The Fog in Landscape Photography

Outdoor photographs taken in fog often appear dull and unattractive. This is mostly because the fog and the low light decrease the image contrast and color saturation significantly below what we perceived with our eyes. However, this is not a serious problem since the contrast and saturation of a digital photo can easily be adjusted. Actually, we can turn the problem into an advantage. Starting with an image of low contrast we will have more freedom to manipulate it than if the original image was taken in harsh light, when shadow and highlight clipping is likely to occur. The purpose of this article is to demonstrate that with the appropriate adjustments, in an image editor like Photoshop, the results can be surprisingly satisfying landscape images.

There are several galleries on this website which contain outstanding landscapes with fog. They authors do not need technical advises, but they may find here some compositional considerations of interest. However, this article is intended, primarily, for those who are not convinced yet that for a landscape photographer there should not be such a thing as "bad weather".

1.  Adjusting the contrast and color saturation

This discussion assumes that the image editor is Photoshop. With most digital cameras the contrast can be adjusted before the photo is taken. But this is not the best time to do it since we do not know in advance what is the right amount, and thus clipping of shadows/highlights may occur. In case of a RAW format: it would be better to do a rough adjustment in the RAW converter and a fine adjustment in Photoshop. In case of a JPG format: it should be done in Photoshop. In either case, the contrast is most conveniently adjusted using the "Levels" function in the "Image" -> "Adjustments" menu, although "Curves" can also be used. Warning: do not use automatic contrast adjustments.

The "Levels" function displays the Histogram of the image. The histogram of a low contrast image occupies only portion of the 0-255 range. To increase the contrast we need to "stretch" the histogram. This is done by pulling the left slider to the right and the right slider to the left. The sliders should not be moved into the region occupied by the histogram because this will cause shadow / highlight clipping. One should also watch out for increase of the noise caused by the contrast boost. For photos from compact cameras the noise can become quite noticeable, but for most of todays DSLR's the noise increase should not be a problem unless the contrast boost is excessive.
Usually, even this simple adjustment is sufficient to bring a dull image to life. But we should not stop here. A judiciously applied color saturation can be very beneficial as long as it is not overdone. Moderately saturating the entire image is fine, but not as good as selectively saturating particular colors, like the greens or yellows, if present. Photos 1, 2 and 3 are examples for the results obtained with the described procedure.

Photo 1
Photo 2

Photo 3

 2.  Landscapes with Vanishing Horizon

Sometimes the fog is so dense that only the immediate foreground is clearly visible. More distant objects are silhouettes which gradually dissolve into a plain white / gray background. Instead of getting discouraged from the lack of visibility one should recognize an opportunity for creative photography. The resulting landscape may be far superior, in terms of composition, to the one taken at the same place without the fog. When processing such photographs one should use the empty light-gray space, created by the fog, as a compositional device, which is common in the classical Chinese and Japanese watercolor paintings. It would be a mistake to treat this space as an overexposed area and attempt to make visible what is hidden by the fog. What was said about the contrast boost and the selective saturation applies here also. Photos 4 and 5 are examples for landscapes with "vanishing horizon".

Photo 4
Photo 5

3.  Landscapes with Sunshine and Fog

Simultaneous sunshine and fog do not occur often, but when they do they present an exceptional opportunity for great landscape images. Take as many photos as you can, and review them latter, because the light changes fast and it is not possible to judge in advance which is the best moment. When processing such photos the boost of contrast may not be necessary, but the selective saturation most probably will be. Saturating the colors of the sun illuminated objects will make the sunshine appear brighter and will enhance the visual effect of the image. Photo 6 is an example of "sunshine and fog" landscape.

Photo 6

4.  Creating Fog (or Mist)

Sometimes the composition of a landscape image may benefit by introducing an artificially created fog (or mist). This will distinctly separate the foreground from the background and visually emphasize the foreground. Some readers may object by saying that this would be a distortion of reality. However, our goal is to create an image of artistic value. How such an image is created is of secondary importance. Of cause, the objection would be valid if we claimed that the image is a documentary photo which represents a particular place at a particular time. Photo 7 is the result of superimposing an artificially created fog on an existing photo taken on a clear day. The fog was created in Photoshop by using the "gradient tool". This function can apply simultaneously a gradient of a particular color and a gradient of the opacity of that color. The appearance of fog in Photo 7 was created by selectively applying a constant (no gradient) light-gray color simultaneously with an opacity vertical gradient: 0% -> 50% -> 0%. This particular opacity variation was chosen so that the fog/mist fills the valley, but leaves the distant mountains visible. (The fog will hide the mountains if the opacity gradient is 100% -> 50% -> 0% from top to bottom.) Next, the background is deselected and an opacity gradient 50% -> 0% (with the same color) is applied from the bottom left corner to the center of the photo. The bottom of the rock, which is quite far, is now also in the fog. The top of the rock is above the fog, as intended, and its crisp image is in contrast with the soft background.

Photo 7