When I came home from a long day at the university the other week, the weather was gloomy, with neither sun or clouds visible and a thick fog carpet covered everything, everywhere. On days like this one might be tempted to try to completely ignore the white, yucky moist outside by turning the attention to other joys in life like operating the TV remote while staying behind hermetically sealed windows. My recommendation though is that one should not fall for this, because foggy weather offers many photographic possibilities, just waiting to be explored by us photographers.
In this short article, I will explore some methods on how you can achieve interesting, and hopefully appealing, photographs in seemingly dull weather conditions like the thick fog I experienced last week.
Different types of fog, but they all look the same
Fog is actually water in form of very small water droplets and it varies in type and origin. There are many different types of fog existing, such as evaporation or radiation fog. One type, so called “ice fog” can form in extremely cold air and can be spectacular for us photographers, though less so for our skin.
What all types of fog have in common though is that they behave optically very similar. Fog provides us with its own photographic style and even if the overall contrast of a potential scene is toned down, people and objects in the foreground have much more contrast and are richer in color, whereas people and objects in the background have less contrast and can be colorless. The contrast between close and far away objects increases rapidly with the distance from the viewer. This special condition creates the effect of perspective, and blurred objects in the background may look mystical and dreamy, almost like they are fading away. At the same time, the light seems to come from everywhere, which is great for portraits as I will show further on. Another interesting thing is that shining (light emitting) objects seem to glow as their light is spread by the fog particles.
In fog, exposure compensation is your friend more than ever
The first issue when photographing in fog is that too much light may reflect towards the camera. Be sure to make some test shots to set the proper exposure values before getting really serious. Usually you have to dial in an exposure compensation from +1/2 to +2. A good approach that works for me is to take several pictures with a variety of exposures first to try out what works best.
Let's see how this theory works in reality. I asked my cousin Andrea to be my model and she was more than willing to help out. It is always good to have a nice looking family member who isn't shy in front of the lens. :)
The all around-softbox
This first scene was shot with a Nikon D3200 with an AF-S Nikkor 17-55/1:2.8. I shot it hand-held at 1/500s shutter speed. The focus point and exposure was set on the swing. The first shot in P-mode was - as expected – underexposed, because of too much background light.
After some time tinkering with the exposure settings, I figured out the right combination.
The model’s face is visible, the skin looks natural and also clothes and surroundings are visible. The foggy background looks brighter than in Picture 1, but is not overexposed. This is important for the post-processing of the RAW file. If the background is too bright, or burned out, it is very difficult or even impossible to reconstruct it.
Get some color!
Now that we have the exposure all set, let's do some shooting. As you can see below, the diffused light makes for a fairly good portrait.
There are barely any shadows under her nose or eyes, and even her hair creates none. The background is gently fading - focusing our attention on her. The bounce box I brought with me was unnecessary for a nice portrait - though it helped me to create some enjoyable catch light.
Even when the light quality is good, the picture is a bit too subtle. It has dreamy atmosphere, but is somewhat dull and with cold colors. The white balance can of course be changed anytime in the post processing thanks to RAW to fix the colors. To preserve the present dreamy atmosphere and still bring more life to the picture, you may want to use a flash light with a bounce box. By doing so, the background remains the same and the details in front will be more colorful.
The red swing became visible and adds life to the picture. Also the face tone is now more vivid and lively. Notice that no change in background occurs; only the foreground got “closer”.
Learning from the above, I proceeded with the next step; to use fog as a big light diffuser. The tripod is set, lens changed to 50mm f/1.8, exposure measured and adjusted to +1. The tripod is necessary in this case.
To capture the bright candlelight Andrea holds, I used a slow shutter speed of 1/4s. Andrea obviously had to stay very still and out of the sequence of 10 shots, this one was sharp. As mentioned, it is important to have some color in the picture, otherwise it could look boring and maybe even depressing. A small source of light, such as a candle flame can bring enjoyable warmth to the composition, and as you see, it does not need to be a big. The fog droplets did their job well and spread the light around the candle.
If a small candle can do this, what could a bunch of lights do you may ask. Here is the answer:
The sun set quickly and I had to use a slow shutter speed of 1/1.3 second. Shot approximately 20 photographs to get this one which turned out sharp. By increasing the exposure time, the glowing effect grew even stronger. This photo should give you the basic idea and shows the possibilities that are available using small, portable lights. It is probable that not all of us are walking around with battery-powered Christmas decorations in our backpacks. Never the less, adding lights can make for interesting, unusual shots and I suggest you give it a try. The trees and the muddy road in the background are still visible on this photograph, yet completely unobtrusive.
The night fog
The fog got denser as I made my way back from the dark forest to the city and its lit streets. The air was literally lit by the orange streetlights and the face of a statue stood out from the mist, catching my attention with a street light creating an aura-like effect. I placed some colored lights on the pedestal and took this picture.
The fog reduces the contrast and makes the orange light homogeneous, turning the result into a monochromatic look. The Christmas colored lights bring warmth and joy to the scene where as the fog creates a glowing effect around the bulbs.
A cleaning cloth is very useful in fog
A practical note: Always have a cleaning cloth, like a micro fiber cloth, in your pocket when photographing in fog. The small water droplets like to adhere on to the filter and lens, especially when the lens is pointed upwards towards the sky. A lens hood provides some protection, but often not enough. In picture no. 8 below this additional “coating” created a nice diffraction effect mostly visible on the lower half of the picture.
Also a zoom lens, such as a 70-200mm f/4 may be used, though I only managed to get a few successful shots due to the long exposure time needed. A VR lens and a good tripod are a must. The exposure was set to make the background distinguishable where the orange, monochromatic shot plays with the fading objects in the distance contrasting with the tree contours in the foreground.
Advantages shooting in fog:
- The background is mostly homogeneous and it does not distract from the main object
- The photographed object is emphasized compared to normal circumstances. You can point out important objects and make other disappear in the background.
- The diffused light is good for portraits making the skin smooth with reduced facial shadows
- Small and previously unnoticed objects may become interesting photographic targets
- Due to higher humidity, the natural greens, such as moss, leaves and ivy become vivid
- Light sources emanate light to surrounded space and glow
Some less good stuff happens as well
There are also clear drawbacks shooting in fog, such as potentially not enough available light. The remedy to overcome this drawback is to use a fast lens and a tripod.
Other items to potentially be concerned about relate to the lack of colors and low contrast, mostly in the background. This may or may not be a disadvantage depending on what your scope is. Exposure has though to be carefully adjusted because of the reflected light.
To wrap it up, I hope I could show how a seemingly bad weather condition may be used to your advantage, in some creative ways. There are plenty of more possibilities I am sure and I would be glad to hear about your own experiences shooting in the fog.
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