Take Good Travel Photos In Bad Weather

Apr 18, 2014 | Photography | 2 comments

There are few things worse than checking the forecast before heading out on a trip only to realize that the weather is going to be lousy the entire time. Instead of all those beautiful, sunny pictures you had been dreaming of capturing, you have to readjust your strategy to accommodate rain and clouds. Just because the weather is going to be gloomy though, doesn’t mean you can’t take good travel photos in bad weather.

This was the scenario for us in a recent trip to England – a country known for its less-than-generous weather. Out of the four days we were there, most of the days were cold, clammy, and cloudy. Generally such weather results in unattractive, gloomy pictures. For example, take a look at the photo below.  Poor composition, bad lighting, and cloudy weather have all partnered together to make this the most unappealing picture of the Tower of London…ever. Sorry England, no one who looks at this picture will ever want to visit you.

Tower of London

An ugly—but typical—picture of London

Even with less-than-ideal conditions, you can return from your cloudy vacation with photos that tell a great story. Here are a few tips for taking good travel photos in bad weather.

Change Your White Balance

The Bridge of Sighs, Oxford

The Bridge of Sighs, Oxford

Digital cameras allow you to set the White Balance, which compensates for color casts in lighting. Most digital cameras have the White Balance set to “Auto” (also called AWB), which produces OK colors most of the time. On cloudy or rainy days, however, Auto White Balance will result in an unappealing blue or gray cast which lacks warmth and feeling. Setting the White Balance to “Cloudy” will add some orange into the scene,  producing warmer, more pleasing images. And if a Cloudy White Balance isn’t warming things up enough, adjust the White Balance setting to “Shade” for even more warmth.

Use a Filter

Radcliffe Camera, Oxford

Radcliffe Camera, Oxford

Digital camera sensors are designed to adjust themselves to the amount of light entering the lens. This method is called “metering” and works well in cases where the scene has an even amount of light throughout. But have you ever taken a picture on a cloudy day only to have the ground objects properly lit but the sky is a blown out mess of white? Or perhaps just the opposite: the camera captured the moodiness of the clouds but the ground objects were dark and unrecognizable? This happens when the camera sensor gets confused during the metering process. The range of light is so extreme, that it doesn’t know whether to meter for the bright objects or the darker objects.

One way to combat this is to use a graduated neutral density filter. While that sounds technical, essentially a graduated neutral density filter works similarly to graduated tinting in sunglasses, where the tint at the top is darker than that at the bottom. Using a graduated neutral density filter  darkens the upper portions of the images (usually the sky area), allowing the camera sensor to correctly meter the scene and produce a more even image. Your ground objects will be properly lit, while your sky elements will come through darker and moodier.

Traditionally neutral density filters can be expensive, but there are decent budget options available. Goja makes a set of plastic filters (3 neutral density filters and 3 gradual neutral density filters) along with a filter holder, adaptor rings, and wallet case, all for less than $35. While they won’t produce the quality images like that of filters that cost hundreds of dollars, the quality is still very decent and the price is right.

Eliminate the Sky

The Grand Cafe, Oxford

The Grand Cafe, Oxford

If you don’t have access to to a neutral density filter to darken the sky, try eliminating the sky all together from your pictures. Concentrate on scenes that involve little or no sky to avoid blown out highlights. Clouds act as a natural diffuser, so cloudy days are great for shots where you want nice, even light without all the harsh shadows.

Shoot the Details

The Grand Cafe, Oxford

Rowboats boats on the River Cherwell

When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. Take advantage of bad weather by shooting detail shots. Focus on specifics: people, plants, animals, or food. Crop your images tight and use the detail shots to help tell the story of your trip.

Focus on Color

Yellow Shutters, Wolvercotte

Yellow Shutters, Wolvercotte

Cloudy or rainy days tend produce rich and vibrant colors, allowing especially colorful subjects to stand out from their surrounding area. Be on the lookout for elements where color can make an image pop.

Punting boats on the Thames, Oxford

Punting boats on the Thames, Oxford

Go Inside

Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Oxford University Museum of Natural History

This tip seems like it would be common sense, but when it’s raining outside, that is the perfect time to head inside. Visit museums, shops, restaurants, or places of worship. There’s no need to risk getting your camera gear wet when there are plenty of photo opportunities under cover.

The nave at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford

The nave at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford

Shoot at Night

Westminster and Big Ben, London

Westminster and Big Ben, London

Shooting at night is probably my favorite solution for taking good travel photos in bad weather. Once the sun goes down and the lights come on, subjects that may have come across as dull or difficult to photograph in the daytime suddenly spring to life in a way that is dramatically different.

The trick to taking decent night photographs is to utilize a tripod. Your camera sensor requires additional light at night, which means that your camera shutter will be open longer to capture as much light as possible. Holding the camera by hand during longer exposures (anything less than 1/60 of a second) will produce blurry pictures. One option is to use a Gorillapod as a mini tripod (they make sizes for point-and-shoot cameras, lightweight DSLRs, and heavier DSLRs). Another option is to use a lightweight travel tripod such as the Slik Sprint Mini II, which will add slightly more weight to your pack but will be beneficial in producing better nighttime and low-light pictures.

Additionally, in order to get the sharpest low-light pictures as possible, take advantage of your camera timer. Pressing the shutter button on your camera – even if it is on a tripod – produces camera shake that can ruin your pictures. Setting your camera timer to 2 seconds give the camera time to stabilize after pressing the shutter button before the image is snapped.

London Eye at night

London Eye at night

Protect Your Gear

In times when wet weather is unavoidable, it is best to have a few simple items that can protect your expensive gear.

  • Rain cover for your camera bag: Some camera bags include a rain cover, but for those that don’t,  inexpensive covers can be purchased for many different bag manufacturers. When the rain starts coming down, whip the rain cover out and make sure your bag is protected.
  • Rain cover for your camera: OP/TECH rain sleeves are inexpensive, effective ways of protecting your DSLR camera in wet weather.  They take up practically no space in your camera bag but can keep your gear from getting soaked in the strongest of deluges (I’ve successfully used them under the torrential downpour of Victoria Falls). If you don’t have access to a rain sleeve, use a hotel shower cap to protect your camera. Just stuff the camera into the shower cap and allow the lens to poke out of the head hole.
  • Waterproof camera case: If you have a point-and-shoot camera, there are a number of waterproof cases available that not only protect your equipment in wet weather, but also allow you to take your camera underwater.  DicaPac manufactures a line of quality cases at affordable prices. Just be sure to choose the correct size for your camera.
  • Umbrella: Don’t underestimate a cheep umbrella – the most basic of all wet weather protection.

Hopefully these tips will help you take good travel pictures in bad weather. Do you have any additional tips or techniques? Sound off in the comments below.

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