12 Very Useful Photo Tips of Weather Photography By Cotton Coulson
Tips and Photography by Cotton Coulson
Cotton Coulson is a contributing photographer to National Geographic Traveler and nationalgeographic.com. He is based in Denmark.
Cotton Coulson lives and works from Copenhagen, Denmark, along with his wife and business partner, Sisse Brimberg.
Cotton started taking photographs for National Geographic magazine right after graduating from New York University Film School in 1975. He was hired as a contract photographer in 1976, and published over a dozen assignments for the magazine until 1987. Some of his cover titles included stories about Ireland, Berlin, and the Brendan Voyage. He won numerous prizes from the NPPA and White House Press Photographers Association.
At that time, he became associate director of photography at U.S. News & World Report. After several years he moved to the Baltimore Sun, where he was the director of photography.
In the mid-1990s Cotton decided to join the Internet revolution and moved to San Francisco, along with Sisse and their two children, Calder and Saskia. There he became the senior vice-president of CNET, in charge of Product Development. After ten years, he and Sisse moved to Paris and then on to Denmark, where Sisse is originally from.
Today they own a media company called KEENPRESS, which produces photography and HD video films for international publications and companies. Much of their work focuses on the environment, climate issues, and international travel stories.
They are frequent contributors to National Geographic Traveler magazine and have their photo archive with NG Image Collection.
There’s nothing I like more than shooting in what you might call “real weather.” I always seem to be running out on the ship’s deck or onto the street in the rain, sleet, and wind when everyone else is running for cover. Why? Because I know from years of experience that this is when the light really gets dramatic and the skies might open up with shafts of sunlight and dramatic clouds, giving me the opportunity to create photos with emotion and energy. Wind, snow, rain, fog—I love all the weather elements. They add texture and dimension to photographs. For practical purposes, I like to keep my shooting gear simple to minimize the fuss.
Windstorm, South Georgia
Some of the most challenging weather situations to work in are snowstorms and windstorms. When I was in South Georgia, the winds suddenly came down from the mountains and carried the fresh snow with it. The snow was racing past so quickly, it hurt my eyes.
Photo Tip #1. Watch your exposure.
I find shooting with sunglasses unbearable, but in this situation, they provided the protection I needed. In addition to wearing heavy gloves to keep your hands warm and nimble—and make it nearly impossible to operate those nasty little dials and buttons that control your aperture and shutter speeds—I find it essential to wear a pair of thin liner gloves underneath. I will also wear a thin buff over my face so I can breath and still protect my nose from getting cold on the freezing camera and viewfinder.
Exposures shooting bright snow can be tricky. The built-in meters in the cameras are calibrated to the brightness of average gray (18 percent). Since the snow in this scene is brighter than that, I compensated my exposure to the plus side to make the snow look white.
Quality of light is always changing and one of the best times to experience this is during a thunderstorm when the sun breaks through the clouds and shines on the rain. Then you might see a rainbow, which can always add a surprising element to a landscape. Here in northern France, for instance, the rainbow draws attention to the main subject, the modern wind turbine. I walked along the road so I could exactly place the foot of the turbine to where the rainbow ended.
Photo Tip #2. Tell a story with your composition.
Photographing a rainbow by itself is pretty dull. What always makes the photo more interesting is when a story is told through interesting geographic or editorial elements in the composition. Then the rainbow has added value. Be sure to bring along your polarizing filter for these occasions, since it does a great job of strengthening the colors in a rainbow.
Stormy Seas, Norway
When shooting in heavy weather you need to give extra thought to how to protect your gear. For instance, there’s always a lot of wind and salt spray over the bow and deck when you’re on a ship. You want to keep your cameras and lenses away from saltwater at all costs. It will devastate your equipment. There are hosts of available products specifically designed for each camera brand and series, and they do an excellent job of protecting equipment.
Photo Tip #3. Protect your gear and find a secure spot.
