Wildlife Photography in the Rain: From Drab to Fab

Are you a photographer who often finds themselves staring out the window on a rainy day, camera at rest, and creative energy tucked away?

It's time to shake off that indoor inertia because I'm about to let you in on a little secret: wildlife photography in the rain can be your artistic ally

Grab your gear, and let's step into the world where the elements and you combine to  create pure magic.

The pitter-patter of rain might seem like a deterrent, but it's actually a boon for wildlife photographers.

Why, you ask?

For starters, the overcast lighting during a drizzle is unmatched—it softens shadows, reduces harsh contrasts, and saturates colors, making your subjects pop.

But there's more to it. Rain also encourages unique behaviors in animals, giving you an opportunity to capture moments most people never see.

Ever noticed how birds take on meticulous preening after a shower, or how some mammals engage in playful behaviors in the wet weather?

These are the unexpected moments that can transform a good photo into an exceptional one.

A downpour might prompt a usually elusive animal to emerge in search of food or to revel in the rain, providing a rare chance to photograph them in their element.

photo of a fox in the rainCanon EOS 7D Mark II, 70-200mm, f4 1/1250th at 1600 ISO.

Another aspect of working in the rain that can't be overstated is the mood it can bring to your photographs.

Rain can infuse your images with a sense of drama, melancholy, or even romance.

The way rain mutes the landscape's colors, envelopes scenes in mist, or glistens on the fur and feathers of wildlife adds layers of texture and emotion to your photos.

The mood of a photo can be as much a subject as the wildlife within it, and rain creates an atmosphere that's hard to replicate on a sunny day.

So, while you're keeping yourself and your gear dry, take a moment to observe the mood the rain is creating and think about how you can capture it to help tell the story in your images.

Gear Up for Wildlife Photography in the Rain

Before you brave the elements, let's talk protection—not just for you, but for your precious equipment.

If you're serious about wildlife photography, investing in weather-sealed cameras and lenses might be worth considering as your first line of defence against the rain.

Weather-sealed camera bodies are specifically designed to withstand adverse conditions. These are typically built with more durable materials and have rubber gaskets and seals at all potential points of entry—like where the lens attaches or where various dials and buttons are located.

This means you can keep shooting even when the rain is coming down, without worrying quite as much about your gear.

However, if your gear isn't naturally rainproof, consider a camera sleeve or rain cover—these are like raincoats for your camera and can be a lifesaver.

The Role of Lens Hoods

While we're on the topic of gear, let's not overlook the humble lens hood. This simple accessory serves a dual purpose in the rain.

First, it can help to keep raindrops off your lens, which is critical for maintaining clarity in your photos. The fewer droplets you have on the lens, the fewer blemishes you'll have to worry about removing in post-processing.

Second, it aids in reducing lens flare, which can be especially problematic when you're dealing with the refractive qualities of rain. So, remember to attach that lens hood—it's a small step that can have a big impact on your wildlife photography in the rain.

rain drops on a spiders webReflections in rain drops on a cobweb - keep your eyes open for little scenes like this

But on some occasions even a lens hood isn’t enough!

Once, while out in a mild drizzle, I was so engrossed in tracking a snipe through my viewfinder that I barely registered the rain intensifying.

My gear was weather-sealed, so I wasn't immediately concerned—until a sudden gust of wind directed a deluge straight into my lens hood. In moments, water found its way onto the lens element.

Each shot thereafter was marred by a smeared, ghostly haze. It was a stark reminder that even with all the right protections in place, the weather can be unpredictable and unforgiving.

From that day on, I've always kept a small microfiber cloth tucked within easy reach.

Don't forget to shield yourself as well with waterproof clothing and boots because a comfortable photographer is a creative photographer.

Sometimes, the difference between a successful shoot and a learning experience is just a few drops of water in the wrong place.

Protect your gear when its not in use

Ensuring you have a weather proof bag for your gear is crucial when heading out into rainy conditions. These bags are made of robust materials designed to withstand a soaking.

But remember, even with these specialized bags, opening them during a downpour is a risky move unless you're under substantial cover.

Rain can sneak in quickly, and it takes only a few droplets to cause potential damage to your equipment. It's best to wait until you find a dry spot or shelter before accessing your gear.

This proactive approach will keep your camera and accessories safe and dry, ready for when the rain eases.

The Tale of the Soaked Camera Strap

While we're discussing gear, there's a little anecdote I can't help but share about a particularly wet encounter that taught me a valuable lesson on preparing for wildlife photography in the rain

On one occasion, after a long day of shooting in a storm, I returned to base only to realize my camera strap was completely soaked.

I left it to dry overnight, but the next morning, it was still damp and uncomfortable to hang around my neck. The moisture seemed to have seeped into the very fibers of the strap, stubbornly refusing to leave.

It was a discomfort I had to endure for another day of shooting, a constant reminder that every part of your gear needs attention after a rainy day out.

From that day on, I made sure to carry a spare strap, ensuring that I never had to experience that clammy, chafing feeling again.

