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Adventure Photography Tips: Skip “Magic Hour” and Wait for the Storm (1 of 3)

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Ultra trail runner Rory Bosio in southern Iceland's Lakagígar lava fields; Photograph by Tim Kemple

Anyone who has picked up a camera has heard of  the “magic hour.”  It’s that perfect, golden light that appears an hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset that landscape photographers, in particular, fall over themselves to use to capture iconic scenes across the globe. Think Yosemite, Delicate Arch, Santorini, and the likes. And while I’ve been known to wake up early to catch those early morning rays that create such beautiful depth, shooting at “magic hour” isn’t my favorite time to shoot at all. It’s safe, predictable, and expected. I loathe all of those words—what photographer wants his images being described as “expected”?

That’s why my favorite time to shoot is on stormy days.

I have a host of reasons why I love shooting on days when it’s raining, snowing, windy, or about to storm. Here are a few of them:

  • Landscapes come alive after a good rain or snow.
  • Clouds, rain, fog, and snow create depth in a landscape that you can’t see on sunny days.
  • While sunset light is beautiful, it’s the same day after day. It is predictable.
  • Nobody else is around so you have locations to yourself.
  • On overcast days, I can control my lighting of the action easier and more freely.

Getting the Shot
In this photo ultra runner Rory Bosio and I were at the Lakagígar (or Laki) lava flows near Vatnajökull National Park, Iceland. We had scouted the location earlier in our trip, but on a sunny day, the landscape felt flat and monochromatic. The moss on the lava fields was more brown than green and the subject would get lost in the complicated background of the scene.

But on the day of our shoot, we rolled up to a popular trailhead and there wasn’t a soul in sight. The rain had kept everyone indoors and we had miles of lava field to ourselves. We were caught in the middle of one of those spring storms that would pour rain and then stop for a couple minutes. The fog was rolling through the background and the waterfalls in the distance were drinking in the fresh supply of water. I was stuck by how vibrant the color of the moss was when the rain would clear and the sun fought to come out.

The flat light made the color of Rory’s pink jacket pop out of the landscape, so it was OK that she was surrounded by moss, instead of having to be above it. I love showing the environment and how different athletes play in their element. So when we were shooting it was important for me to capture the ease with which Rory runs—as well as the fun she seems to have bounding through such and alien landscape.

As a runner and athlete myself, it’s important that when we are shooting the action is as authentic as possible. When shooting running, I like the athletes to get warmed up as best as possible. For trail running, I like to focus on sections of trail that aren’t super technical. This allows the runner to get up to speed and have a natural stride. In this shot I moved as close to the action as I could, without losing part of Rory in the frame.

Knowing that I wanted to shoot a horizontal image, I placed Rory on the right side of the frame so that I could show the trail (where she had run from) on the left and she could then fill the frame on the right. Seeing the skyline, hills in the background, and hints of snow in the distance were also important in capturing the scale and depth of the place.

I shot at a fast shutter speed (1/2000th of a second) to stop the action at f2 with an iso200. That exposure was under half a stop intentionally to keep as much information in the sky as possible. It was actually raining lightly when this image was captured. I prefocused on the area that she was running through and timed my manual shutter release with her perfect stride.

Being able to capture images like this is a testament to how much our equipment has progressed in the last few years. Unless it’s raining torrentially, I’m not using any special water protection (our cameras can take more than we think), the quality of the higher ISO settings is cleaner than ever before, and the dynamic range in the raw files is capturing more depth in the landscapes. All this makes shooting on those stormy days easier—your personal hardiness becomes the limiting factor. Give it a try, and I suspect an epic snow storm or foggy morning will reveal as much magic as “magic hour.”

This photo was taken with the Olympus Tough TG-2 iHS camera.