Fall is my favorite season. Like many photographers, I get stoked about capturing blazing fall colors with big mountain landscapes in gorgeous sunrise or sunset light. Who doesn’t love beautifully lit golden aspens under deep blue skies? Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen.
Long stretches of cloudy wet weather are a reality in Alaska and over my 34 years photographing here, I had to learn to create impactful imagery suitable for tourism promotion in cloudy, wet weather. Unless it’s a downpour where you risk serious damage to your gear, grey skies, light rain, or, better yet, snow, shouldn’t mean keeping your camera put away.
Don’t get bummed out because you are not getting the grand landscapes you came for. Get out and make some grey sky weather magic! Consider it an opportunity to grow creatively. Focus less on named geographic places and features, or specific plant and animal species and simplify your subjects to just patterns and colors.
These subjects photograph well in grey skies and rain:
- Flowing water including waterfalls
- Forest interior and close-ups of forest understory
- Really dark, stormy clouds and mountain ridges with low clouds below summits
- Close-ups of animals (and people) with fall color background
6 SUGGESTIONS HOW TO MAKE IMPACTFUL FALL IMAGES ON GREY SKY AND RAINY DAYS
1. Fill the frame with patterns and/or color. Fall colors are often more saturated when wet than they are in full sun. The key to drawing maximum attention to saturated fall colors is to eliminate the things that distract from them – usually the sky. I often find this easier to fill my frame with color using telephoto lenses but with expansive colors real close to me, I can use a wide angle lens as well. My thinking is flat light, long lens.
2. Eliminate featureless white skies. Including large portions of bald, white sky really diminishes impact in the rest of the photo. Our eyes often go to the brightest part of the image. Don’t take your viewer to the least interesting part of your image – large spaces of white sky. Yes, you can crop in post processing but it’s better to crop on location, through your viewfinder. There are 2 conditions in which I include sky: 1) with rich textured and dark clouds above mountains and terrain, and 2) when low clouds and fog form below mountain peaks and other high terrain such as canyon walls.
On the technical side, it’s important to verify there is detail in your sky. Shoot HDR, use a graduated ND filter (if you have a near straight horizon), or verify with your histogram that you have detail in your sky if you are capturing it all in one frame. If you’ve lost detail in your highlights, there is nothing you can do to save the image in post processing except for sky replacement, which, if not used skillfully, creates unnatural looking images.
3. Create color and contrast separation. Separation is a key design element every good image should have. Separation makes your subject stand out from the background and can add a sense of depth to the image. In flat light I really pay attention to having visually pleasing contrasting colors and tones next to each other. With color contrast especially, having only a few really makes images pop. Too many colors create visual confusion and monochromatic images just lack interest. On the Alaska tundra in fall my favorite color combinations are what I call the condiment package – ketchup, mustard, and relish. The tundra is often ablaze with reds, yellows, and greens.
4. Polarizers make colors pop. Polarizers aren’t just for making blue skies darker and making pretty, white clouds pop. They also remove glare from wet surfaces such as foliage and water. In post processing, you can saturate colors, but dehaze or other features will not remove glare. Only polarizers do that.
5. Slow it down and let it flow. Flowing waters often make fine subjects in flat light and rain. I carry a 6-stop dark polarizer that really helps me play with creative shutter speeds and showing water motion. The best shutter speed varies with each situation and there is no one right answer for all flowing water. When working with flowing water, bracket your shutter speeds. For me, the best way to do this is to lock down my aperture (usually f/16) so my depth of field stays the same, and vary my shutter speed by changing my ISO setting. With today’s mirrorless bodies and processing tools I can get smooth landscapes at 800 ISO. Amazing! I usually start at 1/4 second and go slower from there until I find the right look.
6. Stay motivated for clearing storm light. The best light and conditions almost always happen in clearing storm scenarios, either at sunset or sunrise and often both. Even in desert locations, all day precipitation events followed by evening clearing often produce magical fog and low clouds in the morning that may not be mentioned in public forecasts. In Alaska, storms systems last for days. One of the things that keeps me motivated on successive days of grey and bleak skies is having the time to scout and know exactly where I will be when clearing storm light happens.