Seven reasons photographers love rain

Gary Hart Photography, Mt. Hood Autumn Leaf

Hidden Leaf, Mt. Hood, Oregon
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
168 mm (plus 48mm of extension)
1/100 second
ISO 400

The difference between a photographer and a tourist is easily distinguished by his or her response to rain: When the rain starts, the photographer grabs a camera and bolts outside, while the tourist packs up and races for shelter.

Seven reasons photographers love rain

  1. Smooth, (virtually) shadowless light that eliminates the extreme contrast cameras struggle to handle, and enhances color saturation
  2. Clouds are vastly more interesting than blue skies
  3. The best stuff happens in the rain: rainbows, lightning, clinging water droplets
  4. Clean air means more vivid sunrises and sunsets
  5. Replenished lakes, rivers, streams, and waterfalls for days, weeks, or months of great photography (rain or not)
  6. Low light makes easier the long shutter speeds necessary for soft water effects
  7. (Last, but not least,) we have the landscape to ourselves

Case in point

This week Don Smith and I traveled to Hood River, Oregon for some autumn photography, and to do more prep and reconnaissance for next spring’s Columbia River Gorge photo workshops. It’s rained every day we’ve been here, and you won’t find two happier (albeit wetter) photographers. Not just because our California bones miss rain (they do), but because there is no better time to take pictures than a rainy day.

Monday morning Don and I drove to Lost Lake to scout it as a potential workshop location. Climbing from near sea level to over 3,000 feet in a steady rain, we passed through deciduous forests in varying stages of green, yellow, orange, and red. The fall color peaked at around 2,000 feet, dwindled as we climbed further, until by the time we reached the lake, most of the colorful leaves were on the ground or whisked away by mountain breezes. While Mt. Hood was completely obscured by rainclouds, we spent a couple of hours exploring near the lake before heading back down the mountain with no specific plan other than to stop somewhere and photograph the color we’d enjoyed on the drive up.

Partway down the mountain we pulled over beside an evergreen forest liberally mixed with yellow and red maples, donned our rain gear, and went to work. With dense, low clouds shrinking the view to just the immediate vicinity, grand panorama were out of the question and my 70-200 became my weapon of choice for its ability to isolate nearby leaves and limit depth of field.

An essential but frequently overlooked component of successful rainy day photograph is a (properly oriented!) polarizer to mitigate the ubiquitous, color-sapping sheen reflecting back from every exposed surface. This is a no-exception thing for me—I don’t care if it’s already dark and the polarizer robs me of two more stops of light, without it, images from wet scenes like this would be a complete failure. In this case I bumped my ISO to 400 (and would have as high as necessary if there had been more wind) before composing a single frame.

Beautiful as it was, a scene like this starts as a hodgepodge of disorganized color. Fortunately, it’s never long before individual elements start manifesting—the longer I stay, the more (and smaller) detail I see, until even the littlest thing stands out and I can’t believe it had been there all along. Knowing all this, I usually start at my lens’s wider range and gradually work tighter as the surroundings become more familiar.

And so it was with this little leaf, tucked into the forest behind several layers of dense and dripping branches, hiding from my gaze until nearly an hour into my visit. From the forest’s outskirts I zoomed to 200mm and composed a few frames through the tangle of branches, but it wasn’t long before I needed to be closer.

When I spy something interesting, it’s easy to crash through the forest like an angry grizzly (or frightened bison), but because I was extremely concerned about dislodging the fragile raindrops, I found myself deliberately stalking my prey, more like a stealthy cougar. (I could have just as easily compared my advance to a slithering snake, but for some reason this cougar analog resonated with me. Go figure.) When I made it so close that I was inside my lens’s focus range, I added an extension tube, and finally a second tube.

By this time I was just a few inches from the leaf, and while this ultra-close view was pretty cool, I felt my frame needed more that just a pretty leaf. Until this point I’d been pushing the nearby branches and leaves aside, out my view. But realizing that I was so close (the leaf closest brushed my lens), and my range of focus was so thin, that they would blur to a smear of red that cradled my subject.

With a paper-thin depth of field, finding the right focus point is essential. I also knew that I wouldn’t be able to get the entire leaf sharp, so I used live-view to focus on the center water drop (because that’s where I want my viewer’s eye to start).

Staying dry

The rain came and went for the duration of our stay, but never reached an intensity that made shooting difficult. In this case there wasn’t much wind, making my umbrella particularly useful for keeping raindrops off my lens. Nevertheless, without a little simple preparation, this image wouldn’t have been possible. I’ve learned never to take a photo trip without basic rain gear. For me that’s:

  • A thin, waterproof shell that fits over whatever else I’m wearing (shirt, jacket, or whatever the temperature calls for)
  • Waterproof pants that fit over my regular pants—I have an unlined pair for moderate temperatures, and a lined pair what I think it could get cold, and decide between when I pack
  • Waterproof hiking boots
  • Waterproof hat
  • Wool or synthetic shirts, pants, and socks that will keep me comfortable when my rain gear causes me to perspire (no cotton!)
  • Umbrella for my camera—because I’m dry (see above), I can dedicate the umbrella 100 percent to keeping raindrops off my lens
  • Towel to dry things (especially my lens!) when they get wet—I often borrow one from my hotel, which isn’t a problem as long as I remember to return it
  • Plastic garbage bag to drape over my camera when it’s on the tripod waiting for me to do something productive—if I forget a garbage bag, the hotel’s laundry or trash liner bags work fine

A rainy day gallery

Click an image for a closer look, and to enjoy the slide show

11 Comments on “Seven reasons photographers love rain

  1. Hey Gary – First I Really need to agree with Jane’s comment, Your posts are always informative but here, in this one, as you speak about the sensations that a photographer experiences in and because of the rain, it’s just wonderful! ouches my mind as well. I have learned so much from your clothing tips and camera protection tips and definitely image composition tips.. I Love how “your” leaf holds the light in just that special spot near the bottom…What a fantastic image. Best of luck to you guys and thanks for your patience with my “Blabbery.” cheers, dj

  2. Love this image and as above always love your informative posts and sense of humor. I can always visualize in my mind by your creative descriptions. I was up that way in September and we had hot weather! Really wanted some rain, especially for photography!

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