I recall, back in the annals of time, a defining moment for my love affair with photography. I know it was a long time ago because I was putting that weird little cannister into the camera and I couldn’t see anything on the back of the camera when I took a shot! It was very cold and very early. I was driving and as I passed one particular spot I glanced across and what was normally some fields and a lake, was now a magical world of mist and diffused shapes. I had to stop.
I dug out the camera, popped in some slide film, and started to shoot. The sun was rising, and the light was genuinely beautiful. A few trees sprouted out of the shroud of white and I focused on them and snapped away. It was probably several weeks later before I saw the images as slide film was expensive, and I needed to finish the roll. But when I did, and despite a few exposure mishaps (no Histogram back then), I remember staring at those little transparencies through a magnifying glass and thinking – this is the sort of image I want to take – atmospheric and evocative.
To me, mist is often a gift for photography. A bit like snow, it can change the appearance of the landscape and create something unique even in a landscape you are very familiar with.
That particular spot where I took my film photos isn’t far away from me, but I have never seen it looking like that again. In fact, for years I’m not sure I ever had such a breath-taking combination of light and mist. I had to travel all the way to the Arctic Circle before I bettered it in my mind – where I took this image of an iceberg with mist wrapped around it and an intense golden sunrise lighting it from behind.
The good news is, you don’t have to go as far as the Arctic to get evocative mist shots and you’re more likely to get ideal conditions for them over the next couple of months than at any other time of the year. I’m not going to go on about the meteorology of mist – but cool nights, and no wind, will often mean that there will be mist, so all you have to do is get up for sunrise and be out there with your camera.
There are no secrets to getting good mist shots – despite what the clickbait internet articles might suggest. You just need a good eye, and some common sense when it comes to your technique. Personally, I prefer to use a focal length of anything from 70-300mm when it comes to shooting mist. This way you’ll be able to pick out the interesting detail, flatten perspective and make the most of that pleasing softening that mist brings with it.
Whether you have warm light, cool light, or flat light, will depend very much on the thickness of the mist and whether the sun is beginning to filter through. I confess I like it when the sun warms the scene most, but cooler blues are moody and magnificent too. Like any type of photography, you take what you’re given and work with it.
There are several things to consider when shooting misty scenes. As always, composition comes first. Just as you would when shooting a silhouette, it pays to think in terms of shapes. Mist is going to simplify the scene for you, often masking out boring areas, so look for good shapes within the frame that can act as your important focal point or points. That’s why on the example shots here you have a mixture of trees, churches, windmills, bridges, and erm, that Iceberg. They are all strong, familiar shapes that bring some solidity to otherwise relatively ethereal scenes. That’s another good reason to use the telephoto, as you want to pick out the most interesting parts of the wider misty landscapes.
Next you need to think about Exposure. On the one hand, since the light is being diffused, there are no tricky exposures to worry about. But on the other hand, as the scene is going to consist of more mid-to-light tones that dark tones, then it’s possible that camera’s meter will get it wrong even when you are using Matrix/Evaluative metering. The answer is, of course, Exposure Compensation. As a rough rule of thumb, when shooting misty scenes I will dial in +1 Exposure Compensation as a starting point. I might reduce it, but more likely I will increase it. I’ve shot mist images at +3 before.
It’s all about the aesthetic here – the atmosphere you are trying to create. You don’t want a dull underexposed image, but equally you don’t want one that’s too bright. It’s also worth noting that since the darker areas are diffused, your Histogram may show a bunched area of tones from mid-tones towards lighter tones, without actually any true blacks or whites. While it might be tempting to rectify this in post-processing you need to be careful. Some subtle brightening of the scene by pushing the Whites Slider right is okay, but don’t go mad with the Black Sliders by pushing it too far to the left. If you feel the need, then again be very gentle with it – especially on misty scenes where the light is flatter, because if you do it, it’ll look wrong and you’ll kill the atmosphere that actually makes the image work.
The other thing to bear in mind is that you are working in low light conditions when it’s misty, and if you follow my suggestion and opt for a telephoto, then this is a recipe for potential disaster. If your shutter speed is too low, then you risk camera shake spoiling your photo, so use a tripod if possible. You can increase ISO of course, but as mist has a tendency to give your image a ‘grainier’ look than normal, you’ll only increase this if you risk a much higher ISO. I’d always use a tripod if possible, and if your lens has a tripod mount on it, then use this to fix it to the tripod so the set-up is balanced, and you don’t risk damaging the mount. If you need to shoot in upright format as well as landscape, then just loosen the collar and rotate it. In less contrasty conditions AF systems are always going to struggle. If your focus point is in an area that makes it difficult for the AF to lock onto, then go to manual – which is another great reason for setting up on a tripod.
Don’t ignore the smaller details within the wider landscapes. While it’s easy to get fixated on the interesting effects the mist is having on the bigger scene, there may be some equally fascinating images on a smaller scale to be found. In early Autumn, things like a spiderweb or a leaf covered in dewdrops can give you some extraordinarily beautiful images. Your telephoto is great for this, but make sure you get an angle and aperture that allows you to make the spiderweb stand out from the whatever is in the background. Alternatively, get your macro lens out and have a play with depth of field and the droplets of water for some interesting and arty effects.