If by chance your camera does get splashed with saltwater, quickly wipe it down with a cloth dampened with freshwater to help remove salt crystals and spray. If your equipment just gets wet from the rain, wipe it down and use a hair dryer on low heat, not too close to the camera, to remove the humidity and condensation.
When shooting weather from a moving boat, always try to find a secure place out of the wind and spray that also gives your body some extra support so you can hold the camera steady. Never let bad weather stop you from taking photographs.
Open Skies, Antarctic
Most often when I’m working in Arctic regions, where I know that the skies are constantly changing, I bring along a high-quality polarizing filter, which cuts through the atmospheric haze; reduces glare from ice, snow, and water; and increases the contrast between the sky and the clouds. Polarizing filters can be used for both color and black-and-white photography. I find that black-and-white photography often creates a sense of timelessness, while color photos feel more modern. With black-and-white, I’m not distracted by shades of color and instead focus on details and gradations.
Photo Tip #4. Use a polarizing filter.
When you use a polarizing filter, the image will appear darker in the viewfinder because the filters reduce the total amount of light that enters your lens. A tip to remember is that polarizing filters work best when the sun is positioned 90 degrees to your right or left. They don’t work at all if the sun is directly behind you. If you decide to purchase and carry along a polarizing filter, be sure it’s made from the highest quality glass. If you’re shooting scenes with water, the glare from the surface will be cut and you can see more details below.
While I was shooting a story about the Swiss democratic state, I went to the small town of Appenzell to document how their citizens exercise their right to vote. They come and gather in the morning to hear the proposed legal changes, and they vote outdoors by hand in the city center.
Photo Tip #5. Find a dark background for contrast.
It’s much easier to see the snowflakes when you can find a dark background to offset the white. This is one of those memorable times when Mother Nature worked to my advantage. When I started out that morning, I had no idea it would begin to snow, but happily, when it began, I immediately saw how it worked to my advantage and ran up some stairs to get above the scene. Umbrellas often add a strong visual element to the photo. Something to think about next time you’re out shooting in the snow.
Sunset After a Storm, Kansas
One of the most difficult skills to learn when taking photos is patience, especially when knowing you’ve just made a great shot. One’s natural tendency is to pack up the camera and tripod and move on to the next situation. This is true when photographing both people and landscapes. Try to force yourself to stay in the moment to capture any unexpected moments that might arise. In this case, my patience was rewarded when I stuck around to capture the changing weather after the lightning storm had passed through.
Photo Tip #6. Be alert to changing conditions.
When shooting weather and landscapes, I force myself to settle down and quietly observe the changes in the light and atmosphere. It’s one of the highlights about working as a professional photographer.
I made sure that I properly exposed the sunlit clouds, since that was the center of interest. Experience tells me that, depending on which camera system I’m using, I may need to underexpose the picture. For this image, I bracketed and underexposed by about 1 stop to ensure that the highlights in the clouds looked correct.
Sunset, Weddell Sea
These clouds in the Antarctic were shot just as the sun was setting, a time of day when shadows are long and the light is golden. Sometimes it makes great sense just to look up into the sky and see how the clouds are shaped. Here, you can see how the low light helps articulate the shadows and contours of the clouds, and you begin to appreciate seeing how shapes and forms create an interesting composition. The sun is no longer directly hitting the lower clouds, giving the image more depth. Keep in mind that at sunset the colors are their most vibrant.
Photo Tip #7. Focus on infinity.
Even though the light is low, you don’t need a tripod for these types of shots because the subject is at infinity and you can therefore shoot comfortably at around f/4.5 and still have everything in focus. When you shoot using this aperture you can comfortably handhold the camera because your shutter speed will be fast enough.
Rainy Evening, St. Petersburg
Recently, while on assignment in St. Petersburg, I wanted to capture the bustling and vibrant energy of the young generation. I was walking on the streets along the Fontanka River at dusk in the rain when this young woman wearing bright colors hurried past me.
Photo Tip #8. Use one lens.
