wildfire smoke and landscape photography

How to Capture Landscape Images in Wildfire Smoke

Jul 20, 2021

Wildfires are unplanned fires that burn and impact natural areas and sometimes communities in their path. Wildfire impact can be felt by humans and animals and can lead to the devastating loss of life, property, personal belongings and habitat. Even those not in any direct path of wildfire can suffer effects from wildfires as they can reduce air quality and cause pollution impacting physical health, mental health and psychosocial well-being.  

For those not impacted directly by wildfires, our thoughts often turn to the devastation occurring in communities close to and much like those in which we live. We are fortunate, however, to mostly be able to continue our day-to-day lives without significant impact. For the landscape photographer not living in the direct path of a wildfire, we can usually continue to spend time in nature. However, smoky skies can impact our frames. 

Alongside being grateful that our lives are not significantly hindered by the direct path of a wildfire and considering ways in which we can help those affected, there are a few ways a landscape photographer can continue to capture images despite smoke-filled skies. 

Here are a few ways you can continue to capture landscape images through smoky sky conditions. 

1. Don’t put your camera away because conditions are not ideal

Light through moderate smoke pollution typically grabs sunrise and sunset colour. Smoke can cluster, appearing cloud-like, and colour up with unique reds, pinks, oranges and yellows. This can result in some spectacular sky conditions, so continue capturing images and experimenting as you would under normal sky conditions. 

I’ve found that when landscapes are filled with smoky skies, colours can begin much earlier than the usual plan for sunset hours. Therefore, you might want to consider heading out to your chosen landscape location earlier than you typically would during non-smoky sky conditions. 

The image below was taken just after 8:30 pm local time. However, the sunset was scheduled for about 9:45 pm. As you can see peak colour for this location was over an hour before the scheduled sunset. Colour had diminished into distinct blue by just after 9:00 pm and was well over by 9:45 pm. 

ISO 64 24mm f10, 8 sec

2. Focus on the interaction between smoke and light

Smoky light can create diffuse and unique lighting situations. Now is the time to pay close attention to light falling across a landscape scene.

Smoky light can also enhance opportunities to capture dynamic lighting effects such as light rays and glow. 

I found myself captivated by the hazy and glowy effect created from the mixing of lower-level smoke and light in this landscape scene. 

ISO 400 86mm f9 1/100 sec

3. Embrace the atmosphere 

Smoky skies can act similarly to a foggy atmosphere in a landscape scene. Light to moderate smoke levels softens details within a frame, which can result in an ethereal feeling. When smoke is present, look for opportunities to photograph layers within a landscape. Objects closer to the camera will retain some detail, while landscape features will fade and soften towards the back of a frame. This type of layering can be a beautiful way to showcase shape and form within a landscape. Scenes that have sweeping lines and are multi-layered works well for this type of landscape capture.  

ISO 800 135 mm f6.3 1/80 sec

Weather and environmental conditions are not something a landscape photographer can control however I think that as long as it is safe, there are always benefits to being out in nature exploring your passion for photography regardless of the conditions present. 

To donate and learn how you can help victims of the BC wildfires, visit the Canadian Red Cross www.redcross.ca.