Embrace the rain!

Bad weather can create great images.  By Michael DeYoung

When making images I try to make three elements come together.  These are:  1)  great subject (landscape, animal, human, etc.), 2)  great conditions (calm winds, fresh spring green or autumn colors, new snow, great clouds, etc.), and 3) great light!  

Honestly, if you are in a target rich location like a scenic national park and you have screaming good light, it is easy to find subject matter to shoot.  Most subjects photograph well in warm, soft beautiful light.   What happens when the light sucks?  What if it’s raining?   Don’t put your camera away.  Challenge yourself and shoot anyway!  With the right technique and vision you can still make great images in the rain.

Near Court of the Patriarchs in morning rain. The stratus clouds hugging the steep slopes helped to add drama to this flat light scene. When I include the sky on a cloudy day with a dark foreground, I generally use a 3-stop, soft step graduated neutral density filter. The soft step helps with a better blending between the light and dark parts of the filter. Canon 5D, Mark IV, Canon 70-200F/4 lens at 70mm.
ISO 100 1/3 second @ f16
Breakthrough Photography X4 circular polarizer and X4 rectangular filter holder and 3 stop, soft step, Singh-Ray graduated neutral density filter.

In cold, wet places like Alaska where I have been photographing for 29 years, you often have little choice.   Alaska is a land of extremes and most of the time the light is either jaw dropping or horrible for days on end. You either live in frustration and rarely photograph, or adapt and learn to make good imagery in foul weather.  So I learned to photograph in the rain.  

Three years ago, while on a 500 mile hike in Washington, I had 10 days straight of horrible weather.  I had to learn to let go of my visions of glowing North Cascade mountain peaks at sunrise that captivated my imagination and embrace the rain and snow, in July.


Pacific Crest Trail, Cascade Mountains, Washington State, Glacier Peak Wilderness, hikers on a high traverse south of Fire Creek Pass in rain and heavy overcast.
Sony A6300, Zeiss 16-70F/4 at 51mm, ISO 400, 1/80th second @f8

The desert Southwest which is normally blessed with many days of good to great light experienced a very wet winter this year.  Near record precipitation and unseasonable cold took place for much of the 2018/2019 winter season.  I made 4 trips to Zion last winter/spring and I saw and captured lots of rare scenes with heavy snow, flowing water, and reflections.  On my most recent trip to Zion National Park in mid-May, I had 2 days of nearly constant rain.


Prickly pear in healthy bloom below Mt. Kinesava, Zion National Park. It rained virtually all day and we had this short break and some nice clearing storm light between waves of thunderstorms about an hour before sunset.
Canon 5D, Mark IV, Canon 16-35F/4 at 20mm.
ISO 100, 1/4th second @ f16.
Breakthrough Photography X4 circular polarizer, Breakthrough Photography X4 magnetic holder and rectangular filter holder, Singh-Ray 3 stop, soft step, graduated neutral density filter



















I get more excited about bad weather in the desert and  the challenge of doing something different.  Heavy rain or snow is magical in the desert and almost always leads to something visually fantastic at the end of the storm cycle.

Lilacs and adobe garden wall on Ledoux Street in Historic Downtown Taos, New Mexico during wet morning snowfall in May.
Canon 5D, Mark IV, Canon 70-200F/4 lens at 160mm
ISO 100, 1/2 second @ f11
Breakthrough Photography X4 polarizer


Lilacs and adobe garden wall on Ledoux Street in Historic Downtown Taos, New Mexico during wet morning snowfall in May.
Canon 5D, Mark IV, Canon 70-200F/4 lens at 160mm
ISO 100, 1/2 second @ f11
Breakthrough Photography X4 polarizer


Working in rain and bleak weather forces you to see different, look a little deeper and employ other aspects of visual design to make interesting images.  In the absence of light I focus on strong and interesting lines, complimentary and contrasting colors that are often more saturated when wet, and/or finding ways to emphasize dramatic clouds, especially low clouds below peak or rim level.

I use the same two filters for rainy landscapes that I use for great sunlight imagery.  A polarizer removes glare from wet vegetation and wet rocks helping to really saturate colors.  If I include any sky in my images, I try to capture sky mood and detail with a graduated neutral density filter.   This often forces me to look more critically at my compositions so I can find a horizon line that works with the use of a graduated neutral density filter.  On cloudy days I will typically use a soft stop rather than a hard edge grad ND to help disguise the use of the filter more.

Trail runner along West Rim Trail in Rio Grande National Monument, New Mexico during a May snow fall.
Canon 5D, Mark III, Canon 17-40F/4 lens at 29mm.
ISO 400 1/500th second @ f10
Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, Oregon, above Columbia River Gorge through the Eagle Creek burn area. Normally, when shooting in rain and flat light, I eliminate the sky but the fog adds to the mood and even accentuates the pattern of the ghost trees so it was a critical part of the image. I also knew the umbrella and it’s color would make a strong anchor element. I only wish I had a longer lens to really emphasize the rain but I work with what I have.
Sony A6300, Zeiss 16-70F/4 lens @36mm. ISO 800, 1/200th second @f5.6
Trail runner running through mud puddle on the 15-mile point to point Lost Lake Trail, Chugach National Forest, Kenai Peninsula, Alaska
Sony A6300, Zeiss 16-70F/4 lens at 27mm
ISO 400 1/250th second @ f6.3
Trail runner on the 15-mile point to point Lost Lake Trail, Chugach National Forest, Kenai Peninsula, Alaska.
Sony A6300, Zeiss 16-70F/4 lens at 55mm. ISO 400 1/500th second @ f5.


Embrace the rain and grey to find and create good photos.   Show some grit, mud, soaking wetness and moodiness.  Sharpening your design skills in challenging weather only makes you a better shooter when the light is screaming at you!

The blue hour is a great time to photograph during rainy weather and wet surfaces Add some artificial light for added interest such as this long exposure of a vehicle taillights driving through the scene. You can do this with many urban landscapes. This is Canyon Junction in Zion National Park.
Canon 5D, Mark III, Canon 17-40F/4 lens, ISO 100, 30 seconds @ f11.


Shooting in the rain can create reflections on wet surfaces where they normally don’t occur. I took advantage of one such reflection on the Zion Canyon Road between Big Bend and the Temple of Sinewava.
Canon 5D, Mark IV, Canon 14-70F/4 lens at 30mm.
ISO 100, 1/8th second @f16.
Breakthrough Photography X4 magnetic polarizer


Digital LCD display shooting in the rain at Whittier, Alaska.
Fireweed in the rain in Whittier, Alaska, Prince William Sound. Lens hoods are really helpful in keeping raindrops off the front element. A polarizer helps saturate colors by removing glare off wet vegetation.
Sony A6300, Zeiss 16-40F/4 at 70mm. ISO 400, 1/160th second @f4.


Michael DeYoung is an Instructor with Arizona Highways PhotoScapes