Posted by: kerryl29 | August 15, 2011

The Great Equalizer

Quite a few years ago, when I was still in the relatively early stages of becoming serious about my photography, I was in the San Francisco area. Specifically, I was at Cliff House, preparing to hike to Land’s End, the Golden Gate and Fort Point, and perhaps beyond. It was a foggy day–a frequent occurrence in the area around Cliff House–and I was lamenting that fact, hoping against hope that the fog would lift.

Foggy Sunrise, Sauk County, Wisconsin

What an idiot I was.

Misty Dawn, Council Lake, Hiawatha National Forest, Michigan

A landscape photographer complaining about fog is akin to a batter in baseball complaining about belt-high fastballs. Or a skier moaning about heavy mountain snowfalls. You get the idea. (There are a few exceptions, which I’ll mention below.) Generally speaking, fog/mist is a positive boon to landscape photography for a wide variety of reasons–technical, emotional and aesthetic.

Foggy Morning, Fort Harrison State Park, Indiana

The technical advantages revolve around exposure and dynamic range. There are few things easier to properly expose than a foggy scene. When I was still shooting film, I dealt with exposure in a foggy setting by spot metering on the brightest area of the scene and opening up a stop-and-a-half, then bracketing. With digital capture (always shooting RAW), I spot meter on the brightest area, open up about two stops and check the histogram on the LCD screen; 95% of the time that’s that. The other 5% of the time a 1/3 stop tweak in one direction or the other does the trick, using an expose to the right approach. (Modestly reducing exposure during RAW conversion will usually be necessary using this approach, depending upon individual artistic considerations.)

Charleston Harbor in Morning Fog, Oregon

Dynamic range is simply a built-in benefit of the scene. The presence of fog/mist throughout the frame will narrow the tonal range dramatically, easily allowing the digital sensor (or film) to record everything with detail. Properly expose the scene and the dynamic range issue ceases to be a consideration at all.

Ruby Beach black & white, Olympic National Park, Washington

What about the emotional issues?  Fog/Mist frequently has a natural tendency to introduce a certain “moodiness” and mystery into a scene that is otherwise lacking.  There’s a palpably different feel to a scene with fog than without, and this is a characteristic one doesn’t need to own a camera to appreciate.  Simply viewing the landscape with one’s own eyes both with and without fog is all that’s needed to understand this concept.

Jordan Pond in Fog, Acadia National Park, Maine

The presence of fog/mist has the innate property of muting colors and reducing contrast, producing a softness to an image.  Oftentimes it opens up the creative possibility of using a monochromatic approach to image making–going with a strictly black and white look, for instance–given the inherent tendency to reduce the importance of color.  It’s up to the image maker to decide what do with monochromatic contrast (muted, enhanced, limited to local enhancement, etc.).

Swift Creek Overlook black & white, Red River Gorge, Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky

Aesthetically, fog is the great equalizer–an element that can produce singular images out of scenes that otherwise might scarcely receive a second look.  Fog eliminates what I refer to as “the background problem.”  Many scenes involve background elements that are, at best, non-complimentary to the main subject or, at worst, distracting.  Fog simply takes the background out of the picture, literally and figuratively, allowing the viewer to focus (pardon the pun) exclusively on the image’s center of interest.  All of this has the effect of simplifying images–bringing the visual stimuli down to the very core of a scene, a technique that can produce a striking “minimalist” look to one’s imagery.

Foothills Parkway at Sunrise, Tennessee

It may seem as though I’m suggesting that fog/mist is an unmitigated asset to the landscape photographer.  There are some exceptions, however.  Thick fog can completely eliminate vistas and overlooks (a thought that was behind my thinking that day in San Francisco, not incidentally), and I’ve had that happen to me on a number of occasions.  But if, as a photographer, you’re willing to pivot a bit from what you were expecting and take the landscape in the condition that you find it, I think you’ll discover that you’re almost always able to produce compelling photographs in foggy or misty conditions.  They may not necessarily be the images you were anticipating, but they’ll be compelling nonetheless.  (See my installment on serendipitous photography; it doesn’t specifically deal with fog, but the thought process is comparable.)  And if the fog/mist is of a limited density or location, it can add an aesthetically pleasing element to a scene (see for instance, the Foothills Parkway image accompanying this piece) or can create sublime lighting conditions (see the Bandon Beach image).

