I recently spent two weeks in Iceland—which should probably have been named Rainland instead—with entirely predictable results. Yep, I got rained on . . . a lot. The sun didn’t often peek through the clouds, and appearances were typically fleeting. Needless to say, my trip was less than 100% productive.
Of course, Iceland isn’t the only place in the world with bad weather, and poor shooting conditions can strike anytime, anywhere. Over the years, I’ve developed several strategies for dealing with gray skies and rain. These aren’t by any means silver bullets, but they can help you eke out a few good shots even when things look really bad.
#1: Shoot subjects suited to the light
Cloudy and rainy days may not be great for colorful sunrise and sunset skies, but they work well for certain types of subjects. For example, overcast days are perfect for waterfalls, and a little bit of a drizzle can enhance the quality of the scene, darkening bright rocks and saturating colorful foliage (remember to use a polarizer to remove glare from wet surfaces and bring out the best colors). Certain intimate subjects work best in flat light as well, as do some wildlife subjects. For this image of Skógafoss, the gloomy light was perfect for capturing the falls and the bright green foliage. The dark storm clouds above—the next wave of rain coming in—enhance the mood and help to frame the waterfall and interesting rock formation on the left. Canon EOS 5D Mark III Digital Camera, Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II, polarizer filter, ISO 100, f/11, 0.5 seconds.
#2: Find a way to make the light work for the scene
Gloomy weather might not be what you came for, but sometimes it can enhance the mood. With a little creativity, you can find a way to make it work to your advantage. For this image of fellow Dreamscapes blogger Kurt Budliger photographing ice along the shore near the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon, I looked for a way to match the texture in the cloudy sky above with the landscape below. I made several exposures of incoming waves until it finally all came together. Canon EOS 5D Mark III Digital Camera, Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II, polarizer filter, 1-stop graduated neutral density filter, ISO 100, f/13, 0.6 seconds.
#3: Wait for breaks in the weather
Even on the cloudiest days you’ll often get short, unexpected periods of clearing. Aim to be on location as much as possible and you’ll be in a position to take advantage of these brief openings. Even during the middle of the day, a bit of sunlight on the landscape juxtaposed against stormy skies can be very appealing. For this image of the Dyrhólaey Lighthouse along the southern Iceland coast, I quickly got into position when the clouds parted for a few minutes. I got poured on after making this shot, but the brief moment of light was worth the wet! Canon EOS 5D Mark III Digital Camera, Tamron SP 24-70mm f/2.8 DI VC USD Lens for Canon Cameras, polarizer filter, 1-stop graduated neutral density filter, ISO 100, f/11, 1/50 second.
#4: Try the “Hail Mary Pass”
Sometimes it’s worth getting into your car and trying to drive far enough to get to the edge of the bad weather. I call this the “Hail Mary Pass”—not unlike in football, you take a big gamble because your options are limited, and you need to go long and do something big in order to win. Having access to a good weather forecast or satellite map so you can plan your Hail Mary Pass is helpful. For this image, I drove all day to find the edge of the storm hanging over the western two-thirds of Iceland. I ended up at Dettifoss in Vatnajökull National Park, sleeping in the back of my economy car so I could be on location for sunrise. My Hail Mary Pass paid off, and I was rewarded with colorful light and a rainbow at sunrise. Within less than an hour, the rain caught up with me! Canon EOS 5D Mark III Digital Camera, Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II, polarizer filter, 2-stop graduated neutral density filter, ISO 200, f/10, 2.5 seconds.
#5: Shoot twilight for (blue) color
Gray skies mean gray light, which for many subjects isn’t very flattering. It you shoot during the morning or evening twilight, however, you’ll get a lot more blue light than during the day. This can help add some much needed color to a stormy scene. Just remember to set your white balance to the Daylight preset or cooler to keep the blue color—your camera’s automatic white balance might try to warm up the scene and render it a neutral gray. For this image of the Reynisdranger sea stacks near the town of Vik, a hint of blue was all I needed to successfully execute this moody image. Canon EOS 5D Mark III Digital Camera, Tamron SP 24-70mm f/2.8 DI VC USD Lens for Canon Cameras, polarizer filter, ISO 100, f/11, 1 seconds.
#6: Wait it out
Sometimes the best thing to do during bad weather is to sit tight and wait things out. Eventually, the weather will change, and good light will return. For this shot of Brúarfoss, I arrived on location with cloudy skies. Things were going from bad to worse, and I had actually packed my things and was preparing to leave, but I exerted some will power and stayed put instead. Sure enough, at sunset the clouds lifted enough to let some light shine through—not much, but just enough to add some magic to the scene. Canon EOS 5D Mark III Digital Camera, Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II, polarizer filter, 2-stop graduated neutral density filter, ISO 100, f/11, 0.5 seconds.