Pass me a storm, please

One Sunday, the bright sun was vanquished by fast approaching storm clouds, and thunder rumbled in the distance.

George glanced my way, grinning broadly. “Want to grab the cameras and head out?” he asked.

Well, of course I did. The worse the weather, the better the photos.

Most people make the mistake of thinking that “blue bird days,”

Photo by Monica Sawyn

Photo by Monica Sawyn

the kind with sunny skies and bright sun, are the best times for shooting. That kind of weather may lift the spirits, but it doesn’t always produce photos to brag about later on.

The biggest culprit: reflection. You might not think so, but if you’re shooting nature, petals, grasses and leaves reflect sunlight right back at you. The resulting photos look contrasty and sometimes lack depth. It helps to use a polarizer, but they usually work best when the sun is 90 degrees to the subject—and subjects tend not to always be in that correct location.

Another problem is most people laze away the mornings, have a nice lunch, and then decide to go shooting. When the sun’s out, right after lunch is a horrible time for photography. The flat glare, the lack of shadows, the washed-out color—it’s all there, guaranteed to make a potentially beautiful photo a disaster—and makes polarizers nearly useless.

Photo by Monica Sawyn

Photo by Monica Sawyn

I had that proven to me when, through no fault of my own, I had to shoot South Dakota’s Badlands at noon. The results were sepia-toned images that lacked all of the colorful vibrancy that lurked in that desolate land when the light conditions were right.

Sunny days also bring the Murphy’s Law challenge: whatever you want to shoot will very likely be in front of the sun, where everything is thrown into silhouette. That’s one of the frustrations of shooting along Lake Superior’s North Shore in Minnesota, where I once lived.  Everything is “into the sun.” Shooting the breakwater in Two Harbors, the ore docks, the boats on the horizon, the ducks along the shore—it all means facing the sun. Although the sun still has its silhouetting effect on cloudy days, it’s not quite so drastic.

Here in Sturgeon Bay, shooting on Lake Michigan in the morning means looking into the sun, too. It can be dramatic–or it can be a real challenge.

When it’s cloudy, colors pop. They sometimes appear almost neon. There are no harsh shadows to create metering dilemmas. It’s like the subjects are immersed in a layer of color disbursement, and they look good from any direction. Believe it or not, I prefer shooting fall leaves on cloudy days.

I recently visited a park along Lake Michigan, one filled with flower beds full of every shade of color imaginable. It was a very gray day. The sky and its clouds looked like fractured slate, and a fine mist was precursor to the rain that was imminent. I glanced about, and saw that people were reluctant to take their cameras out. They felt gloomy.

I just smiled to myself, then put the long lens on for some far-away close-ups (a necessity when you don’t have a macro lens) and indulged myself for nearly an hour. The result: vivid photos that gave no clue to the roiling clouds overhead.

Take a step beyond that to stormy days, the kind where thunder rumbles and lightning shimmers behind your eyelids; when day looks like dusk, and storms loom like Tolkien characters, riding the winds of drama.

Photo by Monica Sawyn

Photo by Monica Sawyn

I rode through some farmland in weather like that. I boosted the ISO and focused on the dark, swirling clouds that camouflaged the even darker heart of the storm. Farmers’ fields crouched, bracing themselves for the onslaught. Big barns were dwarfed by a sky where the imagination can see monsters. The wind flattened my t-shirt against my body, and forced a spread-eagle stance for stability. Rain drops the size of half dollars splatted onto the dirt road, where little poofs of dry dust exploded into the air.

But I metered and snapped and reveled in the weather, and the photos that emerged were full of power. If nature reflects God, then I was seeing his might.

What a welcome, dramatic diversion from a light and sunny day.

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About Monica Sawyn

I'm a retired newspaper reporter/columnist, and although I still freelance, I miss the weekly column I used to write. I still "see columns" in everyday life and need a place to put them after they're written--thus, this blog. I'm Catholic, have been a Benedictine oblate since 1977, and live with my husband and our beagle in Sturgeon Bay, Wis. When I'm not writing, I'm probably reading, sewing, taking photos or walking the dog.
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4 Responses to Pass me a storm, please

  1. blb1 says:

    I hear you on a bright day, but if I go out before sun is up with my point and shoot I get very little that I actually see. Bet that’s no surprise to you.

    • Monica Sawyn says:

      Actually, you can sometime get really cool shots even with a p&s at that time of day. But you have to have a steady hand while the camera soaks up as much light as possible. Usually, when I’m out before sunrise, I’m aiming at the sky where the sun is about to emerge, so there’s enough light to get something.

  2. sarahlmandl says:

    I love stormy days, too, for much the same reasons as you, only not through the eye of a camera’s lens, just through my eyes. The world looks softer before a storm and not so harshly crisp as a bright, sunny day. A bright blue sky has nothing on the black, grays, deep blues, and rich purples of a storm system. I agree: if nature reflects God, a storm is when we see His might.

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