Depending on who you ask, cloudy days are either an awesome time to take photos, or they are a terrible time to take photos. So which one is it? Read on to find out.
The answer really lies in your approach. If you shoot a cloudy day exactly the same way you shoot a sunny day, you're bound to be disappointed in your results. Cloudy days are flat days, which basically just means that there's less dynamic range, or less difference between the highlights and the shadows. That can make for a very dull photo indeed, and if you take enough photos on days with cloud cover, you know exactly what I mean. But there are other really wonderful qualities about those cloudy days, and if you dismiss cloudy day photography just based entirely on past negative experiences, you’re kind of going to be missing out.
[ Top image Cloudy HÃ¼cker Moor by Flickr user blavandmaster]
Nature’s soft box
You’ve more than likely heard of a “soft box,” in fact you may even own one or have at least used one at some point in your photographic experiences. The soft box is a device that softens light. It’s simply a piece of diffuse material that works by scattering the light from a primary light source, so that it when the light lands on the subject it's softer and more even than it would be if it wasn’t diffused. Now think about an overcast day. It's essentially the same thing. The primary light source—the sun—has a thick layer of clouds between it and whatever your subject happens to be. So the end result is really just like what happens with a soft box—those clouds diffuse the light, which makes it softer and more even. So if you know how to take advantage of this, you're going to be the one out there capturing spectacular photos on cloudy days while everyone else is indoors waiting for the sun to come out.
For a start, you won't have to worry about dynamic range on a cloudy day. By contrast, a sunny, cloudless day may give you some problems, especially the closer you get to midday. The sun, when it’s overhead, is direct and harsh, so you may get blown out highlights and too-dark shadows—both problems you won't have if you're shooting on an overcast day. Now, you may have the opposite problem, which is flat images, and that’s why it's important to make sure that you are comfortable in post-processing if you’re going to be doing a lot of cloudy day photography. Post-processing is really going to make those images shine—even if the originals look a little flat and lifeless.
snowbuds by Flickr user jennifernish
Shoot in RAW
The first tip I've got for you is to shoot in RAW. The RAW file format captures more detail overall, and it gives you more leeway to make exposure errors, or to correct white balance after the fact. Since you're going to be post-processing the majority of these photos anyway, there's really no reason not to shoot the originals in the RAW format. It just gives you more flexibility overall.
Look for texture in the sky
Not all overcast days are going to have good texture in the sky. If it's a day with very heavy cloud cover, any landscapes you shoot may end up including a dull, completely white sky. If this is the case, look for details in the landscape rather than photographing the landscape itself, or exclude as much sky as possible. Landscapes work best when there is some texture and color in the sky, so while you could shoot a landscape on an overcast day, it's better to wait until the cloud cover is a little more visually appealing.
Blåvand cloudy evening by Flickr user blavandmaster
Look for color
One thing you’ve probably noticed about overcast days is that they make dull colors look even duller, which can kind of lead to the overall impression that overcast days are just bad for capturing color in general. But that's not precisely true—in fact, bright colors can really seem to pop on overcast days, which is a good reason to seek them out. In particular, look for brilliant natural colors such as green trees, brightly colored flowers, or blue water. Those colors are really going to stand out in an otherwise dreary day.
Centennial Bridge, Cottage Grove, OR by Flickr user sandyhd
Include the clouds in your composition
If the cloud cover isn't too heavy or if it's a partly cloudy day, you have an opportunity to add a lot of interest to your landscape photographs. Remember that as the sun comes out you will have increasing dynamic range in the scene, so it's useful to bring along a graduated neutral density filter in case you have a suddenly bright sky to contend with. Place the dark part of the graduated neutral density filter over the sky and you'll be able to capture all of that beautiful texture and light, while also maintaining good exposure on the ground. And look for sunbeams breaking through the clouds, too—depending on how much cloud cover there is this may be a very brief moment or it may be the moment of transition between cloudy and sunny, so either way you need to prepare for the possibility that the moment will be a fleeting one. Be ready to capture it when it happens. Also look at the way for the way those patches of sunlight play on the landscape—sometimes they can create beautiful patterns of light that are unique only to that particular day with that particular set of clouds.
And don't forget that just because it's a cloudy day doesn't mean you need to take photos of the clouds. Cloudy weather can be great for portraits, for the simple reason that days with good cloud cover are days without hard shadows or glaring highlights. You won't get raccoon eyes on a cloudy day, and you won’t have to worry about squinting subjects, either.
Now one thing you're certain to find when you photograph people on a cloudy day is that you get that same flat look that you might get in the landscape, so it can be helpful to have a set of portable reflectors on hand just for the occasion. Ideally, on a cloudy day you'll want to use the silver reflector for portraits—a silver reflector will add the highlights that you need and will fill in some of those odd shadows you may find on an overcast day, such as the ones that appear under the nose and chin. Place your reflecter below your subject and angle it up so the light is filling in all of those under-feature shadows. You may also want to experiment with the black flag, which is the black part of your reflector. It can help add shadow to an otherwise flat image.
One thing you'll almost certainly find is that many of these photos, as I mentioned earlier, could use a little bit of post-processing. In post-processing your primary goal is to make sure that you get a complete range of tones, which is something you can accomplish with the levels tool. The levels tool shows you the histogram for your image, and on an overcast day it's likely to look like this:
Notice how the graphic doesn't extend all the way to either end of the chart. Instead it's hunched up in the middle, which indicates that the image doesn't have that complete range of tones you might get on a day that has more dynamic range. In a scene that does have a lot of dynamic range, you would see the histogram taper down to either end of the chart. To fix this this is a relatively simple matter—you simply need to push the shadows slider to the right until it's under the point on the histogram where you start to see pixels. Then push the highlights slider to the left, repeating the process. That is going to deep in the shadows and brighten highlights so you'll have a much more complete range of tones in the image.
While you're there, you may also want to turn up the saturation a little. To do this, go to Image > Adjustments, Hue/Saturation. Find the saturation slider and push it to the right until you see the colors in the image begin to pop. Now a word of caution: make sure you make these changes at 100%t magnification because altering the saturation may cause problems like noise or an unnatural transition between colors, and you want to avoid that. These changes are best seen at the pixel level, so make sure you watch the details carefully and back off before noise starts to become a problem. Don't be afraid to change individual color channels if you only want to increase the saturation in a certain part of the image.
No matter how you look at it, a cloudy day is great for photography—not just because you get some wonderful opportunities to create images full of texture and color, but also because it’s a bit of a challenge to get out there and take full advantage of the conditions. So if you were inclined to wait for a sunny day, think again. You’ll be glad you challenged yourself and I know you’ll be pleased with your results.
- Nature’s soft box
- Shoot in RAW
- Look for texture in the sky
- Find bold colors
- Shoot portraits
- Use a reflector or black flag to add dimension
- Post processing
- Use the levels tool to give your photo a complete range of tones
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