Photography in fog, mist or haze can give a wonderfully moody and atmospheric feel to your subjects. However, it’s also very easy to end up with photos that look washed-out and flat. This techniques article uses examples to illustrate how to make the most out of photos in these unique shooting environments.
Fog usually forms in the mid to late evening, and often lasts until early the next morning. It is also much more likely to form near the surface of water that is slightly warmer than the surrounding air. In this techniques article, we’ll primarily talk about fog, but the photographic concepts apply similarly to mist or haze.
Photographing in the fog is very different from the more familiar photography in clear weather. Scenes are no longer necessarily clear and defined, and they are often deprived of contrast and color saturation.
In essence, fog is a natural soft box: it scatters light sources so that their light originates from a much broader area. Compared to a street lamp or light from the sun on a clear day, this dramatically reduces contrast.
Scenes in the fog are also much more dimly lit — often requiring longer exposure times than would otherwise be necessary. In addition, fog makes the air much more reflective to light, which often tricks your camera’s light meter into thinking that it needs to decrease the exposure. Just as with photographs in the snow, fog therefore usually requires dialing in some positive exposure compensation.
In exchange for all of these potential disadvantages, fog can be a powerful and valuable tool for emphasizing the depth, lighting, and shape of your subjects. As you will see later, these traits can even make scenes feel mysterious and uniquely moody — an often elusive, but well sought after prize for photographers. The trick is knowing how to make use of these unique assets — without also having them detract from your subject
Which camera settings should you use?
The big factor at play in these kinds of pictures is the early morning light. It tends to be much more faint than most of the light throughout the day. You most certainly will need a tripod when taking a picture of mist on the lake. You can expect to be using longer shutter speeds to collect all the light you need to make a bright enough photo.
Shutter speeds for these kinds of photos range between 1/5s to 30 seconds. Experiment with a wide range of shutter speeds to see which one ultimately looks best.
With apertures, pick the smaller ones (large F-numbers) so you can get a little more depth of field. Sometimes you’ll need to pick a higher f-numbered aperture anyway as a means of controlling the light. Fog is very bright compared to the rest of the scene. It is rather easy to overexpose it. By dialing up the aperture, you allow less light in, and that will help you give your fog a more defined look.
You should also realize that the definition and character of the fog changes as you increase the length of your exposure. At a shutter speed of 1 second, the fog is fairly well-defined, but at 15 seconds it spreads across the frame like butter. You probably can’t see the fog moving with the naked eye, but it definitely is. This is something worth considering if you want your fog to have a specific kind of texture. Backgrounds are important too. Fog placed against a light background will tend to blend in with it, and fog placed against a darker background will stand out in stark contrast. It’s all about the effect you’re trying to create coupled with what you have around you. Use what you have to the best of your ability. Some creative concepts that you may try are
Include some elements in the foreground, close to the camera. The nearest elements will contain a higher level of contrast and color compared to those farther away, giving a range of tones to the scene. This gives a feeling of depth, allowing the viewer to compare the effect that the fog has on the scene and the elements.
Use Shapes and Silhouettes
Fog has the ability to remove textures and contrast. As the fog becomes heavier, details are removed, emphasizing the main shapes and elements. The fog washes out the details until only silhouettes of the elements remain. Fog is misty and bright, creating a stark contrast between the mist and the silhouettes. To create this effect, adjust the exposure based on the fog to reduce the elements scene even further until they become dark silhouettes of shapes. Be aware of the positions of the elements to make them distinct from one another when the picture is taken.
Photograph from the Outside
It is difficult to photograph fog without dealing with the effect it has on the elements as well as on the camera. By taking a picture of the fog from a distance outside its boundaries, the photographer can capture what the fog looks in its entirety. From the outside, fog appears more like low lying clouds.
Depending on what you’re photographing, filters maybe a useful tool. When David’s photographing a vista that contains fog and mist, he says a polariser can only aid in pulling out stronger greens and blues, but when shooting in thick fog a polariser will do nothing as it is relying on sunshine. While he says ND grads can work to restrain excessively bright areas, especially when shooting in thin fog, but it’s best to exposure blend images for complete artistic control.