"If you don't like the weather in New England, just wait a few minutes..." -Mark Twain
Obviously, my post title today playfully paraphrases the famous humorist, as I believe his quote most definitely applies to the Sunshine State as well.
I have never believed that there is a single perfect type of weather for outdoor photography. That's a myth that tends to be passed around more by beginners and hobbyists than professionals. I love all kinds of weather, have shot in all kinds of weather, and have learned that all kinds of weather have their advantages and challenges, and all can be "perfect" for what I shoot most: fashion and portrait.
From an artistic standpoint, I break down the weather for my outdoor shoots into five basic types:
full sun - partly cloudy - partly sunny - overcast - rain
Yeah, I know, it doesn't take a genius to figure this out. In fact, I seriously doubt I'm telling you anything you do not already know. Still, sometimes one needs to explain useful things by first being a master of the obvious. I like starting points that everyone can relate to.
My real message is this: to better your craft, you need to try to understand how photographic elements such as light, shadows, contrast, brightness range, color, tonality, and detail are determined and affected by the various types of weather.
As far as I'm concerned, there are two major factors when dealing with the weather. One is in the previsualization, or planning stage of a shoot. I have many different photo ideas that are particularly suited to specific types of weather and outdoor lighting. Even when I use a flash on location, I still consider the general scene illumination from the sun and sky when I figure out how to set up a shot.
The second factor, and this is probably a much more needed skill for a shooter, is to understand how to change set ups and technique at the drop of a hat when weather conditions are different or change quickly from what you had originally planned. You shouldn't just have a Plan B, but also a C, D, and E, depending on what you encounter and how it evolves.
Not only can you learn to use this to your advantage when you plan the looks and style of your shots, often pairing image ideas to the existing weather conditions on location, but more importantly, you eventually realize you can adapt to weather that is volatile and quickly changing without having a nervous breakdown on the set. Those of you (like me) who shoot outside in Florida know exactly what I mean.
This confidence of handling whatever big momma nature throws at you becomes much more important if your goal is to shoot commercial work, where budget or time constraints often mean scheduling a reshoot is not an option.
Don't be fooled by those who only define professional based on the style or quality of someone's work. Sometimes, especially in the eyes of a client, the only factor that makes someone "professional" is that they come through with the goods: they deliver a promised product on time without making excuses.
My mantra has always been this: the more bad habits and mistakes you can remove from your shooting, the higher the quality of your work will be. Knowing how to recognize and work in various types of weather almost automatically improves your shooting. It will certainly make you more professional and reliable.
What follows is a mix of images, some of which I planned and waited for a specific type of sky and light, some of which I simply looked at what I was getting at the time, and set up and shot accordingly.
I actually don't encounter this too often in my neck of the woods. I'm a cloud guy at heart, and very thankful that Florida usually offers a dazzling array of fluffy white stuff in all shapes, sizes, and colors, especially in the summer. Still, from time to time, whoops...there it is. Nothing but clear blue sky. So, I use it, and by that I mean I try to darken my skies a bit to give them a decent level of color saturation. This may mean underexposing a tad, or shooting multiple exposures to do an HDR effect, or burning the image in post. For me, plain blue skies are bad enough, but plain white skies are far worse.
Unless you live in an area with a lot of air pollution, clear skies means you will always get bright directional light with stark shadows. This graphic style can be used to great effect, with shadow play pretty much determined by the time of day and the angle of the sun.
Partly cloudy is what most of us will get a lot of the time, depending of course, on the time of year and the time of day. In Florida, I can often do a 360° and find different cloud coverage in different parts of the sky. It's usually not too hard to find a patch of blue that is mostly sunny. Partly cloudy skies have a normal or average feel to them for obvious reasons: not as empty as cloudless, not nearly as exciting as dramatic storm clouds.
I like partly cloudy skies when I'm shooting lifestyle or traditional environmental/outdoor portraits where I don't want the sky to distract too much from the subject in the shot. As you can see from these examples, sometimes pleasant is just right.
Partly sunny, or mostly cloudy (if you like to play with semantics) is also very typical in Florida in the summer. In my book, that doesn't mean there is no direct sunlight or brightness in the sky, it simply means there are a lot of clouds out there. And depending on the wind, they might be moving all over the place, including covering all or part of the sun, just not for very long. So a lot of times this becomes a game. I meter often, and prepare to change my camera settings to match the light. I'm speaking, of course, about shooting on manual, which I almost always do. If you use a priority mode, your life may be a bit easier.
Still, quickness has its virtues (as does patience) to get the shot to look the way you want or planned. I tend to be stubborn that way. If I picture specular light in my mind, I want direct illumination. If I'm thinking diffused, I'll wait for the light to get softer. Hopefully, we all find a way of working that suits our style and partly sunny skies has a little something for everyone.
Overcast can mean a lot of things. Again, semantics. What I mean are flat gray cloudy skies that remove the blue sky and direct sunlight from the equation. This is not the same as a white sky caused by overexposing the scene on a bright, sunny day. On overcast days, your subjects will be bathed in a beautiful soft light, contrast will also be soft, colors can actually be vivid, and most importantly, image details will be at a maximum, as the brightness range will be compressed.
Where I live, you cannot depend on this type of sky. Some days it is just there. With that in mind, I always have a plan or idea to setup and shoot when I know there will be no hard shadows. Often it doesn't matter, but there are times when that style is much more emotional, melancholy, or even romantic. I may use very weather-specific wardrobe or props to take advantage of the low contrast and increase in image detail.
I'm going to lump rain and heavy dramatic clouds together as they are often both there at the same time. As many of you have discovered, it only takes the blink of an eye to go from a majestic backdrop for your scene to a torrential downpour that threatens to ruin everything, including expensive equipment.
I won't address actually shooting in heavy rain, as up to this point in my career, I can't really remember ever doing that. For anything that involves a lot of time and work on styling, hair, and makeup, when the rains come, I call timeout and we wait. Or move indoors to shoot. Or reschedule.
Don't get me wrong. I love the rain - as a person. Love rainy days, especially when I lived by the ocean. Love being out in the rain. It just doesn't seem to mix with my photography, though. Maybe as I get further into filmmaking, I'll decide to shoot rain scenes, you know, for the drama and emotion. Until then...
Still, a few drops never killed anyone, and many times (again depending on the wind) a light sprinkle will come and go as you shoot. And come and go. And...well, you get the idea.
If you find yourself in these kinds of conditions and situations, you should really develop a sort of fire drill that gets your crew (and model and wardrobe) in and out of the moisture as quickly as possible. You should also have a game plan if you decide you want to work in a light rain, making sure everyone knows how to keep the gear and talent as dry as possible. Time is money, and wasted time is a photographer's enemy. A little forethought and talking to those working with you on a shoot ahead of time goes a long way. It may make the difference between a complete washout (pun intended) where nothing is accomplished, or ultimately being productive.
So, you see what I did? I started off with a handful of mundane comments you all figured you knew all about. Then, as I added details and situations and all kinds of good stuff you need to consider to create really strong photos, hopefully I made you realize things are often not as simply as they seem, and circumstances can change in an instant. You need to learn to be ready, and adapt.
Trust me, all it takes is screwing up even one commercial or personal shoot because of a weather condition you didn't even consider, and you'll find you'll start taking something the average person takes for granted much more seriously. I hope I helped...
'Photo Asylum 101' is a regular feature of Steve's blog that offers mini-tutorials and real-life advice on photography and other industry-related topics.
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All photos ©Steven Paul Hlavac. All rights reserved.