Bandon Beach Seastacks at Sunset, Oregon

Ultimately there are few, if any, weather conditions that I look forward to more than fog.  It’s not a common feature in the part of the world that I typically find myself, but when it does come about I’m out the door as quickly as possible, constantly on the lookout for images in places that rarely yield them.  Rest assured, you won’t find me cursing the presence of this photographic asset again.

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Responses

  1. breathtaking sceneries!

    • Thanks very much!

  2. Wow! You got some great landscape photos here, and throughout the blog also. Love the black and white picture from Red River Gorge, Daniel Boone National Forest, and the picture of the Council Lake, Hiawatha National Forest. Makes me wanna take more landscape pictures…. 🙂

    • Thanks for reading and for the kind remarks. If this blog entry inspires you to photograph more landscapes, then I’ve more than achieved my goal with the blog.

  3. Exquisite series of images along with a well thought (and written) commentary.

    • Thanks very much for the kind words.

      BTW, I took a look at your blog and noted the e-book download link. My sincere thanks for making this resource available.

  4. Kerry: Good stuff as usual. I look for areas and conditions that will create the foggy conditions you describe, especially in morning. Usually, those very conditions will create some spectacular lighting conditions as the sun rises and during that period when fog lifts (if it does).

  5. Wonderful views on that!

  6. I liked your article is an interesting technology
    thanks to google I found you

  7. Really good post. I just came on your blog and wanted to say i always have really really liked reading your weblog posts. Anyway I am going to be subscribing to your feed and I really hope you post again soon enough.

  8. Great post ive bookmarked it on Digg under “The Great Equalizer Lightscapes Nature Photography Blog”. Keep up with the good stuff.

  9. What a great post! Your photos are beautiful but I also appreciated your narrative. I love taking misty, foggy photos and will take your suggestions to heart. Thank you for sharing.

    • Thanks very much for stopping by and taking the time to post a comment.

  10. […] No heavy contrast to deal with.  No hot spots caused by sunlight filtering through the trees.  Add in some fog and it’s just about perfect.  So, as unpleasant as I made the first few days in West […]

  11. […] had meant heavy valley fog for the previous two mornings and I was anticipating more of the same.  As I have mentioned before, fog is a positive boon for landscape photography and in a place filled with clutter like CVNWR, it […]

  12. […] blog entitled Lightscapes Nature Photography.  The particular post I mention can be found HERE  <— (click)  but don’t pass up his other work it is […]

  13. I’ve just come over to your blog, and I’m drawn into your images. and thank you for taking the time and effort to describe the process. I live on the coast (most of the time, currently in the Alps) and every now and then we get sea mists, they are magnificent and now I feel I might, but only might, attempt to capture them.

    • Thanks very much for your comment and kind words. I hope you will take your camera out and capture the misty, foggy conditions that sometimes crop up along the sea coast. I live in the interior of the U.S., a long way from the ocean, but I have had the opportunity to shoot along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts on a few occasions (and I grew up on the Eastern seaboard); there’s nothing like it. I didn’t post the image in this entry, but one of my favorite shots showing the expressive mood that misty seaside conditions can entail is below:

      Cannon Beach at Dusk, Oregon

  14. That is another wonderful image, as you say its so expressive, I could get lost in the colours (shades and tones)

    • Thanks very much.

  15. […] gear.  I’ve poked at the carcass of this issue a few times in the past, most notably in an entry on shooting in foggy/misty conditions but perhaps we can dip into this a bit more completely–and […]

  16. […] with morning mist, and I tried to use that to my advantage.  I’ve blogged on the topic of fog as a landscape photography aid before and I endeavored to utilize the principles illustrated in the linked […]

  17. […] waxed poetic–or attempted to do so–on the subject of fog and its impact on the landscape many times on this blog, but I had another rigorous lesson during […]


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