The British public’s fascination with the daily weather forecast reaches its peak during the winter months, when extreme weather conditions are at their most prevalent and potentially damaging. Temperatures drop below freezing, rain soaks the streets and Arctic winds blow in from the north and east, often bringing sleet and snow to transform the landscape. Severe winter storms can raise all manner of perils and difficulties, particularly with our ability to travel, but they also provide some extraordinary photographic opportunities.
As a group of islands, the British Isles have a maritime climate, which means that weather conditions are never settled for long. The continuous clash of high- and low-pressure systems, and warm and cold ocean currents moving in from the Atlantic, results in regular spells of precipitation, high winds and powerful storms. As a result, outdoor photographers in the UK always need to be prepared for rain, whatever the weather.
Camera choice Taking pictures in the rain is a difficult undertaking as camera electronics and water don’t mix well. However, water is difficult to avoid when photographing stormy weather; rain usually precedes an electrical storm, while other spectacular weather phenomena such as monsoons, tornadoes and gale-force coastal storms also make for testing conditions for cameras.
Plastic waterproof housings provide the most affordable means of protecting your camera. Alternatively, more robust, weather-resistant camera models are now on the market: SLR models such as the Nikon D700, Canon EOS 5D Mk II, Pentax K7 and K5, and the Olympus E-5 are all made with dozens of O-ring seals in their construction to keep out moisture and dust, making them operable in conditions that would ruin a lesser model. Whatever your choice of camera, storm clouds inevitably mean low light levels and low contrast, so expect longer exposure times, and adapt your technique accordingly to achieve a sharp, correctly exposed result. A higher ISO setting or wider aperture will be needed to keep your shutter speed up, yet high contrast will be less of an issue as the grey light reduces the tonal range, making an accurate exposure easier to attain.
A slow shutter speed isn’t necessarily a bad thing in such conditions, providing you have a means of camera support – the trusty tripod. While a vibration-reduction facility on the camera or lens may improve your chances of making sharp images while hand holding, it will be of no use in low light or at night when shooting an electrical storm. As with photographing fireworks, multiple lightning strikes are recorded by keeping the camera shutter open for several seconds or longer while the camera is held in position on a tripod.
A spectacular risk Lightning is extremely dangerous, and you should never place your own safety at risk by venturing out when an electrical storm is directly overhead (and never shelter under a tree). However, if the storm is over the
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74 www.geographical.co.uk february 2011