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What to photograph when the weather turns bad

Travel Photographer and writer Ian M Butterfield visited Rome to shoot buildings and blue skies. Unfortunately the weather had other ideas. In this feature Ian shares his top tips on what to do when the weather turns bad.

|  Landscape and Travel
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 A window in Rome
 A damaged shuttered window, in Rome.© Ian M Butterfield/
This kind of building detail says a lot about the atmosphere of a location. Because it is a detail it doesn’t matter that it isn’t illuminated by direct sunlight. In fact, it is probably easier to capture the detail of it on an overcast day.
It should have been an easy assignment: Go to Rome, visit the tourist sights, take photographs and submit them to my photographic library. I should have known that it wasn’t going to be straightforward the moment I stepped off the plane. Rome had more rain on my first day there, than it should have had all month. This was followed by, well, more rain and when it wasn’t raining there were dull grey skies. If there's one thing that kills a travel photograph it’s rain and dull grey skies!

I’d booked nine nights in Rome, and from my arrival the forecast wasn’t good. I soon realised that I wasn’t going to see those blue skies that I’d dreamed of. With this realisation I knew I only had three choices: pack up and go home, sit around and sulk or be inventive and get on with it. My wife had joined me on this trip for a holiday so number one wasn’t an option. I tried sulking for a while and it only made matters worse. So that left me with option 3!

It's often said that a good travel photograph should make the viewer want to go and see the place for themselves. It's very difficult to evoke that kind of response from a viewer if the photograph shows dull grey skies. So when faced with acres of grey instead of acres of blue skies the first objective must be to find ways to hide or disguise the sky.

If the sky is dull and boring, frame your photograph to eliminate it. It may sound obvious, but it is so easy to forget. For example, when taking views from high vantage points, much of the interest of the photograph is actually the buildings or scenery below the horizon. In such cases, placing the line of the horizon just above the top of the frame concentrates the viewer’s attention on the scene and eliminates the horrible white sky.

For certain types of photograph, such as location portraits, the even, flat light that you get on dull days can make for an attractive picture, but choose your angles carefully. When framing a photograph, grey sky can easily creep into a shot. For example, look at the photograph of the tourist (my wife, Ann) in the colonnade at Piazza San Pietro.
Rome, St Peter's Square
A tourist reads a guide book to Rome at Piazza San Pietro. © Ian M Butterfield/
Even lighting is excellent for location portraiture. But pick your angles wisely so that white sky is hidden.

If I had taken the shot from one or two paces to the right, the white sky would have been visible between the columns. This shot also illustrates another useful tip – a little dash of red in a photograph always helps to brighten up a dull scene. My wife wears a lot of red – unfortunately for her, she often gets co-opted to be that little bit of red in my photographs!

It isn’t always possible to remove the sky completely from a photograph. At such times a handful of filters can rescue an otherwise uninspiring image. Most photographers know of the importance of a neutral density graduate (ND grad) filter to enable their film or digital sensor to capture the texture of clouds when otherwise they would be over exposed, but replacing the ND grad with a coloured graduate not only prevents the overexposure but also adds interest to what otherwise would be an uninteresting sky. Coloured grads are available in many colours: tobacco (sepia), mauve, pink and blue to name a few. Odd as it sounds, I have found blue to be the least useful as the effect it gives is neither convincing as a replacement blue sky nor sufficiently far away from it to be acceptable as a deliberate special effect.
Roman street scene The Colosseum in Rome
A Roman street scene. © Ian M Butterfield/
When it's not possible to hide the sky consider using filters to add detail in the sky or to give it an artistic look.
The Colosseum at dusk. (c) Ian M Butterfield/
A 20sec exposure at dusk causes the sky to appear blue.

Night photography is always a good thing to fall back on when the weather isn’t being cooperative. The trick to a good ‘night’ image is often not to wait until night. Dusk is the time for ‘night’ shots. The aim is to try to take the shot at the time when the illumination from any flood lights matches the residual illumination from the sun that has just gone over the horizon. For any given scene that means there is usually a window of about 15-20 minutes, in which to take the shots. So getting to the location early is imperative. I always stop down my aperture and try to go for as long an exposure as I can get. 20-30 seconds is my target. At that exposure any moving passers-by don’t appear in the scene. The other thing to note about taking night shots at this time of day is that even if the sky has been grey all day, over a 20-30 second exposure it tends to appear blue on the final image!

It’s worth briefly commenting about photography in the rain at this point. In the rain, look for brightly coloured umbrellas to add a splash of colour and provide vivid contrast to the grey surrounds. Look too for reflections in puddles. A reflection of a well known monument in a puddle can give an unusual and sometime surreal view of a sight that is too often taken for granted.
Reflections in Rome Sant' Angelo Bridge
Reflection of the Obelisk on top of the four rivers fountain (Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi) in Piazza Navona, Rome. © Ian M Butterfield/
The reflection is photographed and then the final image is rotated through 180 degrees to give a surreal effect.
Angel on the Sant'Angelo bridge, Rome. The angels which were designed by Gianlorenzo Bernini each carry an implement from the Passion (Crucifixion) of Jesus. This angel holds the whip used to flog Jesus. © Ian M Butterfield/
Even though the dark sky made for a dramatic image, this location was still top of my list for places to return to as soon as the sun came out.

Try to have a contingency plan. It’s a very rare trip when you won’t get any good weather. Decide in advance which shots are important to you. When you get that break in the weather, you need to know exactly where you are going to head. There may only be a couple of hours of sunshine and blue sky, you don’t want to waste it deciding what you want to photograph.

Even though the dark sky made for a dramatic image, this location was still at the top of my list for places to return to as soon as the sun came out.

Unless you're a pro travel photographer, or on an assignment, it doesn’t really matter if you don’t come back with rolls of marketable photographs. Whatever you take will remind you of your trip, so I’ll leave you with the advice my wife gave me after I’d complained about the Roman rain for the umpteenth time: “Chill out! Relax. This is supposed to be a holiday!”
Simonetti Staircase, Vatican, Rome
The Simonetti Staircase in the Vatican Museum, Rome. © Ian M Butterfield/
Every destination has at least one or two indoor locations that are excellent photo opportunities. Don’t neglect them.

An interesting post-script to this story is the fact that my images of Rome have proven to be my most successful stock images. In the five years since taking the visit to Rome I have had more sales from that trip from any other. Part of that success I put down to the ‘bad weather’. For nine days I was forced to be inventive and find original ways to make the city look fantastic. The fact that my image are, by necessity, different has made them stand out from the thousands of other images of Rome and that in turn has led to sales.

About the Author
Ian M Butterfield is a freelance photographer/writer. He has been awarded the Associateship of the Royal Photographic Society for his photographs of Egypt. Ian’s published work has included items for the RPS Journal, Cheshire Life, Thomas Cook Magazine, the Manchester Evening News, the Daily Telegraph and the front page of the Guardian. Ian used to write a regular column for a local newspaper. Examples of his photographic work can be found on-line at

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NeilSchofield Plus
13 1.6k 1 United Kingdom
3 Nov 2009 7:13PM
I bet he practised in Wales first, great pics and ideas
Leland_Wolfe 10 12 United States
5 Nov 2009 11:07PM
Damn. Now if I can be this good, I'd love myself, lol.

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