Photographing Mist in the Landscape
Posted on 16th January, 2019
An early alarm call can provide other rewards aside from colourful skies and golden light. Mist can add wonderful diffusion and atmosphere to your landscape shots. By reducing colour and contrast, a thin veil of mist or fog has the ability to transform the landscape. Misty conditions simplify scenery, adding mystery and mood to photographs. Photogenic, low-lying mist is most likely to form overnight, but how do you make the most of these magical conditions? Planning, preparation and a tiny bit of luck is key.
Be warned, early morning mist can prove a frustrating condition to photograph. Even with experience, it is impossible to accurately predict just where and when mist will form, and if it is too foggy – or not misty enough – you can return home frustrated and empty handed. However, you will maximize your chances of succeeding through know-how and planning.
Fog consists of condensed, suspended water droplets, created when moist, warm air reaches its dew-point. Basically, it is cloud on the ground. Fog is dense; reducing visibility to less than 1km. Mist is thinner, impairing visibility less and is generally more attractive. There are a number of different types, but probably the most appealing in terms of landscape photography is ‘radiation fog’. This tends to form during clear, still nights when the ground is losing heat via radiation. The ground cools nearby air to saturation point, resulting in mist forming. This type of mist will often remain attractively close to the ground, forming a thin, white layer at the bottom of valleys, over fields and large bodies of water.
Mist is frustratingly unpredictable, though, and it can be tricky to anticipate when and where it will form and just how dense it will be. Unsurprisingly, you will greatly increase your chances of capturing great misty images if you keep a close eye on the weather forecast. Look for clear, cool and still conditions overnight, particularly during spring and autumn when the temperature can fall steeply and there tends to be more moisture in the atmosphere. Many weather Apps will predict mist, but if not, simply look for changes to predicted visibility in the forecast – if visibility drops from ‘excellent’ or ‘very good’ to ‘average’ or ‘poor’ overnight, it is often an indicator of mist or fog. This is your opportunity. Set your alarm early and arrive on location before daybreak.
The best conditions are often short-lived and confined to just before and after sunrise – mist will quickly evaporate as temperatures rise. To make the most of these magical, but transient conditions, it is important to put yourself in the right place. Therefore, location choice is a big consideration. Although you can never be entirely sure where mist will form, or just how dense it will be, research, local knowledge and experience will help guide you. Elevated viewpoints, overlooking valleys, lakes or the countryside, are normally the best option, allowing you to get above the mist and achieve good views below. A landscape with layers also works well – for example, a scene with far reaching views of hills, mountains or rolling countryside. Ideally, visit locations and viewpoints beforehand, so you are familiar with the potential they offer. As always, calculate the sun’s position in advance using an App (like PhotoPills or SunScout) so you are aware of the light’s direction in relation to your chosen viewpoint.
Mist is often at its eerie best just before and after sunrise. Before daybreak, low-lying mist will appear naturally cool. However, Auto white balance will attempt to neutralize the lovely natural blue hues created by the time of day, so a Daylight WB setting is typically a better option, enabling you to capture, or even exaggerate, these lovely steely tones. Once the sun has risen, early morning sunlight will give mist natural warmth. The conditions will beautifully diffuse and reduce the sun’s intensity, potentially allowing you to shoot in its direction. Doing so will allow you to capture incredibly atmospheric backlit images of the foggy conditions. Although wide-angle focal lengths are often favoured for landscape photography, a telephoto length – in the region of 70-200mm – is often a better choice in misty weather. Longer focal lengths foreshorten perspective, exaggerating the mist’s effect and allowing you to isolate key points of interest within the landscape – a skeletal tree, church steeple or castle ruin, perhaps. Misty landscapes are often accompanied by fairly clear, relatively uninteresting skies, so using a longer focal length will also help you keep the emphasis on the landscape, while restricting the amount of sky from the frame.