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When the weather outside is frightful: Photography rain or shine

(Editor’s Note: We welcome Jamie MacDonald, an Olympus Visionary and Vanguard Pro living in Michigan. With a focus on nature and wildlife, Jamie says his motivations are to connect viewers to the emotional state he was in when his images were created. Learn more about Jamie and follow his adventures at jmacdonaldphoto.com or on Instagram).

When my friends at Photofocus reached out to see if I’d be interested in writing about shooting when it is raining or storming I just couldn’t resist! Having spent the last couple years shooting landscapes in these conditions here in my home state of Michigan, I knew I was ready to share my experiences and some tips for making the best out of “bad weather.”

Preparing

Before we just run out the door to shoot in the weather that keeps everyone else inside we need to get a few things ready first!

To start, let’s make sure the camera gear you are using is weather sealed. Many camera manufacturers offer some line of product that offers protection against rain, snow and dust. Just make sure that not only is your camera body weather sealed, but your lenses too! Without both being sealed, you are open to problems. If you do not own a weather sealed camera body and lenses you can always opt for a “rain coat” for your gear. There are many options available for all systems, and they can be found at your local camera store or favorite online retailer.

Gear selection

Now that we’ve determined your equipment will survive some time in the rain or snow, we need to figure out what gear you should be bringing. I find that as a landscape and nature photographer my “go to” lens is usually the M.Zuiko 7-14mm F2.8 PRO lens. This lens is an ultra wide rectilinear lens with a protruding front element.

This front element can be tough to work with in the rain as keeping it free from raindrops is a constant battle due to the lack of lens hood for it. So if shooting landscapes, consider something with a lens hood to help mitigate rain on the front element. Or just be prepared with lots of lens cloths!

Now all that is left is your camera body, but we’ve already made sure that is good to go so on to the next subject … and that is? Choosing your subject.

Subjects

As I mentioned above my primary focus when shooting in rainy or stormy weather is landscapes. There is something about that connection between weather and an open landscape that draws me in. But I don’t stop there. In my hunt for great landscape locations to shoot rain and storms, I often find myself looking for strong focal elements to work into the scenes as well. For me, here in Michigan it may be an old barn in the countryside, or a lighthouse and pier along the shores of Lake Michigan.

©2013 Jamie A. MacDonald

The choice of places and subjects that you use will depend on factors such as the direction from which weather typically approaches your location, basic geography and ease of access to the locations you choose.

Here in Michigan, inclement weather generally approaches from the west or southwest. Since I know this I have spent time scouting locations that I find interesting and have good geographic and man made features for me to use in my photos but also let me stay ahead of the weather and photograph it as it approaches my location.

©2016 Jamie A. MacDonald
©2016 Jamie A. MacDonald

These locations are not just close to home either! Some are far away for when I know I have time to get into position as weather approaches. A little tip here is to download not just weather forecasting apps like Underground, but to also have a radar app or two on your phone as well.

The ones I use are NOAA Hi-Def Radar and Radarscope. It’s great to be able to see the direction and intensity of weather, for both photographic and safety’s sake!

©2018 Jamie A. MacDonald

Up till now we’ve covered most aspects necessary for shooting in the rain or other “bad” weather. But we’re missing one very critical step!

Settings

My settings for shooting in stormy weather fall into two camps. He first, and most common is to bracket my shots. Bracketing, or exposure bracketing involves shooting a sequence of images with varying exposure levels. For example, I will often set my camera to bracket three photos at +/- 3 EV. So what I end up with is a neutral exposure which is your typical exposure, one at +3 EV and a final shot at -3 EV.

The +3 EV gives me an over-exposed image, which brings out the detail in the shadows. The -3 EV underexposed imaged ensures no areas have highlights overexposed and lost.

These three images can then be combined or merged in Lightroom or other software to create a photo that has a much wider dynamic range. This is often referred to as HDR. But don’t worry! HDR doesn’t have to mean wildly over processed images. If you stay conservative in your processing you can easily get very realistic images like the one below.

©2018 Jamie A. MacDonald

I said I typically shoot one of two ways in these conditions, and the second way is long exposures. I have a method of doing long exposures that is exclusive to Olympus cameras that allows for easy capture of lightning without overexposing the image, and it is called Live Composite. But if you are not an Olympus user it will be as simple as setting your camera to bulb mode and running exposures (there may be some trial and error to determine the proper exposure time) to capture lighting.

One of the cool things about this approach is that you will get some great motion in the clouds, and lightning emanating from them.

©2016 Jamie A. MacDonald

A few more settings to keep in mind for shooting in these conditions are going to be aperture, and ISO. I personally prefer to shoot stopped down just a little bit. Enough to give decent depth, but open enough to keep my shutter speeds fast enough to avoid blur when not doing long exposures. So this equates to about f/5.6. My ISO settings may shift slightly higher than the base ISO of 200 found on my cameras. I try to adjust the ISO to help regulate the shutter speed to avoid blur, again when not doing long exposures. So from time to time I may be shooting up around ISO 400 to ISO 800.

Now with some of the basics covered it is time to head out and take the information here, build upon it, put your own creative spin on it and make images outside in the rain and storms when everyone else is staying inside missing these great moments.

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