Understanding Weather for Landscape Photography


In landscape photography, it helps to understand weather. Many people have no clue about the weather and couldn’t distinguish between rain clouds and mere overcast if their life depended on it. These are the people who complain, any time it gets cloudy, that “It looks like rain.” If you’re a landscape photographer, it helps to develop a feel for the weather, so that one can make educated guesses as to what to expect. It also helps to know how to read the weather forecasts and Radar images available on the web. These can provide clues as to the best time go out and seek those special conditions under which great landscape images are produced.

As an illustration, consider the following image of Swiftcurrent Creek in Glacier National Park:

While leaving the spot from which I took this picture, a photographer carrying a Nikon D3x with the obligatory expensive zoom came hurrying forward, flustered and annoyed. As he passed, he scowled at me and asked in an exasperated tone: “How did you know about this?” I suspect his irritation arose from having assumed there would be no sun at all. It had been mostly cloudy the day before and had rained the day before that. The forecast was for “mostly cloudly” weather through the rest of the week. He had probably assumed there was no point in going out with his camera at sunrise, because there would be no sun. I, on the other hand, despite the forecast, fully expected the sun to make in appearance at sunrise. How did I know this? From my knowledge of the weather combined with an attention to details.

Clouds are formed when water vapor condenses into microscopic particles floating in the sky. Condensation can occur in several ways, but around mountains it usually comes about when warm air, as it is forced up the side of a mountain, cools. I have noted on innumerable occasions after a storm system blows through, the low areas clear out first, while clouds remain hovering over the mountains. Nor is it unusual, under any of kind weather, to see clouds forming around mountains. I noticed this happening at Glacier National Park. The mountains remained under a cover of clouds, but it was clear in the east, over the Montana plains. Since I knew this was par for the course, I figured that when the sun rose, there would be a brief time when the rays of the sun could sneak under the cloud layer and cast upon the east facing peaks the warm glow of the dawn. While I did not plan on photographing the sunrise, I did hope to photograph the alpenglow on the peaks looming above Swiftcurrent Lake, which, if fortune favored me, would be mirror-like reflect the mountains bathed in golden light. I was not disappointed. After photographing the sunrise over Swiftcurrent Creek, I dashed across the road to photograph this:

Moments later, the clouds drew across most of the sky and the sun remained covered for most of the day. But knowing a thing or two about the weather helped me get a couple of nice shots.