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|When you're taking advantage of fog or light mist to create a moody landscape, the colors and contrast will drop off considerably as subjects get farther away from the camera. Here, you can see how much more colorful the foliage and pink flowers look in the foreground and how the rest of the scene becomes tones of gray.|
Misty atmospherics are much less common than landscape shots taken on a clear day because most photographers refrain from venturing too far out into the fog. That makes sense. It's easy to get lost in fog, but when you know an area and you can get into position, you can be particularly rewarded with moody and unique images.
To create your best atmospheric imagery, there are some basic points to follow. A tripod is your best friend because you want to be able to shoot at a low ISO to avoid noise and preserve color. Depth of field is important because you want to have objects in the mist as sharp as they can be, and in the lower-light conditions, you frequently need to use a shutter speed that would be perilously low if you're handholding. Another reason for using the tripod is that it allows you to be patient. Atmospheric conditions can change very quickly when you're shooting in fog and mist. One second it's almost drizzling, and the next you can have a beam of sunlight shining through on your main subject. Be patient and set up on a tripod, then wait and watch as the conditions change and evolve.
Predicting Fog And Mist
Ask any meteorologist, and he or she will tell you that fog is tricky to predict with any certainty. Often, you get fog near water, which is a little bit warmer than the ambient temperature. It's finicky stuff, though, and the thickness varies wildly with temperature differences and wind. Sometimes you get a touch of fog hanging just above the water, and other times a whole valley fills with it.
When it forms, fog tends to come on in the evening and it can last into the following morning. As the sun comes up, though, the fog usually burns off quickly. Your best bet for timing is in the early morning. If you can do it, scouting a location the night before so you can be ready at dawn yields the best results. Whether you scout or if you just get up early and drive around looking for a shot, you'll want to set up and get to work quickly. As mentioned previously, conditions can change in seconds.
As the sun breaks through the fog, you can get a magnificent effect from the beams of light. It shows up best slightly off-axis from the direction you're shooting.
Color And Contrast
Shooting through fog and mist is, in essence, shooting into a softening filter. The miniscule droplets of water rob the scene of saturation and contrast. Of course, this creates the very effect that we're looking for when it comes to creating a moody photograph. Because of the natural loss of color and contrast, you want to do what you can to preserve what's there. Use a low ISO setting, and watch your exposure carefully. The camera has a tendency to darken the scene because it's looking at a canvas of white and the meter wants that white to be middle gray. Shoot in RAW to give yourself maximum flexibility in postprocessing, and think about dialing in some exposure compensation—usually, one stop at most. Since you're on a tripod, bracketing is a good idea.
When you're working on an image in the computer, resist the urge to boost the colors. Increasing saturation in Photoshop works against you and, ultimately, you end up with an overdone-looking shot. Remember, subtle colors and muted contrast are what you're going for in the first place.
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Just as fog and mist create depth in a scene, the absence of it will reduce the depth in the scene. Here, on a crystal-clear day, the whole photograph has a flattened, foreshortened look.
The loss of contrast in a foggy scene creates a sense of depth. Our eyes are accustomed to objects becoming less and less contrasty the farther away they are. When you introduce fog to a scene, the apparent distances between your camera and elements in the scene are magnified. Trees that are a few yards from one another appear to be much more separated, and the whole scene rapidly fades out to nothing, with distant objects rendered only as shapes without detail.
Try setting up with a main subject fairly close to your camera. This subject will show the most detail and contrast and the richest saturation. It will have the most punch. As the rest of the scene fades into the fog, the viewer will be left with an impression of the scene stretching out to infinity.
Watch your depth of field. The more distant objects have a natural softness to them because of the atmospheric effect, but you don't want to compound that with softness from your optics in most cases. The fog is doing all of the work for you to make a soft, low-contrast scene. You want to use your camera and lenses to preserve what's there.
Dramatic rays of light can enhance your scene. As the fog begins to break up, you stand the best chances of getting some of this effect. At this point, the conditions are changing very quickly, so attention to the exposure and shooting in RAW is important. You can get the best effect from the sunbeams when you can't quite make out the sun from your vantage point.
In heavy fog and mist, you want to make sure to protect your equipment. A full-fledged rain cover is seldom necessary, but neoprene sleeves for the lens and camera body are definitely nice to have.
Keep your gear at ambient temperature as much as possible. If you're going from an air-conditioned building out into warm, humid air, condensation will form almost immediately. Think of taking a cold can of soda out of a refrigerator on a hot and humid day. Try placing all of your gear in a large garbage bag before you head out into the warmer air, and keep the bag sealed until everything comes up to ambient temperature.
Keep a small towel or, better yet, a microfiber cloth in your camera bag so you can wipe off any droplets or condensation that form. Watch your lens. Dew and condensation can form fast. Swimmers often use small battery-powered ear dryers, and these little devices are also excellent for preventing dew from ruining your shot. They put out just enough warm air to keep the lens clear when aimed at the front element. If you're starting to get condensation on the lens element, you also can try wiping it with a proper lens cloth. Any of these measures will only slow the process, so once it starts, be vigilant about watching for more to form.