Precipitation is a fact of life in the UK, be it heavy downpours or light spring showers. Three creative photographers explain why you should always get your camera out when the heavens open
If you curse your luck when it starts to rain and immediately pack away your gear, you need to reset your mental barometer. ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, merely new challenges, and rain is one of them,’ notes landscape and travel photographer Tony Worobiec. Tony teaches courses in ‘good photography’, whatever the climatic conditions. He adds: ‘It takes commitment to get out there and take photographs when it’s pouring down, but if you do you will be rewarded with some wonderful opportunities.’
Most photographers in the UK will have seen enough rain for a lifetime, and take it for granted. But with a bit of creativity and lateral thinking, shooting in the rain can be a great chance to take very distinctive shots.
Three experienced and creative rain photographers talk about their different techniques and approaches for ensuring interesting images whenever those spring showers start.
About the photographers
Tony is a well-known landscape, architectural and travel photographer, and the author of 15 books. He also runs regular courses and workshops. www.tonyworobiec.com
Photojournalist and teacher Jim is known for his explorations of small-town life. His work appears frequently in National Geographic. www.jimrichardsonphotography.com
Another National Geographic photographer, Alex turned his hobby into a profession with images now regularly appearing in the national press. www.alexsaberi.com
Not all rain is the same
Just like grey skies, rain comes in many varieties, each of which presents unique challenges for the photographer. Drizzle is the lightest type and relatively easy to work in. The droplets of water are smaller than raindrops and it can often be confused with mist. The ground will appear wet, although in light drizzle the water can evaporate quite quickly.
Thunderstorms are obviously much more violent, and while they can be tricky to work in, there can be some great opportunities for original images as a lot of your contemporaries will be sheltering indoors! Storms that involve thunder and lightning are more common in late spring, particularly during the afternoon and evening, so check the weather forecast.
Rain with wind is possibly the most difficult weather condition to work in, particularly if the direction of the wind fluctuates. It is possible to work with your back to the wind, but you will find it does have a habit of changing direction.
Surprisingly, steady rain is possibly the easiest rain condition to work under, and one which offers the best possible results. The secret is to look to the ground, as the reflections and enhanced colour saturation open up all sorts of creative possibilities. Free of wind, you should be able to work quite comfortably – providing you take necessary waterproofing precautions.
While a sunny spring day will inspire even the most jaded photographer, steady rain falling from a flat grey sky is much more of a challenge, but there are still plenty of options. Take shooting reflections, for example. ‘Tarmac surfaces, in particular, become increasingly more contrasty and quite reflective,’ notes Tony. ‘If you can, find a slightly raised vantage point; moving traffic can add further interest. Pedestrianised areas also offer rich pickings as the passing figures are so concerned about remaining dry, they are unlikely to notice you photographing them. The reflections they create can be especially appealing.’
National Geographic photographer Alex Saberi has captured some wonderful images of reflections created by the London rain, often including people to provide extra interest. ‘I’d seen people try reflections a few times before, but I’d never liked the grey and dull outcomes, and it seemed to me that was mainly down to the time of day they were shooting,’ says Alex. ‘So even though it was more difficult to shoot in London at dusk, I much preferred the illuminated landmarks and, of course, the reflected colours of the streetlights and shop windows.’
When it comes to camera technique for reflections, focusing can be a particular headache. ‘I experiment with where’s best to focus on,’ adds Alex. ‘At times, this can be a landmark on which I prefocus, then recompose the shot into the reflection. At other times, the actual pavement with the chinks of light can work out best. In this case, I will focus on the part of the pavement I want, set the lens into manual and then wait for a subject to walk by.’
If you are also going to include people in your rainy-day shots, it’s a good idea to go for medium-to-high ISO settings in order to get fast enough shutter speeds for moving subjects. Alex adds:
‘Although for me, “fast” has meant as slow as 1/10sec! I’ve found that general evaluative metering works best, but I would suggest experimenting. That’s the fun part with this type of abstract photography in the rain. You can get some cool unexpected results just by trying out different settings.
‘Maybe try adding a different element by flashing the passer-by with your flashgun, too, while you shoot the resultant reflection.’
Puddles and reflections are one thing, but heavier rain can be hard to capture. Even when it’s raining cats and dogs, you can end up with an image that looks grey and flat. ‘In some situations, a little pop of flash can really help raindrops to show up,’ notes travel photographer and National Geographic contributing editor Jim Richardson. ‘Try turning the flash power way down, like -3 stops, and it will add just a little pop to the raindrops.’
As Jim notes, however, this can result in the nearest drops being lit up the most. ‘So try to get the flash off-camera and over to the side, then you have a beam of light through the curtain of rain falling in front of you,’ he adds. ‘If it’s dark enough and you have a torch, you can do the same thing – especially with long exposures. Try moving the torch beam in falling raindrops and you get a nice streaking effect.’
To make the most of ambient light, particularly when shooting landscapes, Jim recommends you try to position yourself where light is coming through from the ‘backside’ of the rain. ‘Rain is much more visible when it is backlit, so try to shoot towards the light source,’ he adds. ‘The more directly you shoot into the light, the better you will see the raindrops. Adjust the angle if necessary to avoid overexposure from the light source.
