Extreme Weather


Dust and sandstorms are common in certain regions, especially near deserts, and create a sense of drama in the image. Exposure: 1/640sec at f/5 (ISO 100). Photograph/Barun Kumar Datta

Dust and sandstorms are common in certain regions, especially near deserts, and create a sense of drama in the image. Exposure: 1/640sec at f/5 (ISO 100). Photograph/Barun Kumar Datta

Samira Pillai tells you why you should not put your camera away when you come across ‘bad’ weather conditions and how you can shoot stunning images despite the challenges.

This article was originally published in October 2011.

When the weather begins to look menacing, instead of seeking the warmth and protection of your home or car, set out and brave those conditions. You will be rewarded with dramatic pictures.

Heavy rain, cold, mist, snow, hail and storms alter the quality of light and shadows. They affect the colours in a scene, and generally create a strong mood. We explore how seemingly bad weather conditions offer the perfect ingredients for excellent pictures.

A Drizzle or Downpour

Rain tends to make surfaces look glossy and adds a sparkle to highlights. It also saturates colours and adds details and texture to a scene. The clouds that accompany rain diffuse the sunlight, making the light uniform and eliminating shadows. Thus, this kind of weather is best for shooting amazing landscape, wildlife and even portrait photographs. If you are in the city, look out for shiny streets and gloomy buildings. In the countryside, grass shines and drops of water cling to grass and leaves.

Make use of a polarising filter to enhance colours and cut out any unwanted reflections. If you get caught in a heavy downpour, you can even make rain the theme of your pictures. Look for dark backgrounds and experiment with shutterspeeds—a fast shutterspeed will help freeze the drops and a slow shutterspeed will help you record them as streaks. After a wet spell, the clearing sky provides clean, soft light as every bit of dirt and pollution has been washed off—the best kind of lighting you can find.

Stormy Weather

An image of trees swaying in the wind with lightning in the background, is a classic representation of story weather. The skies are at their spectacular best just before, during, or immediately after bad weather. Look for an interesting foreground element and position the horizon line low in the frame, to emphasise the drama in the sky. Wait for the sky to take on warm, blazing hues to maximise the impact. If there is a strong burst of light peeping through stormy clouds, expose for the highlights to make the clouds appear dark and ominous. Right after a storm, the light tends to be warm, soft and pastel, which enhances colours and can create a unique contrast.

Fog and Mist

Imagine rays of sunlight making its way through misty woods, or silhouettes of people walking down a fog-filled path. Foggy conditions result in evenly-diffused lighting and tend to evoke feelings of mystery, romance and even melancholy. Both fog and mist act like a diffusing filter, softening light as it filters through these hazy conditions. This also results in muted colours and reduced contrast in a scene. However, be aware that fog and mist are generally bright conditions and can fool the camera’s light meter. This causes images to be underexposed—you will need to increase the exposure by one stop or bracket your shots to see which setting works best.

Wind Movement

Beaches, deserts, or green pastures are ideal scenarios for exploiting the effects of windy weather because they have the right combination of still elements and elements that move in wind. To make great pictures in such weather, it is important to create a sense of motion. Set your camera on a tripod and choose a long shutterspeed. If you are shooting in very windy weather, you may need to weigh down the tripod with a bean bag, your camera bag, or even a stone suspended from a string. Choose a narrow aperture to ensure a great depth-offield. In case the light is too bright for a slow shutterspeed, choose the lowest ISO setting or use a Neutral Density filter. It is important to have one strong, identifiable subject to appear sharp in the frame, so that a viewer’s eye can rest on it and then go into the frame.

Sandstorms and Dust Storms

Strong, wind-driven sandstorms in large, sandy desert areas blow sand at high rates of speed capable of ‘sand-blasting’ surfaces with very destructive force. You must take extreme personal caution when photographing during sand storms. You will find that an approaching storm or the aftermath of a sandstorm offer the best photo opportunities. Dust storms are similar but are far less damaging. Make it a point to protect your eyes, nose and mouth to improve visibility and make breathing easy. Protect your equipment too, because it is at risk from dust infiltration. Good lighting and the inclusion of a recognisable landmark, humans or animals give a photo of a sandstorm the required drama, scale and context.


While hailstorms can be a pretty sight, the most important thing to remember is that they can be lethal to animals and humans caught in open areas. Always stay near a protective shelter so that if a hailstorm worsens, you can get to safety immediately. Never point your camera upwards as hailstones can badly damage a lens. Focus on the hail’s effects and shoot images that indicate the size of the hailstones. Use mid-range shutterspeeds (1/125sec or 1/250sec) to capture the scenes and effects of falling hailstones.


Snow can change the appearance of landscape quite dramatically. The whiteness tends to add a nice contrast to the normal colours of a scene, making for a very effective photo opportunity. Snow melting off a tree, as a backdrop or falling snowflakes are different kinds of compositions you can seek out. The overall brightness of snow can fool a camera’s meter into underexposing the scene. Overexpose by one stop to capture snow just like it appears to the naked eye.

If you happen to witness a proper snowfall, you will be amazed at how it adds punch to an otherwise dull scene. Look for a dark background and experiment with shutterspeed to capture the motion of falling flakes. Blizzards, on the other hand, cause everything to appear solid white. It is identified as a ‘whiteout’ and can be extremely dangerous—so exercise every precaution possible. This situation requires the use of a narrow aperture like f/16 or f/22 with medium to high shutterspeeds like 1/250sec to 1/500sec or faster. These settings will allow you to photograph contrast between the extreme white conditions and dark, visible objects.

Extreme weather conditions should be looked upon as an opportunity rather than an avoidable nuisance. Explore the potential of scenes that you would have ignored otherwise because clouds, fog banks, sunbeams in conjunction with the other elements in the scene, help introduce a third-dimension in your photograph. Just make sure you have the right gear and the motivation to take risks.

6 Ways to Make Extreme Weather Work For You

  1. BE WILLING: You will have to leave the comfort of your home, put on protective clothing, and brave the conditions outside to be able to make great pictures.
  2. BE PREPARED: Bad weather does not always come with a warning. Be mentally prepared to shoot in poor conditions and have the necessary gear packed and ready-to-go.
  3. PROTECT YOURSELF AND YOUR EQUIPMENT: Never shoot in extreme weather at the cost of your life or of your equipment. Inform people about where you intend to shoot and stick to the plan.
  4. WORK QUICKLY: Be ready, shoot quickly and leave. Once you have your shots, go back to safety.
  5. TRACK THE WEATHER: A little research, pre-planning and constant monitoring of weather conditions will improve the odds of you finding the ‘ideal bad weather condition’.
  6. IDENTIFY POTENTIALITY: A place looks different on a regular day and on a bad weather day. You should be able to mentally see what a place could look like in bad weather, and return on the correct time, day or month to make your picture!
Tags: Shooting Technique, april 2011, weather, fog, mist