After a thunderstorm blew past the Many Glacier Hotel during my last trip to Montana, I saw the sun come out. Suspecting a potential “storm light” situation, I went out on the deck near the lobby. Yep, it was there. Now I had to decide to spend the next few minutes to make use of one of my favorite – and usually brief – light situations for photography.
As a largely self-taught photographer, I’m not sure if there’s a more technical term for this lighting situation in photography circles. “Storm light” may not be a proper name, since it is caused by the interplay of a sunlit subject in front of dark clouds in the background. This occurs frequently before or after a storm blows through, but this is not the only time it happens. Let me explain further.
When the sun is behind the photographer and isn’t blocked by clouds (or other obstructions), it sometimes lights up the foreground subjects (and/or closer background subjects), while the background clouds remain very dark. Not only does this create a dramatic look to the photograph and make the subject “pop”, but the dark sky is actually a similar brightness to the sunlit foreground.
This is important because camera mediums in general and digital camera sensors in particular do not have the same dynamic range, or ability to properly capture areas of various levels of brightness in the same scene, that the human eye possesses Frequently, the sky is quite a few f-stops brighter than landscape subjects, resulting in clipped highlights (white areas with no detail) in the sky if the scene is exposed for the landscape.
This leaves the photographer in the frustrating situation of exposing properly for the sky or landscape, but not both. Expose for the landscape and the sky is washed out; expose for the sky and the landscape is a silhouette. The only way around it is using a graduated neutral density filter in front of the lens, processing in Photoshop, or exposure bracketing to later build a High Dynamic Range (HDR) image. In storm light photographs on the other hand, typically everything is pleasingly exposed without resorting to the digital darkroom.
Just because exposing for storm light images is easy in comparison to some other landscape shots, doesn’t mean it’s easy for anyone to take a good photo when it occurs. The photographer’s skill is a big factor in successfully making use of this fortuitous lighting situation. Storm light is fairly rare to begin with, and frequently only lasts seconds to minutes when it does occur. I’m lucky if I encounter the phenomenon a couple times a year when I both have a camera available and something I want to photograph nearby. A photographer must get into position, compose, and shoot quickly.
Sometimes when an entire landscape is in truly awesome light, I have to triage what shots I want the most. When I see things shaping up for such light, I’ve been known to break into a run to get to the subject I want to photograph. There’s really nothing you can do to increase your odds of encountering storm light, except for staying alert for a break in the clouds on a stormy day. Also, the sun usually has to be rather low in the sky, meaning your odds increase in early morning, late afternoon, or during the winter.
Obviously, even if the phenomenon occurs, it’s only useful to the photographer if the subjects in the immediate vicinity are photogenic to begin with. “Storm light” enhances interesting subjects, but it can’t make a great photograph out of something that wasn’t worth taking a picture of before the light turned dramatic. During a mostly rainy trip to Quebec, I came across a handful of storm light situations, but most did not translate into great photos because the most interesting subjects in my vicinity were not always illuminated.
What I refer to as storm light only occurs when the sun is behind the photographer, but that doesn’t mean that this is the only way that light after a storm or on a cloudy day can be captured. When the sun is close to the horizon and breaks through a cloud, the shafts of light known as crepuscular rays or Jacob’s ladders can be dramatically captured as well. In these cases, the dramatic images are obtained by shooting towards the sun, not away from it.
Once you start looking for “storm light”, you may find chasing it addicting. On my last trip to Switzerland, I was walking to Zurich HB to catch a train to the airport for my flight home when the morning sun illuminated the rustic buildings facing the river Limmat against a backdrop of dark clouds. It wasn’t a storm coming in, but from some angles it sure looked that way. I couldn’t resist making a detour to properly capture the scene, even though it meant taking another train that left 30 minutes later. I probably cut it closer than I should have, because my plane started boarding immediately after I arrived at the gate! This particular time, I have to say taking the risk was worth the results.