Weather is tough to predict, even for meteorologists. Landscape photographers have the challenging task of reading the weather and deciding when to get their gear out and when to wait for another day.
I live in San Diego, which has a reputation for constant sunny weather. The truth is that weather in this area is much more complicated and nuanced. I have spent many years learning, and being frustrated on the way, waiting for the perfect weather to make landscape images.
As with most areas, approaching and clearing storms provide amazing, dramatic, light. Because San Diego sits in an arid environment, there are only a few storms per year. These weather systems usually generate a lot of buzz, and for photographers, it is relatively straight-forward to be ready.
Spring and Fall weather are strongly influenced by the onshore flow, also known as marine layer, which blows in every evening from the Pacific coast. I have had many lovely evenings end with zero light at sunset due to this phenomenon. Sometimes, the fog is subtle, and I have been headed down Interstate 8 to Sunset Cliffs only to go from sunny skies to dark overcast just one mile from the coast. If you have heard of “May Gray” or “June Gloom,” then you know what this looks like.
Summers prevent the onshore flow from greatly influencing the weather, but what seems to be a plethora of high pressure systems prevents the North American jet stream from veering far enough South to bring us weather systems. Occasionally, a system will blow in from the Pacific south of the jet steam, sometimes called the Pineapple Express. These weather systems seem to be pretty rare.
In the height of Summer, the monsoon season which affects the Southwest deserts occasionally makes it way to San Diego County. I like to head to East County when these systems develop in the afternoon. I have found, though, that while these cumulonimbus clouds look impressive at noon, they are often scattered from high elevation winds by sunset. These are typically not a red sunset.
The Fall brings much of the same onshore flow from the Spring, so the same rules apply.
The Winter is my favorite season to photograph. The Pacific current keeps temperatures cool, so onshore flow is slow to develop. In addition, San Diego seems to develop more higher elevation cloud systems in the afternoons. The higher the clouds, the better to photograph at sunset. This is the time of season where you need your gear with you at all times. Clear the schedule. Watch at all times.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my friends app, Skyfire, at http://www.skyfireapp.com. This application will provide you some intelligence on reading the weather and selecting the best locations at sunrise and sunset. I am a paid subscriber myself, and use it several times a week to give me some insight into what to expect out in the field.
It is important that wherever you live, you invest time and energy in learning your local area’s prevailing weather patterns. Do your homework, because some people aim to make lucky photographs, but an artist aims to make prepared photographs. Be the latter person.
T.M. Schultze is a San Diego-based photographer, traveller, and writer. He writes, photographs, and draws things of the outdoors that have inspired humans for thousands of years. He co-authored the Photographer’s Guide to Joshua Tree Park which can be purchased here.