Would you like to make your landscape photography magical? Turning your hand to fog photography might be what you’re looking for.
There is nothing quite like fog to give images a mystical or ethereal quality. It softens the light, gives a painterly, dream-like feel and covers any clutter in a scene.
Fog can create a ghostly atmosphere in dark forests, or a heavenly appearance when the sun’s rays pierce through. Join us as we talk you through 10 practical tips to improving your fog photography.
1. Know When to Expect Fog
I am not a meteorologist, but I usually have a good idea of when to expect fog in locations I know well.
Cold nights followed by a quick rise in morning temperature create a higher probability of fog. These ideal conditions usually occur in autumn or spring mornings.
However, heavy rainfall on a hot summer’s day can also create a chance of fog in woodland areas.
Very low clouds can deliver dense fog as well. Most of the time, there needs to be a very low amount of wind for the fog to appear, but I have also photographed fog in windy conditions in the mountains. This type of fog is actually photographing fast-moving clouds, which can be very challenging.
2. Get up Early to Photograph Fog
Fog usually occurs early in the morning, when the sun is not yet at full strength. This means that you have to be at your shooting location before or around sunrise.
This is also a time when there is usually the least amount of wind, giving more opportunity for the fog to linger. Most people think I live in a very foggy place as they never get fog, but most of the time they are not up early enough to witness it.
Chances of fog are best when night temperatures drop below the dew point and the humidity levels are above 90%. The best way to predict fog is through knowing an area very well–some spots are more prone to mist than others.
I don’t live in a particularly foggy area and last year there were very few foggy mornings, but I make sure I am on location early in case fog appears. This can sometimes be frustrating as you don’t get what you want, or not in the place you expected.
3. Use Manual Focus
Fog is a blanket of tiny water droplets that scatter the light and add a layer of grey over colors/contrast in a scene. As a result, fog photography does not usually contain harsh highlights or deep shadows: unless sun rays are piercing through.
Saturation will also be low and this results in muted greyish colors. Sometimes contrast will be so low that your autofocus will not work, this is the time to switch to manual focus.
It is always best to use manual focus in these kinds of conditions because even if the autofocus manages to lock onto something, it might be mistaken.
4. Use a Smaller Aperture
The depth of field is greatly reduced in foggy conditions as you might imagine. This means that the denser the fog is, the less point there is in trying to get everything in focus.
The mist will not just hide things from sight: if subjects are further away, they will be vague in both contour and color.
With that said, forests can absorb a lot of fog, especially in seasons where there are leaves on the trees. If you are photographing a scene with lots of depth in it, you might still have to opt for a smaller aperture, especially when using a wide-angle lens.
5. Choose the Right Focal Length
Choosing the right lens for fog photography can be tricky, as telephoto lenses compress a scene, whereas wide-angle lenses make things look further apart.
Telephoto lenses compress the fog (making it denser). So if you are taking pictures in very dense fog with a telephoto lens, you might get pictures where the subjects are difficult to identify.
However, a wide-angle or standard lens will appear to eat the fog away (make it less dense). If you have ever tried to take a picture of a foggy scene with your phone, you know that this focal length makes fog magically disappear, which is not always what you want.
What this means is that it is wiser to use a shorter lens when the fog is really dense: this will keep your subjects visible. If the mist is very faint and you want to emphasize the atmosphere, choose a telephoto lens instead.
6. Look out for Floating Fog
I love fog photography scenes with wisps of mist floating over the water. This is something that is lovely to capture and usually happens for a very limited time just before or after sunrise.
If the previous night has been cold, but morning temperatures are rising quickly, the fog will build up after sunrise.
It does not last long though and sometimes it can completely obscure a scene from sight. You could wait for the mist to evaporate, but then the light will be harsh. So act quickly and capture what you can.
7. Search for Sun Rays in Fog
Just because we are photographing foggy conditions, doesn’t mean we don’t want the sun to shine in our shots.
Sun rays streaming through mist can add a heavenly feel to fog photography. However, the sun makes the mist evaporate very quickly, so you need to move fast.
Make sure you know your location well, so you know when and where you can expect sun rays to appear. This way you won’t waste precious time looking in the wrong area.
Humid conditions can also create the right circumstances for perfect sun rays: dust and water particles make them visible.
8. Expose Correctly for Fog
Many people will say to expose to the right of your histogram when photographing fog. However, it is not quite that simple.
I would say it depends on the kind of fog you are shooting. Dense fog often creates colors that are like a neutral grey, so the camera will expose correctly.
However, when snow and mist are combined, I opt to adjust my exposure and overexpose by one stop or more, depending on how much the snow reflects the light.
If you are in the forest, you can make the image look moody or vibrant. Fog makes a shot look vibrant when it takes on the color of its surroundings. If you like it to look moody, however, underexpose a bit, perhaps by 0.7 stops.
If you have a shot that combines sun rays and fog, you need to keep an eye on your histogram to ensure the highlights aren’t blown out.
9. Overcome Fog Photography Challenges
Fog photography is not without its challenges. Here are some of the most common and how to combat them:
- Be patient: it can be frustrating waiting for the fog to appear. Or by the time you’ve focussed, the mist might have evaporated;
- Damp-proof your gear: high humidity means damp conditions–you and your camera will get wet. I carry resealable plastic bags in my camera backpack, which I slide over the camera to keep it dry between shots. When taking a shot, I usually have a microfibre cloth hanging over my camera to protect it;
- Choose your forest locations wisely: fog can be too dense, which will mean focus issues. I usually go into lush forests when the fog is very dense because they will absorb the mist a bit. Fog also hides clutter/chaos in these forests, which can be a huge advantage.
- Don’t change lenses: the damp can cause damage to the camera sensor and lens. You also risk condensation getting in after you have packed your camera away. Put the camera in your camera bag and leave it there for a few hours when you get home. I usually leave the bag in the hallway for a good few hours before I get my camera out.
10. Post-Processing Foggy Images
Don’t be horrified if photos look completely washed out when you see them on your computer screen: this is because images taken in dense fog lack contrast and saturation.
The denser the fog, the narrower the mountain in your histogram will look (i.e. the fewer highlights and shadows there will be). This will make pictures look very flat and almost lifeless.
There are a few ways you can deal with this and here’s my workflow:
- Step 1: ‘Dehaze’ in Lightroom.
- Step 2: use the blacks and whites sliders to add contrast to images. I do that by pulling the blacks slider to the left and the whites slider to the right. This is especially helpful if the Dehaze step above adds too much warmth to your photo.
- Step 3: If your picture is particularly flat, try applying contrast locally. You can do this by using a graduated or a radial filter in Lightroom, then move the whites and blacks sliders accordingly. But be careful–if you go too far with the contrast, you lose the atmosphere.
- Step 4: If you boost clarity, this will emphasize water droplets and result in a noisy image. This also happens when you add too much sharpening. Sometimes you need to reduce noise slightly and sharpen with a mask, to prevent sharpening water droplets.
So now you should be clear on how to take fabulous fog photography. It is not without its challenges and mostly comes down to timing.
It can be frustrating at times, but it is worth it when you see the magic unfold before your eyes. I am completely addicted to the look that mist can give to landscape photography.
p.s. if you would like to learn more about fog and forest photography, please have a look at my magic of forest photography masterclass
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