How to Get Rain & Snow Streaks

how to get rain streaks

1976. Status Quo – the greatest rock band of all time, in case you weren’t aware – released Rain, an anthem that three and a bit decades on is largely responsible for a head banging-induced arthritis in my upper back and neck. Rain was a classic and, although my air guitar days are now over, it remains close to my heart, if not my back. What’s this got to do with wildlife photography? Absolutely nothing. Actually that’s not true, as rain – the wet stuff – is also close to my heart.

The UK, like other northern temperate regions, has a lot of ‘bad’ weather, but if you’re a photographer that’s a euphemism for ‘interesting’ weather. Bad weather is good weather as far as I’m concerned and rain – snow too when you can get it – will give your images far more dynamism than any geeky photographic gadget. So keep your camera dry, keep yourself dry and get out there!

There’s no point in photographing in the rain if the viewer can’t see it. Shooting into the light against a dark background will help to achieve visible rain streaks. I was photographing greylag geese one evening in a local field and the heavens opened. It was one of those sun-shower-sun days, and I knew that the downpour could well coincide with a bit of late sun. I got down low so that my background was a distant muted forest and sure enough as the rain eased, a spot of sun lit the droplets of water from behind. It’s not a prize-winner by any means but it would definitely be in the bin without the falling rain.

wildlife in the rain
Greylag goose, Cairngorms National Park, Scotland.
Canon 1dII, 500mm lens. ISO400. 1/640sec @ f/4

This capercaillie in amongst its natural pinewood habitat shows a similar approach, but I’ve got to tell you this was a frustrating session. I’d left my tripod deep in the forest and now, with falling rain, I had to shoot handheld. With a short telephoto lens that wouldn’t ordinarily be a problem, but I really wanted to blur the raindrops to emphasise the conditions. Without the support from the tripod and needing to keep the moving bird sharp, I shot this at 1/200 sec – the slowest I dare go under the circumstances. At such a shutter speed the raindrops are slightly blurred, achieving short rain streaks, but not enough for my liking.

wildlife in the snow
Capercaillie in pine forest, Cairngorms National Park, Scotland.
Canon 1dIV, 70-300mm lens. ISO800. 1/200 [email protected]

I hope that I’ve learned a few lessons over the years and for me, this osprey is the best of these three rainy images. Working from a hide my viewpoint was fixed, but the positioning of the hide took into account a distant woodland background. When the rain started pouring – and it was pouring very hard – I was dry and with my long lens on a tripod I could experiment with different shutter speeds. The rain streaks come from a relatively slow speed of 1/100 sec. I shot as slow as 1/30 sec. during this session, but it started to look a bit degraded with the rain recording almost as a white sheet.

how to get rain streaks
Osprey feeding, Cairngorms National Park, Scotland.
Canon 1dx, 500mm lens. ISO400. 1/100sec @f5.6

In many ways the camera settings above are irrelevant. Every situation is different and of course it all depends on the sort of effect you’re looking to achieve. I almost always try to blur the drops into short streaks, and past mistakes tell me that to achieve this I need a shutter speed of somewhere between 1/60 sec and 1/200 sec. Start with that and just nudge the speed up and down depending on the ‘type’ of rain you want.

Photographing Snow

Sadly Status Quo never did a track called Snow. Had they done so my back may well be completely trashed by now. Snow is the Holy Grail for me and, like rain, is a big pull to get outside and start shooting.

This captive goshawk image is quite old now, but I clearly remember when the saucer-like flakes started falling. My workshop group started packing up and, despite my protestations, had their minds on coffee, shortbread and the warmth of our nearby lodgings. A few of us stayed out during what I considered the best conditions of the whole tour. When the snow is this thick you need to be fairly close to your subject to avoid shooting through too much of the white stuff, which will fool your autofocus and degrade your image – it becomes like shooting through fog.

Using a pretty fast shutter speed of 1/250 sec the fast-moving snow is frozen, but again is clearly visible against a carefully aligned dark background – producing lovely snow streaks.

goshawk in snow peter cairns
Goshawk in blizzard, Cairngorms National Park, Scotland (captive).
Canon 1dIV, 500mm lens. ISO400. 1/250sec @f5.6.

The combination of falling snow and a bright red winter-coated squirrel is irresistible. Despite having hundreds of squirrel images in my files, the combination of weather and subject made this morning very special. From the comfort of my permanent hide and with camera resting firmly on a beanbag, I could afford to experiment with slow shutter speeds to create the effect I was looking for. Only when the squirrel settled to feed could I risk stopping down to 1/40 sec. and even then most of my images had streaks of snow crossing in front of the animal’s face. I do like this shot I have to say, and it’s not because of the red squirrel – as handsome as they are – but because of the streaky snow.

red squirrel in snow northshots
Red squirrel in pine woodland, Cairngorms National Park, Scotland.
Canon 1dx, 70-300mm lens. ISO400. 1/40sec @f5.6

We do go on about the weather in the UK, and it’s true to say that rain and snow are not without their challenges. But precipitation is the photographer’s friend. Plan your subject in advance, think about the type of shot you want to create and then when the conditions are right, get out there and nail it.

I think Rain got to number 6 in the charts. It came off the Blue for You album as did Mystery Song, another Quo classic. Did I ever tell you that Status Quo is the greatest rock band of all time?

 

Based in the Scottish Highlands, Peter Cairns is a nature photographer with 15 years professional experience. Tooth & Claw, Highland Tiger, Wild Wonders of Europe, and more recently 2020VISION, are all projects that have been an integral part of Peter’s career. He is a Senior Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers.

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  • Mac McMillen

    Great post. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts and techniques. Too many of today’s images are not unique because the background is boring (the main subject isn’t everything), but having rain or snow elevates the “cool factor” of the image by a factor of at least 2, and usually more, IMO. I love the squirrel photo; really well done. BTW, Magnum is the greatest rock band of all time. 🙂

  • Great Article Peter, really concerned about your music taste though !!