Fun in the Fog

“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
   E. L. Doctorow

In November, 2012, I wrote about creating a photo that could only be made in foggy conditions, the fog required to obscure a nasty background. Fog is a large part of life here in the valleys of western Montana; that's especially true in the winter months.

When it's clear and cold here, temperature inversions are common. These happen when high pressure settles in and stays a while. Typically, high pressure means good or improving weather. Sunny days, clear nights. But high pressure is sinking air, pushing the cold air down to the valley floors while the warmer air rises above it. When this happens, and when the dew-point is right, fog forms in the valleys. It becomes cold and damp, often with very limited visibility in the valleys. At higher elevations, above the fog, the sky is clear and sunny (or starry), with much warmer temperatures. These inversions rarely burn off, despite daily promises from the TV Weather Kid. Instead, it takes a change in air pressure, which typically brings some wind, to scour the fog out of the valleys.

Mission Mountains rise above fog filling the Flathead basin

Near sunset, the Mission Mountains rise above inversional fog filling the Flathead Lake basin. The lake level is about 2900 feet (884 m). I made this photo standing just above the fog, at about 4000 feet (1219 m).

Inversional fog can be oppressive; we've had periods of several weeks without sun, without views of the mountains, without views of much of anything. On the other hand, the fog can offer some wonderful photo opportunities. And the transitions, those periods where the fog moves in and out, sometimes in waves, can make the most amazing light of all.

Making Lemonade

I look forward to the foggy days, especially the mornings and evenings when the rising or setting sun might have a chance to color the horizon just a little. I have a mental list of places to visit in and around Lake County, depending on the density and consistency of the fog. For some locations, lighter is better, perhaps letting through a little sun. For others, sight distances more than 100-200 feet (30-60 m) are too much. As long as it's not (too) dangerous to drive, I can find something to photograph in the fog.

Obscures Distant Details and Confusion

An old wheel-line irrigator disappears into the fog

An old wheel-line irrigator disappears into the fog and snow. I made the photo about a week before posting this article.

Fog can tame cluttered backgrounds, hiding trails, roads and bridges, buildings, fences, water tanks and towers, phone and power poles, garbage and debris piles, chaotic deadfall (tangles of snags), cows and machinery and irrigators in fields, ski lifts, so much more. If the fog density is suitable and you can position yourself for a proper composition, you can use the fog to hide nearly anything, allowing your subject to dominate the frame. Sometimes, nothing else will do the job, as I mentioned in the article linked above.

Freezes on Contact

Hoar frost on Ponderosa pine

When it's cold, the fog freezes on everything. Tree bark, pine/spruce needles, any sort of brush or shrub, fence posts, barbed wire, TV antennas. This hoar-frost can be microscopically fine, or can grow for days into fragile tendrils inches long. The patterns are beautiful and fascinating; if the sun breaks through, these filaments sparkle with infinite colors. If working close, one must be very careful photographing this stuff; it seems to collapse under the weight of a glance. Having macro-photography skills and gear, and perhaps bringing some artificial lighting (flash) to the scene can yield fascinating images. I made the photo shown here, of hoar frost on the needles and cones of a Ponderosa pine, from some distance away with a telephoto lens.

Here One Minute, Gone The Next

Sun through outgoing fog

When conditions are right the fog will move in waves. This often requires being at exactly the right elevation. I've been in places where my head and camera are in the clear, while my knees are in the fog, and it's changing constantly. Wind isn't needed, but a very light breeze can sometimes help. The air is clear, conditions sunny, but the fog can be seen rolling toward you. As that leading edge overtakes you, the sunlight softens. You'll have only seconds before the light is gone, so if conditions look promising it's necessary to set up in advance and wait for it. It may take minutes or hours, but the fog will move on, providing a transition back to sunny skies. Once again, this transition may last only seconds. Then you're in the sun, waiting for the next wave of fog. It never hurts to be lucky, but when you are, and find yourself in the right place at the right time, you might experience a number of these transitions during a several hour period. I'm a “magical light” junkie; this is one of my favorite things.

I made this photo at mid-day in late December. We'd been in the soup for several days. At the first hint of sun I grabbed my gear and ran up the road, not more than a quarter-mile from my house. Although high, the time of year puts the sun far to the south for some strong side-lighting. The fog dropped into the valley below me, leaving the frosted trees on the distant ridge, and the valley fog, in full sun, the foreground trees in shadow. This fantastic light lasted less than five minutes; that felt like a long time, and I got my shot. Then the fog rolled in, heavy as ever, obscuring all but the local trees.

Summer Too

Inversions happen in summer, too, perhaps more where you live than here. Our summers are typically very dry; without much moisture in the air, dew points are generally quite low (relative humidity in mid-to-late-summer is often in the low teens or even single-digits). Still, the inversions can happen, and with enough moisture produce valley fog. When this happens early in summer, when things generally are lush and green, the affect can be beautiful.

Embrace the Fog

Around here, especially in winter, one won't wait long for a foggy day, or foggy week. As I type this it's snowing; the hills surrounding my home are invisible behind the fog. Were I not hammering on this keyboard….

The fog is just another excuse to be outside making photographs. If you've not done much shooting in fog, it may require a bit of adjustment, learning to look at things a little differently, to see what the fog can do, rather than what it prevents. It's just another opportunity to stretch creatively. That's where the fun is.

January, 2013