Photographing in the Fog

August 03, 2014

Landscape photographers, of all people, can appreciate good weather.  However, what a normal person may consider to be "good weather," such as a bright, blue, cloudless day, a landscape photographer may consider to be the opposite.  If you've ever tried photographing a beautiful scenic view on a day when the sun is bright and there are no clouds in the sky, you would agree.  The light is harsh, giving the photo unnecessary contrast, and the sky has no dramatic clouds to add character to the photo.

 

On the other hand, landscape photographers may love some types of weather which other people try to avoid.  Storms, for instance, can produce beautiful cloud formations, lightning strikes, and even rainbows.  Although no normal person would hope for a storm when they're traveling, a landscape photographer might.  A storm isn't the only type of weather which most people dread but landscape photographers adore; fog, arguably one of the most drab weather conditions, can be a landscape photographer's dream come true.

 

Why is this?  A foggy day almost guarantees that part of your photo will be eaten up by the dreary color gray, and fog also makes it impossible to see dramatic scenery, such as a mountain, which may be miles away.  But there is one beautiful thing which fog can bring to a photo: simplicity.

 

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This photo tells a simple story: two sheep are grazing under a tree on a calm, foggy day.  And yet, even the most clear details in the photo (the sheep and the bottom of the tree trunk) are faded due to the fog.  So why does this photo work?

 

If you look closely at the background of this photo, you can see a faded ridge in the background.  About a third of the way across this ridge is the barely-visible silhouette of another tree, almost entirely obscured by the fog.  Also in the background are a few fence posts, again very difficult to see.  Think; if this photo had been taken on a sunny day, or even an overcast day, these details in the background would be just as visible as the grazing sheep.  If that were the case, despite showing more detail, this photo would be much less effective.  Photography is about telling a story in the most simple, direct manner possible.  Nothing should exist in a photo which does not add to the beauty and story of that photo. 

 

So how can you use fog to your advantage in photography?  Take this next shot, one of my favorites, as an example:

 

"Serendipity""Serendipity"When I first saw this scene, I hardly believed that it was real. Here was a perfect waterfall in Norway with a perfect tree and a perfectly foggy background. I wanted to stand and admire the scene for hours, but the fog was rolling away quickly. I managed a single shot before the serendipitous scene disappeared forever.


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The fog in this photo was starting to lift, slowly bringing more of the background into view and making nearby objects more contrasty and clear.  It had been foggy for hours, but five minutes after I took this photo, the fog lifted completely.  This uncovered more of the hillside on the far right, directly behind the central tree in the frame.  This rendered the tree almost indistinguishable from the background, making the photo tremendously less powerful. 

 

There is a lesson from this story: in almost every place in the world, fog will clear at some point.  If you are on a hike to, say, a waterfall, take note if it is a foggy day.  Even if the fog looks like it will stay for a while, it may not last for more than a few minutes.  Do not slow yourself down by taking photos along the way (unless, of course, you feel like you may be taking one of your best photos).  I say this simply because everything from a waterfall to a redwood forest can look amazing when fog rolls in.  If it looks like conditions are favorable, push yourself faster towards your destination and don't stop for souvenir photos along the way.  If the fog has rolled away before you reach the perfect location, it will be tremendously disappointing.

 

This photo teaches another, more subtle lesson as well: there is always an ideal amount of fog in a photo.  Ten minutes before I took this frame, the tree was much more faded from fog, and the hillside was barely visible.  Five minutes afterwards, everything was too clear to take a photo with the simplicity I desired.  The ideal block of time to take this frame lasted no more than five minutes.  Furthermore, even while I was taking this photo, I knew that it would be one of my favorite frames.  It is rare, but perhaps five or six times in my life I have taken a photo and known without a doubt that it will become one of my favorites.  If you ever feel this way about a landscape photo, especially one with fog, it is worth sticking around for a few minutes to see if conditions change for the better.  If the photo is too foggy, it will eventually clear to just the perfect moment.  If the scene is not foggy enough but the day has been foggy on and off, the perfect conditions may soon roll in again and make your photo exactly how you wish.

 

This may sound cliché, but the best photos can happen in the worst weather.  A foggy day is one of those instances where you can make a powerful, unique photo at a time where less knowledgeable photographers would be sitting at home, pouring over gear websites or editing old photos again.  

 

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