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Redbud and Rapids, Merced River Canyon

Posted by
Don Smith (California, United States) on 27 April 2010 in Landscape & Rural.

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Many amateur photographers I talk to seem to be amazed when I tell them I'm off to shoot in the rain; in fact, they look at me as if I have lost my marbles (well OK, maybe they have figured me out)! But I honestly believe that some of our best images happen when conditions are less than ideal.

Take today's image as an example of what can happen when the weather turns wet. A couple friends and I had been photographing the spring western redbud in the Merced River Canyon (located just west of Yosemite National Park on Highway 140) when the skies decided to let loose with a steady rain. Though it was a bit of a struggle keeping camera and lenses dry, there was little to no wind (save for an occasional breeze), and for us, that was a green-light condition. Why you might ask? Well let's take a look at the benefits.

First off, the lack of wind. Nothing is more frustrating than trying to photograph foliage/flowers in the wind. Mornings are generally better because thermals caused by the heating of the landscape have not yet occurred. But that was not to be as we could not get to our location until mid-afternoon. At the first location we arrived, the rain had not yet started and we were thrilled to have overcast and calm conditions. An amateur photographer was bemoaning the fact that there were no blue skies. I tried to explain that blue skies meant uncontrollable contrast, but I could see it wasn't sinking in. Overcast/rain means the contrast is generally less than the 5 1/2 stops - the amount of light that your sensor can record all tonal values in one frame. There would have been no way to hold the bright portions of these rapids on a sunny day - they would have recorded washed-out (even double-processing the RAW would not have worked as I can't bring back tonal values that were not recorded). If the image appears too flat, don't despair, you can always bump up the contrast in post. Generally by the time the rain arrives, the winds will sometimes subside (especially in this canyon with its high protective walls).

The next benefit of photographing in wet conditions is that reds and greens record as more saturated. My reasoning is that there is not the normal amount of shine (caused by the natural waxiness on foliage) that one has the deal with in non-overcast conditions. I still do use my polarizer (there is always some shininess to deal with) as I try to wring-out every last drop of saturation I can. For this image, I even added a Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer to help warm the redbud (cooled by the presence of UV light) and saturate the color allowing the redbud to pop off the frame. I suppose I could do some of that in post, but I like to get my capture as close to finished as I can in-camera.

Lastly, I just like the freshness that shooting in the rain reveals. Everything just looks naturally fresh in the frame. Some sort of rain cover, garbage bag and micro-fiber cloths or chamois are a real help. It is also imperative to continually check the front element of your lens to make sure rain drops have not found their way onto the glass (lens shades help here). Other than that, get out there, get a little wet, be a little uncomfortable, and make some great images. Leave the blue sky days for the tourists!

Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III 1 second F/18.0 ISO 400 115 mm

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