In The Sun: A Photographer’s Ultimate Lighting Source, I touched on the benefits of photographing fog. Fog is a unique lighting situation that can be trickier to photograph than you might think. Here, I’ll lay out how to photograph fog. These are the important things to know about fog to help make your landscapes eerie, ethereal, and eye-catching.
What is Fog?
In its simplest form, fog is a cloud that sits on the ground. In more scientific terms, it is condensing atmospheric water vapor created by a temperature drop when relative humidity is fairly high. Do you ever read the weather forecast on wunderground.com or weather.com? There is an area in those online forecasts that highlights the dew point temperature. The dew point temperature is a key factor to how fog forms.
The dew point temperature is the point at which atmospheric moisture begins to condensate into larger water droplets. The more dramatic the cool-down in relation to the relative atmospheric humidity, the larger the water droplets become and, consequently, the denser the fog layer.
Fog and Temperature
Have you noticed that we rarely see fog in summer? That is because our low temperatures typically stay higher than the dew point temperature in addition to having less humidity in the atmosphere. This is at least the case here in Western U.S. – in more coastal environments you can get fog any time of year.
Have you noticed how we see fog more frequently in the spring and fall? These two seasons typically have warmer days followed by more dramatic cool-downs at night with typically more moisture. At times these dramatic cool-downs reach the dew point and – boom – we have fog. So as photographers, knowing this provides us with a timeframe to find fog: night and early mornings before the temperatures again rise above the dew point.
Fog is an immediate mood driver for a photograph. It is eerie. It highlights danger. Remember that horror movie The Fog? Creepy! Knowing that fog instantly adds mood to a photograph allows us to look for subjects that work with or alter our viewer’s perspective of our scenes. There are some technical photography issues to think about when photographing fog, though.
Reading Your Camera’s Meter When Photographing Fog
Because fog is a cloud and essentially a giant, white diffuser on the ground, it tricks our camera’s meter. If we set our exposure for a middle-tone subject, our fog scene is going to be much darker in our photograph. Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you are looking for the horror story element.
However, if you want a basic proper exposure with your photo, you need to lighten your exposure when photographing fog. In manual mode make sure you meter reads +1 – 1.6 stops brighter than middle tone. If you are shooting using Aperture or Shutter priority, then adjust your exposure compensation dial to + 1 – 1.6 stops.
Color, Contrast, and Depth of Fog in Photography
A scene shrouded in fog loses color saturation, contrast, and scene depth. This happens because the atmosphere has so much density. If you were looking at the world through a pair of milk goggles, you wouldn’t see much. Fog does a similar thing to our visual perceptions.
Distance and Photographing Fog
You can easily control the contrast and put saturation back in the processing of your fog photographs. However, you can also adjust your compositions in the field to help with this. Essentially, the closer you get to a subject, the clearer it becomes because you lose the atmosphere between you and it. So add a strong foreground subject to your composition, this will give your image more color, contrast, and depth automatically.
For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. If we lose detail in fog, then we can also use it to help illustrate shape and form. Think about the silhouette of a person or the shape of a dynamic tree, or fence line heading out into the landscape. All of these subjects have some sort of recognizable shape or form that will allow our viewer to identify with our scene.
Capturing Rays of Light While Photographing Fog
We know that fog is a denser form of atmosphere and we can use it to our advantage in regards to light. As temperatures warm and the sun begins to break through our ground cloud we get to see the light scatter as rays through the varying density of the atmosphere. Many photographers refer to these beams of light as “God Rays” or beams.
If the sun can produce these rays of light in a denser atmosphere, as photographers we can too. Bring a flash or secondary light source out with you to experiment with how the fog scatters that light into rays. Sun bursts look most dramatic when partially obscured by an object, like trees. So too can fog mixed with light beams.
As the atmosphere breaks up, look 360 degrees around the environment you are in. This is the moment where mountains could pop out of the mist or stars could be seen in the coming night sky. Fog allows you to frame the detailed subject matter. It then gives your photograph depth, contrast, and saturation coupled with the misty, eerie look. Now your viewer has something even more stunning to make a connection to.
Fog in winter can add another wow factor to photographs. Here in Jackson, Wyoming we can get inversions where winter temperatures dip as low as -50 degrees Fahrenheit! While this type of cold requires an extensive gear list just to keep warm (maybe a future article), temps this cold produce another amazing factor of fog.
It’s called Rime Ice. Just like our warmer version of fog, it likes to cling to everything but does so by freezing into white crystals that produce spectacular photos of color and shape.
Taking Care of Your Electronics and Gear in Foggy Environments
Since fog is moisture and typically moisture and sophisticated electronics don’t mix, we need to think about our camera gear. Fog likes to cling to things. While I usually don’t worry about the moisture associated with fog like I would if I were photographing in rain, I do bring some additional tools with me for those early morning fog expeditions. While some photographers may go to the extent of using a protective rain cover for their equipment, I just bring a small cotton hand towel and extra lens cloths. As moisture begins to cling to my camera and view finder, I just wipe it off with the towel.
Creating Your Own Fog
Many years ago I was assisting on a winery shoot in Northern California. We wanted fog in a grove of Sequoia trees, but it was super hot and dry with a zero chance of fog. I went to a prop shop in San Francisco and rented a handheld fog machine. I was doubtful that this little hand-held device would produce what we were looking for so the owner asked me to come out back and try it out first. Within mere seconds, the 101 freeway had to momentarily stop as the cloud bank that I created was blown into traffic by a sudden gust of wind. As we quickly and quietly ducked back into the shop I told the owner that, “Ummmm, yeah, this will do…”. Using a fog machine will give you everything from the densest fog layers to those light rays as it dissipates. Within mere seconds of deploying fog from a fog machine, the evidence of you using it will be gone as well. Just don’t use it next to a major highway.
Fog is one of those unique atmospheric events that allows photographers to instantly communicate mood in a photograph. Although it is not readily available every day, when it happens our photographs can become otherworldly. Now that spring is here, pay closer attention to your weather forecasts. And if you just need fog when temperatures won’t allow it, rent a fog machine and you will be amazed with the photos you can create.