I live in a heavily industrialized part of China. The only time you could fairly describe the air as clean is the 45 minutes immediately after a heavy downpour. As such, photos taken of subjects anything further than, say, 5 meters away begin to look washed-out.

Apart from shooting exclusively in black and white or designing my own Mega Maid, what options are available for getting good color and sharpness when the air quality is, frankly, dangerous?

  • 2
    Wait for windy days. No smog can oppose some really serious wind.
    – SF.
    Jan 17, 2013 at 16:40
  • sometimes you don't have that option.
    – chuqui
    Jan 18, 2013 at 7:38
  • Having been to China, I know what you mean. This won't work for colour (and I see colour is what you are asking about), but if you do convert to B&W, it's good to be aware that the red channel will typically have higher contrast in fog than the blue one (just tried with pictures taken in hazy China). You can adjust the balance and improve contrast. Of course it won't work with every picture ...
    – Szabolcs
    Aug 23, 2013 at 21:41

3 Answers 3


Really there is no substitute for clean air. If you know when the air is clean and you want the look it gives, shoot at those times:

  • Early morning because the air warms up and lifts particles.
  • On colder days.
  • After a downpour as you said.

Obviously sometimes you have to shoot around a specific time. In those cases, you can do some adjustments that help:

  • A polarizer. This works best at 60 to 120 degrees them the sun and not on overcast days.
  • Avoid backlighting. This would light up particles and emphasize them.
  • Sharp tone-curve. Most cameras can adjust the tone-curve. In the simplest models you have a single control for contrast, usually in 5 to 11 steps. The higher the contrast, the less dynamic-range is captured with the captured range spread out more which increased contrast. Some cameras have separate curves for shadows, highlights and mid-tones.
  • Zoom with your feet. Prefer stepping closer over zooming in. There will be less air between up and the subject that way and thus less polution.

Sometimes a polarizer helps cut through haze. Otherwise, you can tweak the contrast/brightness in the camera if you want the jpegs to be better, or do it in the RAW program you use. 3rd option is the embrace the smog and make it part of your composition to tell the story. You could make a series to bring attention to problems with pollution and sell them as stock photos to NGOs.

  • 4
    That's a very interesting idea, to "embrace the smog and make it part of the composition".
    – Chait
    Jan 17, 2013 at 23:45

When I was in China I noticed that the people there (in Beijing and Guilin) liked coloured lights. They were everywhere on the busy streets in the city.
My suggestion is to shoot at night when the coloured lights give you an interesting effect through the smog.

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