band. 

Small bodies of water like lakes and rivers often vent steam on cold mornings because their water is relatively warmer than the air. When it gets extremely cold, even the ocean can create a dramatic mist called sea smoke. I love shooting mist rising off the lakes and rivers in New England on cold fall mornings, as well as sea smoke by the ocean in the deepest winter. The trick is to find a spot where you can shoot over or into the mist with directional light entering the scene. In some cases, especially in the river valleys, the fog becomes too thick and completely obscures any sunlight from entering. 

Photographers on the Pacific coastline of the US and here in Maine are familiar with a different process that creates fog, an inversion. Instead of forming when air radiates from warm water into cold air, this fog is created when warm air passes over relatively colder water, inverting the normal temperature profile of decreasing values with increasing elevation. When occurring over the ocean, this is often called a marine layer. It can roll onshore for days, or be kept just offshore by heat from the land during the day until late afternoon, when it swoops in and either extinguishes a promising sunset, or creates a wonderful mood and atmosphere if you are close to the edge and the sun is burning through the fog. If possible, you can try to position yourself above the fog. You’ve probably seen this in photos of the Golden Gate Bridge with just the tops of the towers sticking out. While both processes result in the air temperature matching the dew point and creating condensation, I’ve found that cold air over warm, smaller bodies of water is more effective for photography because it often creates a lower fog that lets in more light. 

Inversions also occur on land. This can happen for a number of reasons, such as when cold ocean air comes in below a layer of warm air on land, as described above. Another way this can occur is with a warm front, where a wedge of cold air at the surface is slowly eroded by a warmer air mass coming in above. One of the most visually exciting inversions occurs when cold air gets trapped in a valley, causing clouds and fog to form at elevations below the surrounding mountains. When viewed from above, one gets the impression of floating on a sea of soft clouds. Often surrounding peaks stick out like islands above the clouds. What a beautiful sight that can be! 

Precipitation
Falling rain and snow when seen from a distance can take on beautiful shapes and forms, especially when they are windswept over oceans, valleys, and deserts. When that precipitation is overhead and we are close to the edge, light can enter the scene and interact in beautiful ways. Looking into the sun, you can get an intense, diffuse glow. When the sun is behind you and it is raining, you can get a rainbow. However, when you are entirely enveloped deep inside an area of precipitation, the light will flatten and all but the closest objects will become obscured.

Snow adds a lot to any winter scene. Without snow, the landscape is often a drab brown and the ground looks awfully sad with lots of dead grass, reeds, and branches. Deep snow eliminates these distractions. Mountains also appear much more impressive with snow covered peaks. Timing fresh snow and beautiful light can be a challenge, as pristine conditions have a way of fading quickly due to strong winds or melting. Capturing snow while it is falling will usually only occur in complete overcast, but you can take advantage of these conditions and render the scene into an almost pointillistic interpretation, looking like a Georges Seurat painting if the snow is falling softly. If it is windy, blowing snow and spindrifts can turn a mundane scene into a very exciting one.

Most photographers avoid rain at all costs in fear of harming their gear. Let me tell you from experience, your gear is much tougher than you think. Shooting in heavy rain isn’t going to be very productive, but light rain and mist can offer great conditions for a variety of scenes. I highly recommend purchasing a protective sleeve for your camera body to take advantage of the unique photographic opportunities that wet weather can provide. 

Storms
Storms create some of the most challenging, but also rewarding conditions for landscape and nature photographers. I love a good storm, and I’ll bet many of you do, too. When storms are in the forecast, I try to think of locations that I know of that I may want to capture with dramatic light and interesting cloud formations, wind and waves, lightning and rainbows. Strong winds can stir up sand and dirt, snow and water, creating textures in the atmosphere that just aren’t present on calm days. When the storm is approaching or departing, the contrast of bright  sunlight shining on your foreground with dark, foreboding skies above isn’t just dramatic, it’s also good storytelling. While you can sometimes make interesting photographs inside a storm, the edges of incoming or departing storms are where I like to focus most of my attention. It also happens to be safer photographing storms that aren’t on top of you. My wife likes that. 

Here's an example of an image taken on the edge of a bank of clouds at sunrise. Canon 6D, Canon 24-105L, 32mm, 0.8 sec. @f/11, ISO 100

 Photo ©Benjamin Williamson

Weather and Mood

Instead of simply seeking the moments of maximum drama, color, and intensity, we can use the weather to express other feelings and ideas. Serenity and calmness can be conveyed in a picture of a perfectly still reflection in a mountain lake or an image with gently falling snow. How about swirling mists to communicate a sense of mystery? A colossal sunset to communicate awe and wonder? An electric storm to communicate energy and excitement? Brooding emotions with ominous skies and dark tones? There is no limit to using weather to express ideas and metaphors. Be creative!

