The car door slammed, frustration evident not only in his body language but expression. "Trouble?"
Brent deposited the camera into my lap and shook off his hat. "The damn wind."
I looked outside at the field of wild daisies and sure enough, they were dancing around in the wind, white waves upon green stems. "You’re trying to photograph the flowers, right?" He nodded. "Why not try photographing the wind instead?"
His expression twisted strangely. Slowly, the light bulb went off. With a grin, Brent grabbed the camera and was out into the chilly spring air again.
A long time ago a photography teacher told me that if you go out to photograph with a goal in mind, you often miss out on the other possibilities. Leave the agenda at home and stay open to whatever you find. When the wind won’t work with you, why not work with the wind?
Photographing the wind is a real challenge because you can’t see it directly. People rarely think of the wind as a photographic subject. You can’t do morning light on wind. Front light has no effect. Learn to pay attention to the effect wind has on subjects and before you know it, you may not be photographing the wind directly, but you will be photographing the wind.
On a windy day, head out into the forest. The thick bases of tree trunks keep the trees fixed in the ground, but their highest reaches sway back and forth in the wind, and even their leaves shimmer in the lightest breeze.
In the low light levels of most forests, slow shutter speeds are easy to get. Slowed down to 1/2th of a second or even a full second, depending upon the wind speed and tree movement, you can capture some amazing images of the movement of the tree tops. Get down low to look up at the still tree trunk bases and capture the motion high above you. A wide angle lens accentuates the wide tree base and the soaring height of the trees.
If you are catching the motion, blur the movement with slow shutter speeds. If you want to stop the action of falling leaves or crashing waves, choose a high shutter speed. The drama of an image capturing the wind is enhanced if it includes objects in the same picture that move along with things that don’t move. The effect is much more surreal and dramatic.
Capturing the wind’s effect on subjects does mean working with slow shutter speeds. The slower shutter speeds allow your subject to move back and forth across your frame during longer exposures, showing the motion. Blessed with a day with a moderate to low light level, a day with clouds, slow shutter speeds come easily. They can also be found in the morning or afternoon when the light level is lower. On a bright sunny day, you can add a polarizing filter to cut 1 to 3 stops of light for the slower shutter speed you need.
As your subject is moving, you need to make sure your camera is stabilized solidly to enhance the motion effect, keeping the still items still and the moving parts in motion. A solid sturdy tripod will give you the stabilization you need. A light tripod will shake and vibrate in the wind. Watch out for camera straps and camera lens covers dangling in the wind, too, causing the camera to shake.
In strong winds, such as those along ocean coast lines or during storms, you might weight down the tripod for more stability by hanging your camera bag or plastic sacks filled with sand, dirt, or rocks from the center of the tripod. We’ve even used gallon plastic milk jugs or 2 liter soda bottles filled with water hanging from a bungie cord from the tripod.
Looking for wind
As we’ve said, the wind itself is almost impossible to photograph, but its effects aren’t. Winds’ effect on nature helps to mold mountains and hillsides as it blasts away on one side and softly drops off on the other. As it hits the ground, the wind picks up dust and dirt, scouring the land and carrying them along until the wind speed drops or the objects meet resistance. The particles are deposited in piles or ripples, building up slowly over time unless they are blown or washed away. On the top of Hurricane Ridge in the Olympic National Park, the winter winds batter the snow covered ridge, lifting the snow in drifts resembling ripples in a lake over the frozen slow.
The brush of wind against the surface of a body of water creates dancing patterns in the water, enhanced by reflections of the trees and surrounding landscape. Patterns become abstract, dissolving in the motion of the wind across the water.
The wind helps plants and trees spread their seeds across the land, scattering seeds of all shapes and sizes through the sky. Look for helicoptering maple seeds whirling down, or dandelion golf ball-like seed heads releasing their seeds into the wind. In the fall, the leaves drift down from the trees to cover the ground below, insulating it naturally against the coming winter.
Grasses sigh with the motion of the wind as it moves across the fields. Clouds are pushed around by the whims of the wind, flying across open skies and lifting and swirling around mountain peaks. Fog moves through valleys at the slightest nudging from the wind, moving through trees and up and down the hillsides. Look for lighter evidence of the wind in dust devils, or the swirl of white caps on the sea or a lake.
Big winds are more dramatic in their evidence and results. In some cases, a slow shutter speed is not as desirable as you photograph the dramatic impact of high winds such as hurricanes and tornadoes, stopping the action in its tracks. In the middle of a harsh storm, photograph the driving rain and/or snow to show the wind’s affects. After a serious wind storm, walk through a forest to find trees uprooted or snapped off like twigs, revealing the power of the wind’s fury.
Nature isn’t the only host for wind’s effects. Look around for flags, windsocks, kites, skirts, and scarfs blowing in the wind. With today’s modern technology, wind mills have made a comeback as they harness the energy from the wind to generate electricity in many parts of the world with consistent high winds. Things that move have little chance against the pressure of the wind.