Protect Yourself Too - The Northumberland Soaking

Speaking of being comfortable, I learned a hard lesson during a 6-mile trek in Northumberland one October.

The day started bright enough, with no indication of the impending deluge. But as any seasoned outdoor enthusiast knows, weather in the wild can turn on a dime.

Halfway through, the heavens opened up, and I found myself drenched to the bone, miles away from any shelter.

My supposedly waterproof jacket had surrendered to the relentless rain, and every step squelched a reminder of my sodden socks.

That day, I not only learned the value of dressing for all weathers but also the importance of resilience.

Despite the discomfort, I managed to capture some of my most authentic wildlife shots, the kind that can only be taken when you're as much a part of the environment as the creatures you're photographing.

an autumn leaf beside a puddle

The Advantages of Being the Lone Photographer

Before we take a look at camera settings, let's take a moment to appreciate the beauty of being the only one brave—or mad—enough to venture into the rain-soaked wilderness.

When the skies open up, most photographers pack up, leaving behind a peaceful solitude that can be a godsend for wildlife enthusiasts.

Why is this solitude so precious?

Well, for one, wildlife hides, often occupied during fair weather, now stand empty. This means you have the best spots all to yourself, without the need to jostle for position or worry about someone else's movements scaring away the animals.

Additionally, the lack of human presence means wildlife is less distracted and more engaged in natural behaviours, allowing for more authentic and intimate captures. The animals are less likely to feel threatened and more likely to exhibit behaviors you wouldn’t typically observe.

By being the lone figure in the landscape, you not only get to enjoy a unique communion with nature but also increase your chances of capturing those rare, undisturbed moments that make for truly exceptional photography.

A hare in the rain at FowlmereCanon EOS 5D Mark II, EF100-400mm, f5.6, 1/3200th at ISO 1000th.

Nailing Those Camera Settings in the Rain

Getting your camera settings correct for wildlife photography in the rain can be as challenging as trying to keep your gear dry. Here are some tips:

Start with a higher ISO to compensate for the lower light levels; however, be aware that going too high can introduce unwanted noise.

Aim for an ISO range that provides sufficient light sensitivity while keeping noise to a minimum. A mid-range ISO, such as 800 to 3200, often strikes a good balance on modern cameras, depending on the specific lighting conditions and the capabilities of your camera.

Opt for a wider aperture to let in more light; ideally this would mean setting your aperture to f/2.8 but most of us don’t have a budget that extends to such fast lenses.

Just set the widest aperture available on your lens. However, be conscious of your depth of field, as a wider aperture will narrow it, which could impact the sharpness of certain areas in your scene.

Photo of a wet sparrowA bedraggled sparrow

Consider speedier shutter speeds to freeze raindrops in mid-air for that crisp, crystalline effect.

But if you want to capture the rain's motion, slow down the shutter speed to around 1/30th or even slower, and you'll get those streaks that convey movement and add dynamism to your shots.

And remember, autofocus can sometimes get confused by rain, so be prepared to switch to manual focus for sharper shots.

Why does rain affect autofocus?

Well, the autofocus system in your camera typically uses contrast to lock onto a subject.

Rain can create a kind of visual noise, reducing contrast and causing the autofocus to hunt or lock onto the wrong part of the scene—like a raindrop instead of an animal.

Additionally, rain can reflect light, which might further confuse the autofocus sensors.

Switching to manual focus gives you full control, ensuring you're pinpointing the exact spot you want in sharp relief amidst the watery chaos.

Shelter Strategies During a Downpour

It's not always practical or possible to be out in the open during a heavy rain. That's when wildlife photography hides—also known as blinds—come in handy.

Hides offer shelter for you and your equipment and can be an excellent way to wait out a downpour. They also often provide a stable shooting platform and can minimize your presence, allowing for more natural behavior from your wildlife subjects.

If you're planning to shoot in an area known for its wet weather, it's worth researching if there are hides available and their exact locations.

Sometimes, though, hides aren't available. In such cases, nature's own shelters can be a godsend.

Look for natural coverings like dense trees, overhanging cliffs, or even large rocks.

These natural elements can provide some reprieve from the rain, allowing you to continue shooting while staying relatively dry.

Not only do they offer protection, but they also can add an interesting natural frame to your photos.

Be sure to scout your location ahead of time, so you know where to head when the rain starts pouring.

Keep in mind…

Nobody wants their rain-soaked adventure to turn into a tale of woe.

Keep extra batteries and memory cards in watertight containers to avoid moisture-related mishaps.

And be mindful of your footing and your gear's stability; wet conditions can be slippery and treacherous for both you and your tripod.

The Hidden Dangers to the Wildlife Photographer

There have been times when I've been so focused on my subject that I've nearly lost my footing on slick rocks, or I've found myself in the middle of a clearing when a thunderstorm suddenly rolled in, raising concerns about lightning safety.

The rain can bring a host of challenges that extend beyond technical difficulties.

Slippery trails, unpredictable terrain, and decreased visibility can all pose significant risks to you, the photographer.

It's vital to stay vigilant about personal safety. Always tell someone where you're going and when you expect to be back. Carry a well-charged phone and a basic first-aid kit.