‘Say it’s raining where you are, but there is a break in the clouds over in the distance. You will get a beam of light coming from behind the rain.
‘One of my most successful rain images was taken in Kansas in the USA, of a rain shower passing through a place in about two minutes. The sunlight coming through the backside of the rain gave the scene an etched-steel look, which worked really well with the muted greens and greys of the rest of the image.’
Other creative possibilities
You can also take interesting shots in the rain by capturing moving vehicles and the spray they create. Use a long lens to avoid getting splashed, and try shooting from an open window or upper floor of a multi- storey car park. If it’s just too wet to venture out, consider photographing the window as a possible subject for cool abstracts.
‘The secret here is to focus on droplets on the glass pane while throwing the landscape outside out of focus, so select a wide aperture,’ notes Tony. ‘By focusing precisely on the small cluster of drops, they serve as an informal prism of the landscape outside. If you try this, keep your lens parallel to the surface of the glass when taking the shot.’
On a budget
If you resent spending money on a rain cover you might only use a few times a year, it’s easy enough to make your own to cope with spring showers. Take a clear plastic bag, then position the bag over your camera and lens so the centre of the bag sits on top of the end of the lens (making sure your camera is completely covered by the bag).
Secure the bag over your lens with elastic bands, then cut out a hole for the lens. Remove your eyepiece and make another hole before replacing it, or stick the bag around the eyepiece with tape if you can’t remove the eyepiece.
Next, attach your lens hood, ensuring the bag sits between the hood and lens body. Check the lens is sealed properly, adding an elastic band on the lens barrel near the hood for extra peace of mind.
Top tips to toy with
Here are some ideas and techniques to try when we have that inevitable downpour this spring
1 After the rain
As many landscape photographers will testify, a great time to shoot is immediately after the rain stops. Rain enhances colours, and as the sun emerges you’ll see some great opportunities, possibly even a rainbow.
2 Watch for theatrical moments
The moment a rainstorm passes, the sky will start to clear from the direction the storm has come from. The relative lighting between the area still under the storm and the area bathed in sunlight is quite extreme, providing some great opportunities. You may need to use a graduated filter if you get an overexposed foreground or underexposed sky.
3 Capture dramatic cloud formations
The clouds you see immediately after rain can look very dramatic. Big cumulonimbus clouds are especially appealing if taken in early morning or late afternoon light,as the warming colours of the sun are much more apparent.
4 Look out for patches of blue sky
Shortly after a storm has passed, small areas of blue sky may emerge, which work well with the broken cloud. Clouds tinged with orange from the sun look great against the blue of the sky, as they are complementary colours.
5 Perfect your puddles
Often the air is quite still after a period of rain, so puddles create natural mirrors. Try getting down as low as you can for interesting angles. Also, don’t forget that you can get some very creative abstract or impressionist effects on a reflection if a breeze is disturbing a puddle’s surface.
6 Include people
Kids, or even adults, splashing around in wet-weather gear after the rain has stopped can also be very evocative of time and place.
Here are some examples of how Tony Worobiec made the most of rainy and wet weather to get some stand-out shots
Parked Car and Wet Tarmac
‘I shot this at dawn and was fascinated by the rich colours of the nearby neon reflected in the wet Tarmac,’ says Tony. ‘While it is easy to assume I was exposed to the elements, I was sheltering underneath the canopy of my motel room.’
Spanish Café at Night
‘It’s quite amazing how rain, particularly when photographed at night, can transform an otherwise prosaic location into something more special,’ adds Tony. ‘Seen earlier in the day, I barely gave this café a second glance.’
The Blue Swallow Motel
You don’t necessarily need a torrential downpour to get an interesting shoot in the rain, says Tony. In this example, there was just a light drizzle, but it was sufficient to offer a reflective surface for the gaudy neon lighting.
‘Waterfalls make excellent subjects to photograph when it is raining, says Tony. ‘They’re best shot using a slow shutter speed in order to capture the silky effect of flowing water; this is most successful in overcast conditions.’
Swanage Pier, Dorset
Tony explains how jetties and piers can make great subjects to shoot in the rain. ‘By ensuring that my ISO rating and aperture were preset, I was able to take my camera out of the bag just at the last moment, thus minimising exposure to the rain,’ he says.
There are lots of rain covers for your gear, but Jim Richardson swears by the Storm Jacket from Vortex Media (www.warmcards.com). ‘This has an adjustable elastic band to go around the front of the lens, and another at the back, so you can access the camera, he says.’
Mudder rain cover
Alex Saberi favours the Mudder rain cover, available from Amazon and other retailers. It has a full-length dual zipper that provides bottom closure when your digital SLR is held by hand or mounted on a tripod.
A lens hood is another useful accessory for keeping your lens dry, and it will also help to prevent flare when shooting in sunnier conditions. Lens hoods are also great for protecting your lens from bangs and scuffs as you’re walking around.
Golf umbrella holder
Golf umbrella holders are designed to be attached to a golf trolley, but some can be attached to your tripod when shooting in the rain – which, of course, will free up both hands for operating the camera.
There’s no point keeping your lens dry if you’re so wet and cold you can’t concentrate. There’s a huge range of waterproof gear for photographers, such as the well-regarded directional clothing from Páramo.