When shooting in the rain I always wear oversize protective clothing and have my camera inside my jacket, nice and dry and easily accessible and ready to shoot when the right opportunity arises. Don’t change lenses. Instead, use a high-quality protective UV filter and a lens shade in front of the lens, and carry a clean soft cloth to dry the lens in case it does get a few drops. It never hurts to keep a large plastic bag in your pocket, just in case you get caught in a downpour. Finding a covered spot along the street, like an archway or awning, provides good protection so you can freely shoot. —Cotton Coulson
Tranquil Waters, Svalbard
Even in the middle of the day, you can take compelling photos when the right photographic elements come together. Here, in Svalbard, Norway, the wind sometimes dies down and the fjords become like a mirror reflection of the sky. Normally I like to shoot during the early and late hours, when the sun is lower on the horizon and the light is warmer. Here, however, the scene also works with bright overhead sunshine, especially when the clouds and their reflection in the water add contrast and fill out the frame.
Photo Tip #9. Keep your horizon straight and composition balanced.
Pay special attention to composition and horizontal alignment: New cameras have built-in viewfinder grid displays that assist in making sure your horizons stay straight. In this image, I didn’t use any filters to enhance the contrast and color of the sky against the white, wispy clouds. I made a special effort, however, to balance the amount of space in the composition between the sky and the calm water. The small section of ice floating in the water adds an extra dimension and layer to the composition. Always look for subjects and objects to add to the foreground.
Early Morning, Austria
One of my favorite weather motifs is shooting before the sun rises, and I especially love it when there is morning fog and mist in the air. These weather elements add mood and mystery to the photograph.
Photo Tip #10. Be prepared.
When I know that I need to get up early the next morning, I try to prepare everything as well as I can the night before. A couple of things to remember before setting out on an early morning shoot is to check that you have fully charged batteries and spare memory cards. Also, check your ISO settings to be sure they’ll be correct for the new day. In this situation, where there was very little daylight available, I pushed the ISO up to 3200 so I could be sure to capture the scene from the moving fishing boat. The latest cameras easily allow you to push the ISO up this way, without introducing digital noise. Since I am always shooting in RAW, I leave the white balance most often on auto—I can always tweak the color in postproduction using a good application like Apple’s Aperture, Adobe’s Lightroom, or Google’s Picasa.
Lightning Strike, Kansas
Photo Tip #11. Be patient, switch to manual mode, and pack a tripod.
This photo, taken in Kansas, was one that I spent months pursuing for a magazine article. It ended up as the lead picture. When shooting storms and lightning, you never know when and where they’ll appear next, so you have to have patience as well as luck.
To shoot a successful lightening photo you need to set your camera on a tripod and set the mode to manual. You might also want to enable the mirror lock-up function and use a cable release to minimize camera shake. Adjust the f-stop to 8 or 11 to ensure your exposure is between 5 and 30 seconds, since you want to open the shutter and wait for the lightning bolts to appear in the sky. Since I never know where in the frame they’ll appear, I suggest you focus manually on infinity and include a lot of sky in your composition.
In this case, it was a blessing that it was late in the day when the storm was approaching, allowing for the lightning bolt to stand out against the dark and ominous clouds. As a final tip, be sure not to stand under trees or near metal poles for safety reasons.
Being privileged to spend multiple seasons in the Antarctic with National Geographic Expeditions, I sometimes get the opportunity to shoot beautiful icebergs during the blue hour. This is after the sun has set and the sky becomes a beautiful gradient from pink to purple. In this scene, the full moon was rising over a sculptured tabular iceberg, creating a center of interest for the composition.
Photo Tip #12. Capture the “blue hour.”
The best weather for shooting in the blue hour is when the sky is clear and there are no clouds. Half an hour after the sun has set, mount your camera on a tripod and be sure to photograph the moon just as it comes over the horizon so you can retain detail in the highlights. Very often I bracket the exposure times, since there will be just the right moment when the light on the iceberg, moon, and sky are perfectly matched. This moment in time doesn’t last for long