A cold mist and strong winds communicate the harshness that mariners can face. Sony a7r2, Canon 100-400L, 105mm, 1/125 sec. @f/5, ISO 100

 Photo ©Benjamin Williamson

Resources - Apps and Websites

My students always ask: What app will tell me when and where to be to capture the most interesting photos? Basically, what’s the shortcut? The truth is that no one app is going to give you all the information you need to make informed decisions about incorporating weather into your shooting plans. There are notoriously unreliable apps like Skyfire and Sunsetwx that portend to tell you exactly when and where there will be a colorful sunrise or sunset. Based on what I’ve heard from friends who use these, they are accurate about 20% of the time. A basic understanding of cloud patterns will help you predict colorful sunrises and sunsets with much more accuracy. And besides, there’s more to life, and photography, than colorful sunrises and sunsets! 

Meteoblue – www.meteoblue.com 

Meteoblue has some of the most useful weather information for photographers in an easy-to-understand format. I start by looking at the extended forecast to pinpoint areas of general interest that I might be looking for in future explorations, like storms and fog. What I like the most about this app is the Meteogram, where I pay close attention to the vertical distribution of clouds. I like to see high and sometimes mid level clouds as opposed to low clouds, and I like to see them at the junctures between day and night if I’m hoping to capture dramatic golden hour light. 

GOES Satellite Viewers – weather.msfc.nasa.gov/GOES/ 

This is the site I use when I want to check out current cloud conditions. I look at both infrared and visible wavelengths. Infrared shows important information about the height of the clouds. Bright whites, reds, and yellows denote very high, cold clouds.  This is important because in many instances, the taller the clouds are, the better they are at catching light when the sun is at low angles. Remember that low clouds often act to block sunlight. Infrared doesn’t show these low clouds very well, because their warmth isn’t too far from that of the land masses beneath them, which eliminates the contrast that helps us to differentiate land from clouds. This is why looking at visible satellite information is useful: when the sun hits the clouds, we can distinguish them from the land because they are so reflective. The visible satellite information also shows fog. The major drawback of visible satellites? It doesn’t work at night. 

When looking at the satellite data display, I look at both the current frame, then I animate a loop which shows the trend of the cloud movement over the past 2-3 hours. This way, I can anticipate where clouds may go and plan accordingly. 

Ventusky app

This app gives the user a very good idea of the vertical distribution of clouds as well as the aerial coverage and provides trends for forecasting cloud cover. I particularly appreciate the fact that you can separate cloud cover into high, mid, and low layers. While the Meteoblue site is helpful, I actually prefer to see cloud layers overlaid onto a small regional map because that gives me an idea of not only the aerial coverage of various cloud layers, but also trends as I look at movement in increments of several hours. 

Windy.com 

Windy has much of the same information you find in other weather apps, with one very important addition, webcams. I like to check webcams whenever possible to monitor conditions on the ground in real time at locations I’m either interested in traveling to, or where weather headed my way is coming from.

Magic Seaweed

Magic Seaweed is my go-to resource for wave height forecasts. You can enter a location you would like to visit and check out the predicted heights of waves over the next 7 days. Big waves are a ton of fun to shoot. There’s often a fine line between being in a storm with huge waves, which isn’t particularly photogenic or much fun to shoot because of all the water in the air, and just as the storm passes. At this point the clearing air makes photography much more productive, but the waves also quickly die down.

Sea Smoke is one of my favorite weather phenomena. It has to be extremely cold. Canon Rebel t2i, EF-18-55, 18mm, 1/15 sec. @ f/8, ISO 100

 Photo ©Benjamin Williamson

Tying It All Together

How do I use all of this to plan a shoot? I take any weather forecast beyond 5 days with a grain of salt. That said, I do start looking at the long range forecast when I’m thinking about big storms, cold snaps, and other conditions I’m interested in. At about 3 days out, I’ll start to take things more seriously. If I’m hoping to capture colorful golden hour light, I’ll look at Ventusky for cloud patterns, watching especially for clouds moving in at sunrise or departing at sunset. I’ll look for fog and mist for certain subjects. I’ll look for clear skies for night photography. If it’s winter, I’ll be watching for snowstorms and hoping that we’ll get a ton of snow. If it’s summer, I’ll be watching for thunderstorms. The day before a shoot, I’ll usually try to solidify my plans in regards to locations I want to target based on conditions. I’ll pull up Meteoblue to check conditions down to the hour. Then the morning of a shoot, I’ll check conditions in real time looking at the GOES Satellite viewer as well as radar, animating them both to view movement. If it looks like the plans I made the day before aren’t going to pan out as I hoped they would, I will make last minute adjustments. I really do sometimes follow the weather above all other considerations.

I hope that you keep these things in mind next time you go out. The rewards of a deeper understanding of what we are trying to capture are evident not only when it comes to the subjects we are photographing, but also the conditions we capture them in.

Benjamin Williamson

Benjamin Williamson is one of Out of Chicago’s diverse team of world-class photographers. To learn more about Benjamin and our photography conferences he’s teaching at, click here.

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