Let it blow

If you are an outdoors photographer, sooner or later you're going to have to deal with less than favourable weather conditions. Rain, snow, cold and heat can all test our resilience, but nothing wears me down faster than wind.

On a recent mid-winter trip to Mount Kaputar National park, my first time there, I was well prepared for the cold temperatures. What I wasn't so ready for was the icy, strong wind that blew throughout my stay. Wind chill can be tough to deal with - apart from making it feel colder than it actually is, persistent cold wind frays the nerves and plays havoc with the sinuses...mine anyway. And when you're camping, there's really no escape from it.

But aside from personal discomfort, windy conditions create practical and technical issues for outdoor photographers. How do you ensure your camera and tripod stay perfectly still in the teeth of a blustery wind? Do you choose exposure settings to freeze the motion of swaying trees or to use their movement creatively in your images? Should you change lenses when it's windy and risk the dreaded dust spots on your camera's sensor?

There is a range of possible answers to each of these questions and none will suit all circumstances. But after four days sitting on top of a windy mountain I feel I've gained some insights on how to deal with wind from a landscape photographer's perspective. It's not always a lot of fun but there is some real satisfaction to be gained from staring down a blast of cold wind and coming away with a bunch of new images that reflect the moment as you experienced it.

Keep the camera steady
The best way to keep your camera steady, whether it is windy or not, is to use a sturdy tripod. It is an unfortunate reality that heavy, expensive tripods will usually offer more stability than light, cheap ones so we all have to weigh-up (pun intended) the extra effort of lugging around a heavy model and the cost involved when choosing the best model for our purposes. Carbon fibre tripods are favoured by many landscape photographers because they are reasonably lightweight but still very stable, although they also tend to be expensive.

But even the best tripod money can buy is susceptible to vibration in a strong wind so it pays to take some time and care with how you set it up. Here are some tips that will help to keep everything perfectly still during the capture process. 

  • Make sure the tripod feet are firmly planted on the substrate and won't easily slip. Take extra care in soft substrates and grassy areas where the feet will sometimes 'float' above the solid ground unless you seat them securely.
  • Check that all the locking nuts on the legs and head of the tripod are done up tight.
  • Set the tripod as low as possible with legs splayed for maximum stability and avoid raising the centre column.
  • Hang a weight (eg. your camera bag) from the centre column but make sure it isn't swinging in the wind and adding another source of vibration.
  • Remove the camera strap, lens hood and any other accessories that might catch the wind.
  • Use your body to block the wind.
  • Wait for a lull in the wind to release the shutter.
  • Use a remote shutter release or your camera's self timer so you don't have to touch the camera to trip the shutter.
  • If you lens/camera has image stabilisation, turn it on.
  • Capture multiple images of each scene to increase your chances of getting a sharp one.
  • Be aware that longer lenses are more prone to wind-related vibration than shorter ones.
  • Review your images on the LCD screen to check for sharpness, and reshoot if necessary. 

The image below was captured from the top of an exposed rocky outcrop in Mount Kaputar NP on a blustery morning. There was no protection from the wind so I set my tripod low on bare rock with the legs spread wide and did my best to shield it from the wind with my body (and my raincoat spread wide like Superman's cape). A quick review of several test shots showed obvious blurring, so I removed the lens hood from my 70-200mm zoom, rechecked that all the locking nuts were tight and the tripod seated firmly on the ground, waited for a lull in the wind before firing off a quick succession of frames and again reviewed the results on the LCD screen. Several were still blurred, but a couple were pin-sharp keepers. This might sound like a lot of trouble but it's a whole lot better than getting home and discovering that you have to discard a potentially good landscape image because you didn't pay enough attention to detail in the field.

180mm, f11, 1/6 sec, ISO200

One other thing to consider when you're out photographing in a strong wind - even a heavy, stable tripod can be blown over. I experienced this recently on a coastal shoot when I turned my back for a few seconds and a gust of wind sent the tripod with camera attached sprawling onto the rocks lens first. The lens hood and cap protected the front element from damage but the impact broke the lens's mounting flange for the hood and, I suspect, was responsible for compromising the weather sealing of the lens. It could have been a lot worse! The moral of the story is always keep one hand on your tripod in a strong wind.

Camera settings
So why not just use a fast shutter speed to avoid (or at least minimise) blur caused by wind-related vibration of your camera? Fair question - a shutter speed in the thousandths-of-a-second will often overcome this problem, but there are drawbacks. Choosing a very fast shutter speed requires a corresponding increase in the ISO or an opening-up of the lens's aperture. Higher ISOs correspond with increased noise in an image and it is generally a good rule to keep the ISO as low as possible for maximum image quality, although there is the option of using noise-reduction software later to try and rectify any unwanted effects - it's a step I prefer to avoid. Opening-up the aperture leads to a reduced depth-of-field which can be a problem when your aim is to maintain front-to-back sharpness in an image. On top of this, many lenses produce their sharpest results when they are stopped down several f-stops from wide open, so using the largest aperture may not produce the best quality image possible.

But as long as you are aware of these issues, there will be some leeway to increase the shutter speed without causing too many problems. It gets more difficult in low light scenarios, like around sunrise and sunset (the landscape photographer's Golden Hours), because it will require a major rather than a moderate increase in the ISO, or an aperture setting wider than your lens allows, to achieve a shutter speed fast enough to overcome blur. My approach is try all of the other options listed above before I'll start pushing the ISO or aperture settings around too much.

