Don't let anyone tell you that you shouldn't take photos on overcast days. Sure, cloudy days have their challenges, but they don’t call them "nature's softbox" for nothing. Just follow a few simple tips and your cloudy day photographs will prove to those naysayers that overcast conditions really are perfect for photography.
[ Top image Sunset Lighting by Flickr user Clickr Bee]
Soft, Even Light
If you've ever tried to take pictures at noon on a sunny day, you know how difficult it can be to return home with more than a handful of good shots. That's because there's just way too much dynamic range on bright days--the shadows are too black, and the highlights are too bright. You end up with pictures that lack detail in the shadows and have completely burned out hotspots where there ought to be beautiful highlights.
Taking pictures at noon on a cloudy day is another story. Much like a professional softbox kit, the clouds take that bright light source and diffuse it, so there isn't any direct light falling on anything in the scene. This creates a soft, even light that flatters almost any subject. You'll get fully-detailed shadows and highlights that have beautiful tones rather than glaring hotspots. You won't end up with subjects that have raccoon eyes, unless you're photographing actual raccoons.
Speaking of raccoons, wildlife photographers often prefer overcast conditions, because they're generally more favorable to capturing consistently good shots of this often tricky subject. Animals don't look any better with unflattering shadows on their faces than humans do, and since the eyes are often the most important part of a wildlife image the last thing you want is to lose them to a noontime shadow. And like humans, animals also don't like to squint into the sun, so don't expect them to stand where the light is favorable. Animals may also have skin or fur that produces glare--another problem that is eliminated on an overcast day.
Water lilies by Flickr user aussiegall
Colorful subjects are also flattered by that soft, even light. While direct light can wash out those bright colors, overcast days make the colors pop. Flowers, people dressed in colorful outfits, brightly painted buildings or other colorful scenes are all going to benefit from that diffused light.
And finally, you may just find that your human subjects look better on cloudy days, too. And that's not just because of the soft light, it's also because they aren't going to squint or insist on wearing their sunglasses. Soft light means more relaxed and natural looking subjects, and that all by itself is a reason to shoot portraits on overcast days.
Nothing is more boring than a blue sky. OK a few things are more boring, like watching CSPAN. But let's face it, blue skies just aren't very interesting. The blue color is nice, sure, but it's so samey. For really interesting skies, you want clouds. Clouds provide drama. They give your scene interest from top to bottom. They are beautiful and compelling. And overcast days give you ample opportunity to include them, particularly during those magic hours. Sunrise and sunset are the best times for including dramatic skies--the light just behind those clouds creates skyscapes with beautiful colors and rich texture. If you're out on a cloudy day, make sure you stick around until sunset to take full advantage of those beautiful cloudy day skies.
Cambridgeshire Fens by Flickr user Lapse of the Shutter
Equipment and settings
Overcast light of course is not as bright as cloudless-day light. So you will need to shoot at slower shutter speeds, wider apertures and/or higher ISOs. If you're photographing landscapes, you'll probably want to choose slower shutter speeds in order to maintain a good depth of field and eliminate the noise that can sometimes be a factor when shooting at high ISOs. If this is you, you'll probably need a tripod when shooting on an overcast day. Slow shutter speeds, of course, mean that it will be more difficult to hand-hold your camera without your images falling victim to camera shake.
Now, if you've been listening to those aforementioned naysayers, then you've probably heard that the light is just too flat on an overcast day. You may get photos with dull colors, or black and white shots that don't have any blacks or whites, but just a bunch of muted grays. Fortunately this problem is easily fixed both in-camera and off.
79: Tay by Flickr user Matthew Boyle
The simple answer to that flat-light problem is to add a little light of your own. This can be done a few ways--first, bring a good off-camera flash. Adding a little light to your subject or scene can put highlights back into an image where there just isn't enough direct light. You can also use that reflector kit you have stashed in your camera bag--a silver reflector will bounce light onto your subject's face, creating some highlights and possibly those all-important catch lights that add life to your subject's eyes. You can add shadow, too, if that's what you decide is lacking in your scene. You know that black reflector that you previously had no idea what to do with? Angle it so that you get a little bit of extra shadow on your subject, and suddenly she will go from looking a bit flat and two dimensional to looking three dimensional.
But let's say you got caught out without any reflectors or a flash--don't worry, you can still fix a photograph that comes out looking a little too flat. In many cases, simply opening up the image in Photoshop and adjusting the levels (Image > Adjustments > Levels) will add contrast to an otherwise flat image. Just move those outside sliders so they meet the edges of the histogram, then adjust the inside slider either to the left or to the right depending on how much light you want to add or subtract.
There really aren't any good reasons for keeping your camera on the shelf, and an overcast day certainly shouldn't do anything to convince you otherwise. Overcast conditions have benefits as well as advantages, and like any shooting conditions there are always things you can do to ensure you get great photos. So don't shun nature's softbox just because some other photographer said you ought to. Remember that they're the ones who are going to miss out on that wonderful soft, even light and those dramatic skies.
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