Updated: Feb 14, 2021
Deciding when to shoot is always agonizing for me. I need to get into the field to shoot new images, but I hate getting skunked and feeling like I wasted time that I could have spent more productively in the office. And since the quality of the images I come home with is often largely determined by the weather, obtaining an up-to-date, accurate weather forecast is critical.
The best forecasts I've found for my purposes are the point forecasts produced by the National Weather Service. Point forecasts are very specific forecasts for very small regions, sometimes as small as a few square miles. Even more important for a mountain photographer is that the forecast takes elevation into account. In flat country, the forecast may not vary much over distances of 10 or 20 miles, but it can vary tremendously in the mountains. The summit of 14,259-foot Longs Peak, for example, might as well be on another planet when you're comparing its weather to that of Denver 9,000 feet below.
To obtain a point forecast, start by visiting https://www.weather.gov/. In the top left corner, enter a city and state or a ZIP code in the search box (figure 2). The forecast page that opens will be specific to that city, of course, and that may be all you need. If your destination is actually a nearby national park or wilderness area, however, locate the map in the lower right corner of the page. Scroll across the map to your destination, zoom in to be sure you’re clicking on exactly the right spot, and click to receive a very specific forecast for the region marked by the small green square on the map. Directly beneath the map you'll find the exact latitude, longitude, and elevation of the forecast zone. Depending on exactly where you clicked, you may also find the distance and direction from the nearest city or other geographic landmark.
You can use the same search box to search for certain geographic landmarks, such as major peaks or lakes, but the point forecast may not cover exactly the area of interest. Double-check by examining the green square on the map to see the exact forecast area.
Look below the map, and you'll see still more choices, which include an Hourly Weather Graph and a Tabular Forecast. The information in those two forecasts is identical; the only difference is the format in which it is presented. Here you can find hour-by-hour information on the expected wind speed, percentage of the sky that will be covered by clouds, temperature, and chance of precipitation all the way out to six days. Okay, that level of specificity is probably only accurate out to 48 hours or so, but it's still very useful.
You can also find a link just below the map to the forecast discussion. Understanding all of the discussion requires a pretty advanced knowledge of meteorology. I've studied an entry-level college meteorology textbook and still don't understand all the terminology. For a layman, the most useful part is that you can often glean some hints about the forecast uncertainty when the forecaster discusses the predictions of different weather models. When the models are conflicting, the forecaster often chooses a bland, middle-of-the-road forecast ("mostly sunny with a chance of snow") that doesn't back him into a corner. When the models are in good agreement, however, you can more confidently plan shoots several days in advance.
The more you know about your location and the weather you can expect when you arrive, the better your chances of creating compelling images. I find National Weather Service point forecasts invaluable.
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