Another aspect of camera settings comes into play when your subject is moving in the wind - like swaying branches and grass. The first instinct might be to try and freeze this motion with a fast shutter speed, but the same drawbacks as listed above apply here - high ISOs and large apertures can lead to reduced image quality or depth of field. The choice then becomes whether to incorporate the movement into your image or to look for alternative compositions or subjects where there are no moving parts. Both approaches are worth pursuing.

The image below represents one of those ephemeral moments when natural light produced an unexpected and dazzling display right in front of me. I had been photographing the sunset from a cliff edge when I noticed the white trunks of snow gums glowing in the last of the sunlight. I ran back and set up my tripod but was aware that the combination of low light and a strong wind meant that the only way to freeze the motion of the swaying branches was to select a very high ISO. Instead I chose to keep the ISO low and the shutter speed slow to create a more abstract feel with the upper branches and foliage completely blurred. This contrasts with the unmoving tree trunk, which is the star of the scene, and I think accentuates the lighting effect and adds a dynamic element to the image.

17mm, f11, 8 sec, ISO100

Back at the cliff edge, the same strong wind was causing a lot of movement in the foreground trees and shrubs. In the image below you can see this movement in the closest trees but it becomes much less noticeable further away from the camera. There were plenty of little shrubs along the cliff top that would have made worthy foreground interest but I avoided these in favour of solid rock to ensure a sharp foreground.

17mm, f14, 10 sec, ISO100

From the same vantage point, I used a 70-200mm zoom to capture the next two images using some of the techniques listed above to avoid wind-related vibration: tripod set low, lens hood removed, and firing the shutter during a lull in the wind. I wasn't able to shield the camera with my body because the wind was blowing from the direction I was shooting, but by capturing multiple images I came away with several sharp ones.

176mm, f8, 1/80 sec, ISO100

81mm, f8, 0.6 sec, ISO100

In windy conditions it is sometimes possible to shoot from a sheltered position and avoid both tripod-vibration and motion blur of the subject, and in extreme conditions this might be the only viable way to capture a sharp image. But this approach can really limit your photographic options so it is often worth biting the bullet, stepping out into the full force of the wind and trying some of the techniques listed above. They won't always work but they often will.

To change your lens or not?
Nobody likes dust spots on their sensors, and the biggest chance of getting them arises when you change lenses. The potential is magnified when you change lenses in windy conditions. This can lead some photographers to seldom or never change their lenses in the field. I have the same dislike of dust spots but I don't let that stop me changing a lens if I have a good reason to do it.

Your camera's sensor will eventually collect dust spots no matter how careful you are. I think the best approach is to accept this, learn to minimise it, and learn some basic maintenance to fix it when it happens. It pays to practice your lens changes at home in a still environment so you develop a fast and efficient routine that becomes second nature when in the field. Even when it's windy you will often be able to find a semi-protected spot behind a tree or rock, or use your body, raincoat or camera bag to create a relatively still environment.

My routine goes something like this: 

  • Turn off the camera and remove it from the tripod.
  • I often sit down on the ground and use my body and raincoat to create a still zone.
  • Get out the new lens, loosen its rear cap and prop it up close at hand with a spot beside it ready to sit the lens being removed.
  • With the camera facing downwards, remove the lens, sit it in the space next to the new lens, swap the loosened rear cap over to the lens just removed, and attach the new lens to the camera. 

This last step is the one that might need some practice, but the key is to have everything set up close in front of you so as to minimise the time the camera is without a lens.  It should only take a matter of seconds to remove one lens and attach the other.

As I said before, dust will eventually find its way onto your sensor and there are several ways to deal with this. All good photo-editing software will have some form of spot-removal tool that allows you to 'disappear' the spots with a single click. This is great for dealing with the symptoms but doesn't do anything to fix the original problem. To actually remove the dust will require a blast of air from a rocket-blower or a light brush with a purpose-made sensor brush, and this should always be done in a perfectly still and dust free environment. Don't ever be tempted to blow into your camera to dislodge dust as your breath carries a lot of moisture that will end up inside your camera.

I know a lot of people are very hesitant to do any maintenance involving the sensor and I was the same until I tried it. If you're not confident, don't do it, but if you are careful and methodical and follow all instructions that come with the sensor brush or blower, it can be a simple and quick task. Persistent spots that can't be removed by these methods may require a full sensor clean using a solvent. So far I've chosen not to attempt a wet sensor clean as the risk of damaging the sensor is greater than if just using a blower or a dry brush, and because even after five years of regular use of my camera including many lens changes, the few persistent spots on the sensor are easily dealt with in software. But sooner or later I'll have to decide to either attempt a wet clean or send my camera off to a lab.

To me, it is better to change a lens and risk a few dust spots if a photographic opportunity presents itself than to worry unduly and let the opportunity slip. Many of the places I photograph, like Mount Kaputar, require some effort and time to get to and it may be some time before I get back there for another visit. I want to make the most of each session, even if that means changing a lens on a windy mountain top and carrying home a few extra specks of dust on my sensor.

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Despite everything I've said above, I still think that photographing in the wind is, more often than not, a big fat pain in the neck. But it's still better than staying at home because the weather forecast predicts a bit of a blow. There are ways to work around windy conditions, or better still, to use the wind to your creative advantage. The frayed nerves and watering eyes are another matter but maybe a bit of discomfort is conducive to creativity...I'll keep telling myself that.

17mm, f11, 1/20 sec, ISO100

Through the past, lightly - images of 2014
Summit Falls


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Monday, 29 May 2023

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