Posted by: kerryl29 | April 16, 2018

Fog: In Depth

I’ve discussed the subject of fog and photography before on this blog, but it’s been nearly seven years since I posted an entry dedicated to this matter and I feel it’s time for a refresh.  Besides, the earlier post on the topic of fog did little more than discuss things on a general level and I think it’s time to flesh out some considerations.  Not incidentally, thanks to a comment from David on the Colorado, Day 11 post some weeks ago, for inspiring me to think about and expand upon the subject of fog and photography.

In the 2011 post “The Great Equalizer,” I spent some time discussing some of the technical benefits of photographing foggy landscapes–ease of metering, lack of dynamic range concerns, etc.–that are present in instances with heavy mist, such as the Halfmoon Lake image below.

Halfmoon Lake in Fog, Hiawatha National Forest, Michigan

In this essay, I’m going to turn my attention to the aesthetic/emotional side of things.  For instance, the fog in the Halfmoon Lake shot introduces a palpable sense of mood to the shot, with the associated impact of creating a water color-like expression.  Instead of the rich fall colors of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula bursting through with vivid power, the fog’s impact is to hold the color riot back behind the barricades.  It’s a softer, more subtle presentation–for better or worse.

There Is No Bad Fog

On my first visit to the Smoky Mountains region, in the fall of 2004, I went to an overlook on the Foothills Parkway one morning.  The fog was so thick, the vista was completely hidden.  I mean, it was impossible to see anything situated more than 50 feet from one’s position.  Bad fog, right?  Wrong.  I simply wasn’t using the fog to my advantage.  I didn’t completely understand what that meant at the time.

Rhododendrons and Redwoods in Fog, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, California

The kind of fog I found on the Foothills Parkway that morning was best suited for a much more intimate treatment, the kind of scene I sought out deliberately when I was in California’s coastal redwood country in the spring of 2017–as epitomized by the image above.  Opportunities of this kind are everywhere in the Smokies (not to mention many other places); you simply have to be of the mindset to recognize the situation for what it is.

And, this isn’t to say that the Foothills Parkway overlooks are bad places to be when fog is present; you simply need a different kind of fog (i.e. not as thick and confined mostly to the valleys).  By the time I made a subsequent trip to the Smokies, I understood this maxim, as the image below demonstrates.

Sunrise, Foothills Parkway, Tennessee

In fact, this kind of fog–spotty, collected in certain places but not others–can be a tremendous asset when photographing from overlooks, as it adds another dimension and a sense of mystery to broad vistas.  In such instances, the goal is to place yourself literally above the fog.

Ohio Pass Overlook, Gunnison National Forest, Colorado

Yosemite Valley in Fog from Tunnel View Black & White, Yosemite National Park, California

Swift Creek Overlook at Sunrise, Red River Gorge, Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky

Pacific Sunset, Baker Beach Recreation Area, Oregon

Sunrise, Bear Rocks Preserve, Dolly Sods Wilderness, Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia

These images all have different elements in them and produce different emotional responses as a result.  But fog is present in all of them and in each instance–including the Foothills Parkway sunrise photograph–there’s a notable contrast between the segment of the scene obscured, in part or in whole, and the area that is not.  That’s an entirely different dynamic than exists in the Halfmoon Lake image at the top of this piece, where it’s as though a curtain of partial opacity cloaks the entire frame.

How thick and how ubiquitous the fog is leads to different approaches.  At times, from overlooks, I’ve found myself more or less shooting into foggy windows, of varying opacity.

Morning Fog, Oxford County, Maine

Gorge Sunrise, Letchworth State Park, New York

Foggy Morning, Swift Creek Overlook, Red River Gorge, Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky

Mt. Sneffels in Morning Fog Black & White, County Road 7, Uncompahgre National Forest, Colorado

Ten Peaks at Sunrise, Moraine Lake, Banff National Park, Alberta

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

In the above set of instances, I was never really “above” the fog, which is typically a sure-fire ticket to something good.  In these cases, I was always at fog level relative to the subject matter, dependent upon the whims of a drifting, ever-changing band of obscurity.  The content of these scenes was changing constantly as the fog, lifting and drifting, thickening and thinning, revealed or cloaked various elements of the landscape.  The key was vigilance; being prepared to capture something compelling at the moment it appeared.

At Ground Level

Though the above image sets may belie it, the vast majority of the time when I’m interfacing with fog it’s at ground level, not at a high level viewpoint.  While the matter of fog thickness remains a critical component of the process of recognizing and exercising photographic opportunities, they’re expressed differently when at ground level.  As the story of the Foothills Parkway experience demonstrates, when thick fog is present, the vista is more or less non-existent.  Some degree of fog-thinning is necessary to execute the image; exactly how to go about the execution depends on the thickness of the fog, among other things.

At ground level, that’s not the case.  There’s always compelling imagery to be made at ground level, regardless of the thickness of the fog.  In this instance, how thick the fog is will dictate how to go about–rather than whether to go about–finding the most compelling images.

The same thick fog that eliminates the vista image will often create a ground level scene that otherwise likely wouldn’t exist.  Thick fog can utterly remove what I call the “cluttered background problem”–scenes that aren’t compelling because of copious, detailed, distracting background elements.  Thick fog removes that problem, working to create marvelously simple compositions that don’t exist under normal conditions.

Foggy Sunrise, Sauk County, Wisconsin

Foggy Morning black & white, Ft. Harrison State Park, Indiana

Pilings in Morning Fog, Tillamook Bay, Oregon

These are scenes for which, without fog, no one would offer a second glance.

Special Effects

Since fog often forms at or near daybreak, it can produce some marvelous interactions with light, oftentimes as the fog burns off with the rising sun.

