How to Use Mist to Improve Your Landscape Photos

As a landscape photographer, there are fewer things more pleasing than heading out into the pre-dawn calm to arrive at a location, and find it cloaked in a delicate veil of mist gently drifting through the scene. Mist adds atmosphere to an image, can evoke a range of different moods, and is a useful tool for creating breath-taking compositions.

What is mist and how do you predict it?

Mist is made up of fine droplets of water or ice suspended in the air. Fog is very similar to mist, but has a greater density of droplets making it more difficult to see through.

If the visibility is less than one kilometre, it is said to be fog; visibility greater than one kilometre is mist.

Countryside landscape at dawn, covered in mist
Mist is more common before dawn and as the sun begins to rise.

Mist is more likely to form on clear, cool, and calm nights. As the land rapidly cools, the air temperature close to the ground drops. Once the temperature reaches the dew point the water vapour in the atmosphere begins to condense and can form mist.

Over bodies of water mist formation is slightly different. A lake will cool much more slowly than the land around it. Evaporation creates a warm, moist layer of air just above the surface of the water. As colder air from the land moves in and mixes with it, the water vapour condenses to form mist.

Predicting mist can be tricky. Keep an eye on the weather forecast. Look for nights that are going to be clear and cool with low wind speeds. Check the anticipated visibility before and around sunrise at, and close to your intended shoot location.

If it changes from excellent or very good through the night to good or moderate in the early hours, that’s a good indicator that there could be mist on the way.

How to take misty landscape photos

#1 Get to know your local area

The more you get out into your surroundings, not necessarily with the camera, the better. It could be simply walking, jogging, or taking the dog out, but either way you’ll begin to build up a picture of the weather systems nearby.

Over time you will get a feel for the conditions that cause mist and the likely locations where it can be found.

wood parkland in early morning with mist
By getting out into your local area you begin to build up a picture where mist most often gathers

#2 Use a tripod

Mist is more common around dawn when light levels are low and longer shutter speeds are often required. A tripod will help keep the camera still while taking a shot, reducing motion blur and improving image sharpness.

When using a tripod, remember to switch off any optical image stabilisation and use a cable release or self-timer to release the shutter.

#3 Keep an eye on your exposure

The tiny droplets of water in mist are very good at reflecting light which can fool your camera’s metering system, causing images to be underexposed. Try dialling in a bit of positive exposure compensation or, if the camera allows, bracket the shot and select the best exposure.

#4 Check your focus

The auto focus systems of some cameras can find it hard work in a combination of mist and low light. Be prepared to focus manually, and check your focus in live view to make sure that the things that need to be sharp are.

Misty lake landscape photo with mountains in the background
Create a sense of scale and distance between your foreground elements and far-off peaks.

#5 Be adaptable

Mist is dynamic and can be very localised. Have several possible nearby locations in mind before you head out.

If the forecast is pointing towards there being mist and there’s nothing at your first spot, then move on – the conditions at your next location might be perfect.

#6 Know your gear and be prepared to work fast

Mist is fickle. It can rapidly slip away out of a scene or burn off quickly as the sun rises. Having a good knowledge of setting up and using your gear will greatly increase the chances of capturing that perfect ethereal moment.

Less time fussing with the controls or composition means you have more time to take pictures in a potentially short window.

Adding a sense of depth to an image with mist

In misty conditions, objects that are further away lose contrast and their colours become less saturated. This effect can add depth to an image and creates separation between foreground elements and those that are more distant.

In woodland, use the mist to create space between trees as they fade into the gloom. In the mountains, use it to give a sense of scale and distance between your foreground elements and far-off peaks.

misty woodland landscape
Create a sense of space and depth in woodland scenes.

Declutter and simplify the scene

With mist, the further away something is the less visible it becomes until eventually it is completely obscured. Use this to your advantage to eliminate unsightly or distracting background objects, decluttering and simplifying a scene.

When out scouting locations, be sure to bear this in mind and make a note of compositions where this quality will improve an image. Then simply return when the conditions are right.

Autumn trees with mist in the background
Mist has obscured a farmhouse usually visible in the background of this scene

Try minimalist landscape photography

Mist is often found in the early mornings or on cold, calm days over bodies of water. Viewed from the shore, the still waters can fade off into the mist leaving no clear transition between the surface and the sky.

Look for reeds, rocks, or manmade objects emerging from the water and reflected on the surface to create minimal, abstract landscapes.

Minimal landscape photo of reeds with mist in the background blending into the water
The water surface fades of into the mist creating a minimal backdrop for these reflected reeds

Capturing sun rays

Dappled sunlight shining through the canopy is transformed into stunning sun rays when there’s mist around. Head into the woods on those colder days when the mist has more chance of lingering after sunrise, or when the sun comes out after a shower and starts to evaporate the moisture back into the atmosphere.

For best results shoot into the sun, or with it slightly off to the side using branches or a tree trunk to obscure the direct light.

Sun rays shining through mist in a woodland

Create something eerie

Mist has long been associated with ghosts and the supernatural and can add an eerie edge to landscape scenes. In woodlands, head towards the side of the wood where the sun is rising and capture the mist among the trees, illuminated by its deep orange glow.

Underexpose the shot slightly to retain details in the highlights and don’t worry too much about the darker areas.

The sun illuminates mist as it rises on the edge of a pine woodland
The sun illuminates mist as it rises on the edge of a pine woodland

The lack of detail in amongst the gloom and the silhouetted tree trunks add to that spooky feel.

Get creative and have fun with the post processing too. Try adjusting the exposure, dodging and burning, using radial and gradient filters and split toning to give that misty woodland shot a sinister edge.

Read more: How to Photograph Epic Wide-Angle Shots of Trees

Mist in a dark, spooky woodland landscape
Get creative and have fun with post processing to give that misty shot an eerie feel

Discover new compositions in familiar places

Mist, especially in winter when combined with snow or thick frost, can completely transform the landscape, giving it an ethereal and almost fairy tale look.

In these conditions, especially if roads are treacherous and travelling further afield could be risky, get out to your favourite local spots to see how they’ve changed and discover new views that you may have previously not considered.

Woodland stream covered in mist and snow
A previously unassuming woodland stream is transformed by mist and snow

Get above it

Mist often settles across flat lands or along valley floors. Get out from the gloom by climbing up the side of the valley or a nearby hill to get above it and find a new perspective.

Look out for farms and villages as they briefly emerge from the mist, and hilltops that appear like little islands across a sea of white. You could even shoot a time-lapse to capture the dynamic nature.

landscape photo overlooking hills covered in thick mist
A farm briefly emerges from a blanket of mist

In conclusion

Mist not only offers many beautiful landscape photography opportunities, but it can also be a useful tool to enhance scenes or even create compositions that would otherwise not be possible.

So, on a morning when you look out of your window and see a damp, uninviting, misty pre-dawn gloom, don’t just go back to bed. Grab your gear and get out there; you’ll be amazed by the scenes you can find.

Visit Paul's website

Paul Howell is a Yorkshire Dales based, award-winning landscape photographer. He enjoys seeking out views seldom seen around his home in Nidderdale and further afield across the North of England. With a passion for photographing trees he is often found exploring the small pockets of stunning ancient woodlands that still survive in remote parts of the Dales and Moors.

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