Weather is probably the most influential factor in nature photography. It affects everything—the photographer, the equipment, the subject, the land, and especially the light. Weather changes the color of light by filtering it through dust, rain, and clouds. The more dramatic the weather, the more exciting the light, and if the weather is happening early or late in the day the colors can be truly breathtaking.
Beams of light break through fast-moving clouds, revealing patterns that sweep across the hills, and then a rainbow appears behind you. The clouds move, the light hits something new, you're waiting for light to strike the subject just right there. Click. Click. You have to be ready (FIG. 4.13).
Fig 4.13 Someone in the back of the bus was hollering, and the driver slammed on the brakes. "What's wrong?" he asked. "RAINBOWS!" Rain showers had been blowing over all morning; one minute a downpour, and the next bright sun. We piled out of the bus, and against the dark clouds saw a double rainbow. Be sure to expose for the light areas of the clouds and let the dark area stay dark. Denali National Park, Alaska. (Nikon D200, ISO 200, 12–24 mm lens, handheld, 1/500 sec. @ f/8.)
Before I go on, I want to emphasize that if you don't have a good grasp of your equipment and techniques, or if you're not physically prepared for weather, you're going to miss these chances at capturing amazing light. This is one of the biggest lessons my students learn on field trips. When they're cold and miserable, they get impatient, they don't make good pictures, and they quit. When their cameras get wet in the rain and stop working, or their batteries die, they quit. If you and your stuff aren't prepared, you're not going to make images—you're going to quit. Nature seldom gives you a second chance.
One of my favorite times to take photographs is when the weather is clearing, the storm is moving off, and the clouds are beginning to break up. The mix of clouds, rain, wind, and sun create such diversity of lighting! A rainbow against black storm clouds, rain showers backlit by the sun, beams of light striking the ocean—it's exciting light. In California, these storms happen in the winter; in Alaska, the summer storms are more dramatic. In places closer to the tropics, the light and weather are different. Many people choose to travel during the dry season because they don't want to get wet—or because, in places such as Africa, the roads are passable only when they're dry. I like to go to East Africa at the fringes of these seasons, so I can get clearing storms with their rolling clouds and shafts of light. Granted, I'll have to help dig the truck out of the mud a few times, but it's worth the trouble (FIG. 4.14 and 4.15).
Fig 4.14 I was with several students in Big Sur, hoping for a sunset on the ocean. The clouds were thick, and it looked like we were going to get skunked, so most of the students quit and went back to camp. A few of us waited. With a sudden break in the clouds, rays of sunlight streamed through, and my advice to the students—"Never give up on a sunset"—was vindicated. A few minutes later, it was all over. California. (Nikon D2X, ISO 100, 200–400 mm lens, tripod, 1/400 sec. @ f/5.6.)
Fig 4.15 Acacia trees are silhouetted by a beam of sunlight coming through clearing clouds over the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. I had my guide maneuver the van so none of the trees stacked up on each other, and then we just waited. The light was different every minute. Patience. (Nikon F4, ISO 32, 80–200 mm lens, sandbag, Fujichrome Velvia 50 film, exposure unrecorded.)
The light during these storms can be contrasty, with areas of brightness against darker areas. I use manual exposure mode, not auto exposure, and expose for the brighter areas, letting the darker areas go dark. It looks more realistic that way. Check your blinkies (your camera's highlight alerts)—you only want the very brightest spots to be blinking.
If you spend time looking at light and color, watching how they change depending on the time or season or weather, you'll develop an intuitive feeling for changes in light.