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Our chief photographer shares his insights.

Atmospheric Images

By Earl Nottingham

How to use fog, mist and other weather conditions to enhance your photos.

Blue skies and sunshine may be fine for most outdoor activities, but they can be visually harsh — as well as a little boring — from a photographic perspective. And yet, most photographers naturally gravitate to this easy and predictable lighting situation. Perhaps this is due to the legacy of older films and cameras that required bright sunlight to record an image, or maybe it’s just more convenient to shoot photos during those times of day when the sun is higher and hotter in the sky. Regardless, many opportunities for beautiful photos are lost simply because we tend

not to shoot under other lighting conditions. Atmospherics are those meteorological conditions which many consider to be “bad light” but have the potential to transform a photo from the mundane to the exciting.

Atmospherics can include fog, haze, mist, rain, storm clouds, sunsets, snow or lightning. You get the idea; atmospherics are anything other than an empty sky. If it is true that a picture is worth a thousand words, then atmospherics are what elevate those words into poetry. These types of weather add visual impact and mystery to any landscape, sometimes giving it a painterly quality with unique palettes of color.

Part of the difficulty in photographing atmospherics lies in their typically short-lived and transitional qualities. Many of these conditions will last only a few seconds, while most others will change within a few minutes. Certainly being in the right place at the right time helps, but having a camera at the ready at all times will also increase your odds of capturing a fleeting scene for posterity. Make sure you’re familiar with the camera’s controls before heading out into the field. When you’re trying to capture an image of a cloud formation, you probably won’t have time to pull out the operating handbook and read the instructions.

Atmospherics bring some practical concerns for protecting your photographic equipment. Moisture of one type or another is a high probability in many of the weather conditions that cause atmospherics, and digital cameras especially should be well protected against high humidity. Don’t keep your camera in an air-conditioned room or car and then suddenly take it out into a warm and humid location. You will have created your own atmospheric with a fogged lens that can take hours to unfog. Trust me on this one.

When you are working with atmospherics, as in any photo situation, try to include a focal point in the image. The focal point is something that draws the eye into the image and that helps to tell a story. In most instances, the atmospheric only acts as a backdrop or an enhancement for a main subject. For instance, your focal point could be a deer standing in a foggy, early-morning field, a windmill silhouetted against the lightning in a dramatic sky or a herd of horses on a ridge with storm clouds brewing in the background. The atmospheric and subject should complement each other in telling a story. The key is to always keep your camera ready and your mind open to the possibilities. In a minute, the scene might change completely.

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