My wife Claudia and I are in Humboldt County this week visiting our son Kevin, who's a junior at Humboldt State University. This is redwood country, along the far northern coast of California. It's a temperate rain forest, and it sure seems like it this week. It's been raining—a lot. Yesterday we had a break, and a mostly rain-free day, but another storm arrived today, and the area is expected to get six to ten inches of rain over the next two days.
Although we're mainly here to visit our son, of course I hoped to do some photography in this beautiful area as well. The main challenge of photographing in the rain is keeping the camera dry. I've tried many different ways of doing this: umbrellas, towels, plastic bags, etc, but there's no perfect solution. Various people make rain covers for cameras, which work pretty well, but only for telephoto lenses. In fact it's a lot easier to photograph with long lenses in the rain, regardless of what kind of cover you put over the camera, because you can use a long lens hood to keep rain off the front glass. Hoods for wide-angle lenses have to be short, to avoid vignetting, which makes it difficult to keep water from splashing onto the front element. The best solution I've found for wide-angle lenses is to attach an umbrella to my tripod with a clamp. This works, but it's awkward.
The other challenge with photographing in the rain is the light. Overcast, soft light doesn't often work for big, sweeping landscapes, but it's perfect for many smaller scenes, and its especially good for bringing out colors and color contrasts. Driving over Highway 299 from Redding on Tuesday we saw many beautiful oaks decked with light-green lichen. Some of these also had deep green moss along their trunks, the color made even more vibrant by the moisture. It was raining hard, but I couldn't resist stopping several times to try and photograph these trees. This time I had something even better than a towel or plastic bag to help keep my camera dry—an assistant (Claudia) holding an umbrella! The image at the top of this post shows one of the these trees.
Yesterday morning I drove to a spot along the coast near Trinidad with some interesting rocks and sea stacks. It had stopped raining, but initially the light was flat, and the scene was gray—dark gray rocks against light gray water. I could have just thought, "This won't work," and given up. But since I wrote that post about breaking routines a couple of weeks ago I decided to see what I could do with the "wrong" light for the subject. The gray palette suggested composing scenes that would work in black and white, and I thought that slow shutter speeds might transform the scene and create some textural contrasts—hard rocks and soft water. I used a variable neutral density filter to cut the amount of light reaching the sensor, which allowed me to use shutter speeds of six seconds or longer, even after the sun finally broke through. I've posted two of these images below.
If we only break out our cameras when the light is spectacular, we won't make many photographs. And I think we limit ourselves with ideas about what "good" light is, or what the best conditions are for a certain scene or subject. We sometimes make more creative and satisfying photographs when we're forced to stretch ourselves and adapt to less-than-optimal conditions. "Bad" weather can be good for the imagination.
Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author and photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters, plus the eBooks Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, and Exposure for Outdoor Photography. He has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.