Be aware of the signs of hypothermia as well; shivering, confusion, and slurred speech are red flags.

Staying dry is about more than comfort—it's a key factor in staying safe. Remember, no photograph is worth compromising your well-being.

The Beauty of Reflections After the Rain

Once the downpour has settled and the clouds part just enough to let through a glimmer of light, there's a whole new dimension to wildlife photography that comes into play—reflections.

After a rain, puddles, ponds, and any body of water can become mirrors to the sky and surrounding foliage, creating a symmetrical harmony that's perfect for compelling compositions.

As the sun peers through the clouds, it can cast a golden glow that shimmers on the surface of water, offering a breathtaking backdrop for your wildlife and nature subjects.

Birds skimming over a still pond can leave ripples that, when captured at the right moment, tell a story of movement and life continuing despite the rain.

But it's not just about the larger bodies of water. Even tiny puddles can provide a chance for creativity.

Look for insects, amphibians, or small mammals interacting with these miniature landscapes. A simple puddle can turn into a canvas reflecting the upside-down world, adding depth and interest to your shots.

blackbird bathing in puddleA female Blackbird bathing in a puddle after the rain

Positioning for Perfect Reflections

Positioning yourself at a lower angle can enhance the reflective effect, making the water's surface occupy a larger part of the frame and thereby creating a more pronounced mirror image.

Be patient and wait for the wind to calm; even a slight breeze can disturb the water's surface and disrupt a clear reflection.

The trick to capturing reflections is to focus on the symmetry between the subject and its mirrored image. This might require you to adjust your position or wait for the animal to move to the perfect spot where its reflection is visible and not obscured by ripples or debris.

The aftermath of rain also tends to bring out more vivid colors in the environment.

Greens appear greener, and the wet surfaces of rocks and leaves can add a glossy quality to your images. Use this to your advantage, and remember to expose correctly to avoid losing detail in the highlights, which can be tricky when dealing with reflective surfaces.

Incorporating reflections into your wildlife photography not only shows your subject in its environment but also adds a layer of visual interest that can raise your image from a snapshot to a work of art.

Post-Processing Magic for Rainy Day Shots

So you've returned with your memory card full of rain-drenched wildlife images, now what? Post-processing can turn those great shots into extraordinary ones.

When you're working with your rainy day captures, consider the unique aspects of your images.

Rain tends to bring a cooler, bluer tone to pictures, which you might want to correct—or enhance, depending on the mood you're aiming for. Adjusting the white balance can help tackle this cool cast.

Play with contrast and clarity sliders to make subjects stand out against the rain. The raindrops themselves can be emphasised by increasing the clarity, which will bring out the finer details in each droplet.

If you managed to capture the rain as streaks, consider whether they lead the eye toward your subject or away from it; you might need to burn (darken) or dodge (lighten) areas to balance the composition.

Noise reduction will be your friend if you've had to bump up your ISO. Use it judiciously to maintain some of the natural textures without the image becoming overly soft.

Lastly, if you shot in RAW, you'd have much more flexibility in adjusting exposure and recovering details, so take full advantage of that in your post-processing workflow.

Editing or Manipulation?

While you're in the digital darkroom working on your rain-soaked images, it's important to distinguish between editing and manipulation.

Editing involves making adjustments to bring out the best in your photos, such as tweaking exposure, white balance, and contrast to reflect what you witnessed in the field accurately.

Manipulation, on the other hand, involves more significant alterations that can change the reality of the scene, like adding or removing elements or applying heavy filters that alter the original colours and textures.

As a wildlife photographer, maintaining the integrity of what you captured is vital.

Your goal in post-processing should be to enhance the photo while keeping it truthful to the moment. It's about refining the image to convey the mood and beauty of the scene, not creating a false narrative.

The guidelines for ethical photo editing are there to help you create images that are as genuine as they are stunning. Remember, the most compelling wildlife photographs are those that tell the real story of nature, rain or shine.

The Spurn Head Experience

Reflecting on the unpredictability and challenges that rain brings, let me take you back to my experience at Spurn Head.

The wind was relentless, and the rain felt like countless needles against my skin. There was no escaping it.

But amidst the chaos, there was beauty—the wild sea, the windswept landscape, and the resilient wildlife that call it home. It was raw and real.

You can read about my full experience at Spurn Head here. 

It drives home that, despite the challenges, photographing wildlife in the rain can be an exhilarating adventure that yields exceptional results.

Wrapping up

Now, equipped with these stories and strategies, I hope you feel inspired to go out in the rain rather than retreat from it.

Remember, as a wildlife photographer, every droplet, every unexpected downpour, and every soaked piece of equipment is part of your journey—a journey that leads to unparalleled shots that capture the essence of nature in its most candid moments.

So, the next time the clouds gather, consider it an invitation to create something truly special, with the rain as your unlikely accomplice.

Zip up that rain jacket, protect your gear, and venture out to do some wildlife photography in the rain.

Sometimes, the most remarkable moments in wildlife photography come dressed in raindrops.

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