Androscoggin River Sunrise, Oxford County, Maine

Foggy Sunrise, Everglades National Park, Florida

Sunlight and fog, of varying opacity, can produce some very interesting effects…

Newfound Gap at Sunrise, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Mt. Abraham Details, David Thompson Country, Alberta

Misty El Capitan Meadow, Yosemite National Park, California

…and those effects can be particularly bewitching when a forest canopy is part of the mix.

Long Pine Lake at Sunrise, Long Pine Key, Everglades National Park, Florida

Coastal Trail, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, California

October Light, Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge, West Virginia

Under the right set of circumstances, with the influence of fog, light itself can become the key element of an image.

Mood, Mystery & Monochrome

Fog almost literally always adds an element of mood to an image.  Exactly what kind of mood varies depending on the nature of the fog–and the other elements–included in the frame.  The inclination is to assume that the kind of mood enhanced by fog is…well, moody…but that’s not always the case, as the image below indicates.

Pyramid Mountain from Patricia Lake at Sunrise, Jasper National Park, Alberta

This image has fog and it has mood, but it’s definitely not a “moody” photograph, in the common parlance.  There is an element of mystery, however, with the crest of Pyramid Mountain peeking out of a window in the mist–and that impact is magnified by the reflection.

But a more traditional sense of moodiness comes across when the fog is thicker even, sometimes, when the underlying elements are colorful.

Aspens in Fog, Last Dollar Road, Uncompahgre National Forest, Colorado

Lake Willoughby in Fog, Orleans County, Vermont

Council Lake in Morning Fog, Hiawatha National Forest, Michigan

It’s much easier to create a moody feel when the underlying image is largely devoid of color.

Jordan Pond in Fog, Acadia National Park, Maine

Foggy Trees, Yoho Valley Road, Yoho National Park, British Columbia

Foggy images–moody or not–often work remarkably well in monochrome.

Foggy Anchorage Black & White, Tillamook Bay, Tillamook County, Oregon

Ruby Beach Surf Black & White, Olympic National Park, Washington

Much of the reason why these conversions often work is that fog sucks a lot of the color out of the scene to begin with.  The seaside scenes in the above set are particularly good illustrations of this; I recall while standing amid the marine layer fog on these Pacific coast beaches that I was standing in a world that was a literal illustration of shades of gray.  It was natural to remove what remained of the dull color.

Misty El Capitan Meadow Black & White, Yosemite National Park, California

Rampart Ponds Black & White, Banff National Park, Alberta

Foresta Falls Black & White, Yosemite National Park, California

But not infrequently, even with the presence of a significant amount of color, the foggy dominance compresses all of the tonal values and begs for the more contrast-heavy treatment that black and white enables.  This in turn, places greater emphasis on lines, shapes, patterns and details present within the frame.

End Game

The presence of fog makes for great images; exactly what images you should be looking for in these instances depends on the very nature of that fog.  How is its presence transforming the landscape?  General rules of thumb–where to look for images when the fog is thick, when it’s thinner and more limited in its placement, when its doing a dance with sunlight–are worth remembering and the above examples can provide some guidelines.  But, as is the case with photography generally, the exercise is ultimately about seeing–in real time or as an exercise in visual memory.  The rules of thumb will provide some guidance about the kinds of places to go but the specific images?  You’ll know them when you see them.

Fog & Sun, Bear Rocks Preserve, Dolly Sods Wilderness, Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia



  1. Those are awesome photos, the fog looks like it’s flowing out of the trees! They are stunning views! 😀

    • Thanks very much!

  2. Agreed, ‘there is no bad fog.’ …in photography. It can be mystical! Very nice photos, Kerry.

  3. My world is enveloped in fog these days. I should be out there shooting. Thanks for a great post reminding us that there are possibilities even in the gloomiest of conditions.

    • Thanks, Ellen. Fog is the one element that can turn no shots into lots of shots. If there’s fog present, I’ll try to get out regardless of the time of year.

  4. Just Amazing 🙂

  5. Your photos are awe-inspiring! I love this blog post and I share a love for photographing in the fog. I once told a relative that I was going to for a hike and photography the fog. She replied, almost with disgust, “how on earth can you photograph anything in this fog!?” When I showed her the results, she was amazed.

    • Thanks for the kind words and for the validating story. Many people don’t realize what a tremendous visual boon fog is.

  6. Wonderful images, all!

    • Thanks very much!

  7. So much variety, fog is not just fog.

    • Indeed (and thanks).

  8. Such a detailed discussion of fog.

    We had a little fog this morning. In certain directions, it looked thick. In others, it was thin. I think we’re getting close to the end of fog season here.

    • The fog you describe is often the best kind for wider scenics (something that’s rarely relevant where I live, but I digress…).

      Take advantage of it while you can!

  9. What a fabulous post, Kerry – I love shooting in fog and you’ve given me so many more ideas on how to do that. As always, thank you for so generously sharing your insights and talents. Gorgeous shots!

    • Thanks very much, Lynn!

  10. You’ve got an amazing gallery here! I really love how you tie in the experience and insights along with photos to represent what you mean. +1 follower haha – what’s your instagram handle? I’d love to see more of your work in the future!

    • Thanks very much for the kind words–they’re much appreciated. I’m afraid I’m not on Instagram, but I invite you to take a look at my website, which is devoted to my photography and serves as the central depository for my work.

  11. very impressive photos

  12. A visual treat! Beautiful photos and great perspectives in your shots.

    • Thanks very much!

  13. Wow

  14. […] out into the gorge, all I could see was a band of fog.  I feared that I’d wasted my time.  Some fog is almost always a good thing, but as I’ve said before, the one instance when it’s often not a complement is when a […]

  15. […] to landscape photography on a number of occasions during the history of this blog, most extensively here, but here as well, and I recommend both of these posts if you want to read about the subject in […]

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