Photo Tip: Photograph Storm Light for Dramatic Photos
The hike to Upper Kinney Lake in the Toiyabe National Forest was relatively short and easy, and it was sunny and clear when my wife Carol and I left the trailhead. Perfect. (We have a track record of it always raining when we go backpacking.) About halfway through the trip Carol looked up at the sky and scoffed: “Ha! Didn’t get us this time!”
Within a few minutes of picking a campsite the clouds started rolling in from the east. Uh, oh. We had just finished setting up the tent when the first big, fat raindrops started coming down. Shoot. Then the hail started. And not nice little hail, but big, penny-sized hail that hurt when it hit you – and it was coming down hard.
Sigh. So much for evening light pictures – time to put away the camera.
Or was it?
While it’s easy to get discouraged when a storm rolls in, that’s actually the time to start paying close attention to the sky, because it can bring some of the best dramatic light – and really that’s what most landscape photographers crave.
We spent the rest of the afternoon in the tent, reading, writing in journals, and listening to the rain pour down (the hail only lasted 10-15 minutes). As soon as it stopped, though, we crawled out to find an overcast sky, but with some breaks here and there. Hmmm. Time to grab the camera and look for dramatic light to develop.
What makes the light dramatic here is the contrast between light and dark: the areas where the sun is breaking through the clouds vs. the areas in shadow because of the clouds. But mostly, I think, it’s the unexpected placement of the light: just a band of light instead of having the frame split into light and shadow; sun on the lake, but the mountain in shadow; having the sky darker than the landscape.
Exposing for the sunlit areas, and letting the shadows go a little dark, adds to the drama. One of the pitfalls to avoid while later processing in Lightroom or Photoshop is the temptation to bring the overall exposure back up and balance the light and dark areas to make them look “normal.” After all, it’s the darkness and contrast that add to the drama – why take that away?
When the alarm went off the next morning, telling me it was time to get up for sunrise pictures, it was again pouring rain, and sounded like a morning for sleeping in. But I was still listening. When the rain stopped about an hour later I peeked out of the tent, and sure enough there was a break in the east. I had just enough time to put on some shoes and race to the edge of the lake to make this image, and the light was already fading.
I got off one more image before the light disappeared altogether, and settled back to gray overcast. Storm light can be dramatic, but also fleeting, so it pays to be very aware of how the clouds are moving, and gauging the potential for things to develop. And not put away your camera.
Here are a few more shots from both during and after storms that were only possible because of the sun breaking through clouds.