We might hope for dramatic clouds, rainbows, or perfect light each time we’re out photographing but the reality isn’t quite as nice. Either it’s too cloudy, not enough clouds, too wet, too dry, too windy, too flat… It’s just not right.
This is part of the game but there’s no secret that long periods of bad light affect your motivation. I won’t lie, I still struggle with this from time to time.
But is there really nothing to do when the conditions aren’t right? Should you just pack up and leave? No! There are still several things you can do to make it a productive and rewarding session.
What are bad conditions?
The first thing we need to do is clarify what bad conditions are. I bet you that the term is quite different for landscape photographers than most others.
What most consider bad weather conditions is often a landscape photographer’s favorite. Wind, snow, clouds… all elements that can help convey a story.
When I use the term ‘bad conditions’, I don’t refer to a specific type of weather. It all boils down to what I’m photographing or what I’m envisioning.
For example, harsh light might be tricky when photographing a waterfall but it can be great when focusing on an abstract scene. Fog is great when exploring the forests but not so much when photographing a mountain vista. Rainbows are great when… well, rainbows are always great.
My point is that there’s not one particular type of weather that is bad for photographers. TJ Thorne proves this in his eBook ‘There’s No Such Thing as Bad Light‘, where he teaches how to capture portfolio-worthy images even in harsh mid-day light.
The two images below are an example of this. The general conditions are, in my opinion, bad. I don’t like photographing wide-angle scenes when there are no clouds and harsh light. Now, I could consider this a defeat and try again another day but instead, I changed my perspective and zoomed in on the waterfall, eliminating the sky from the image.
While I was a little frustrated at first, changing my mindset and approach led to me returning home with two portfolio images from a session where the conditions were bad. Truth is that there are always subjects that will thrive in the given conditions.
But, for simplicity’s sake, I’ll refer to ‘bad conditions’ as any type of conditions that aren’t ideal for the shot you have in mind.
Let’s take a look at a few things you can do when that’s the case:
Take time to scout the area
It’s easy to feel uninspired when things don’t work out the way you hoped. That’s why patience is crucial for photographers.
Instead of packing up and giving up, you should take the opportunity to explore the area. Search for interesting foregrounds and compositions. I guarantee that you’ll find something you hadn’t seen before.
The more time you spend scouting an area, the more likely it is that you’ll get great images when the conditions are right. Why? Because you’re prepared. You know where to go and you don’t need to run around searching for a composition.
The image above is an example of when scouting pays off.
This is shot in a location that I’ve spent years exploring in all sorts of conditions without ever quite getting what I wanted. I had an idea of photographing these trees in a whiteout snowstorm but conditions like this don’t happen too often.
When it finally did happen, I knew exactly where to go. I knew exactly which trees to photograph and from which angle they would look best.
Had I not taken the time to properly scout the place during other visits, I would’ve wasted valuable time searching for compositions. In the worst-case scenario, I’d end up having the perfect conditions without being able to capture anything noteworthy.
Take test shots
Just because conditions are bad doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use the camera at all. These days are all about preparing yourself for the moments when the light becomes good.
While scouting makes you familiar with the surroundings, taking test shots will prepare you to capture the best possible images.
When you find elements that look interesting, take a shot! Set up your composition, adjust your settings, and fire away. These aren’t going to be portfolio images but they will help you get them.
Recommended Reading: 5 Compositional Guidelines to Know in Landscape Photography
Back home and in front of the computer, you should take the time to study your test images. Which angles work bests? What lines help the composition? Which composition tells the best story? Ask yourself all these questions and make notes.
Export the images to your phone with notes on them, so when you go back in better conditions you know how to handle the situation.
Step out of your comfort zone
The third thing you can do on days where conditions are bad, is to try something different. Force yourself to look beyond the surface and actively search for subjects that make good images in the given conditions.
I’ve talked about the importance of experimenting with different focal lengths in previous articles and this is one of the things you can try when the conditions are bad.
The image above was captured on a day with bright blue skies. However, there were some clouds covering a nearby mountain, and every now and then the peak would emerge. A perfect opportunity to use a long focal length when the light otherwise was uninteresting.
Another idea is to shift your focus towards nature’s smaller scenes. Are there any interesting subjects in the ground around you? A flower that stands out, a crack in the mud, the formation of the mud? The image below was captured on an overcast day where I actively tried to look for something different than what I’d typically photograph. The result was a photo of seaweed moving in a little tidal pool.
It’s first when you step out of your comfort zone that your creative growth begins. And what better time to do that than when the conditions don’t allow you to take the images you would’ve otherwise?
Photographers are quick to blame the conditions when returning home empty-handed but the truth is that there’s always an image to be taken. It might not always work out and you may still come home without a noteworthy image but at least you tried.
Days with bad conditions shouldn’t be thought of as failed attempts.
Take advantage of the opportunity and get to know the area better. Prepare yourself for the days when conditions are good. You should also challenge yourself to look for something different than what you’d normally photograph. Take a moment to carefully examine the surroundings and see what you find.
What do you do on the days where conditions aren’t ideal?
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