Why Do Cloudy Day Photos Seem Flat? :: Digital Photo Secrets

Why Do Cloudy Day Photos Seem Flat?

by David Peterson 1 comment

If you’re like most beginners in photography, taking photos on a cloudy day is almost often a challenge. It seems no matter how much you try and how often you hear well-meaning advice from professionals, the tips don’t seem to work. The photos you take almost always come out darn flat! What could be wrong?

First you’ll need to understand some fundamental aspects of lighting and their visual relationship to the subjects of the photos you take. Hopefully these will explain why cloudy day photos seem to be flat.

[ Top image Maris, overcast day by Flickr user jonclegg]

Quality of Light and Contrast

Lighting plays a big role in photography. In fact photography is often defined as the art of capturing light. Light sets the mood of your image or scene. And light has certain qualities. It can either be “hard” or “soft”.

1. Hard Lighting

This is a directional type of light where you have a small light source that is directed towards the subject. This creates hard shadows on the subject which is typical on a bright sunny day.

2. Soft Lighting

This on the other hand is a diffused type of lighting that is achieved by having a larger light source. Because the light is more spread apart and coming from different directions this softens the shadow on the subject similar to what is achieved on a cloudy day.

Notice the difference in brightness between the light and dark areas of both images. This is also known as contrast. With hard lighting, the photo produced is a high-contrast image because you can really see the difference in tones. The result is images with more drama, more vibrant or saturated colors and more eye-catching appeal.

On the other hand, the image with soft lighting produced a photo that is known as a low-contrast image. The range of tones is not really significant since the shadows are subdued. This creates a drab image, the colors are muted and oftentimes end up being flat or monotone. This happens because there is little contrast in the image which makes the subject one-dimensional or formless. The subject ends up blending with the background.

One of the secrets in photography is learning how to “read” the light and apply it to the subject you have in mind. By understanding the difference in the quality of light, you can now look for ways on how to use it and capitalize a given situation. Here are some suggestions.

Tip No. 1 - Right Subject for the Right Light

Oftentimes our frustration comes from the mindset of shooting an outdoor subject with the kind of lighting we expect to see on a sunny day – hard lighting.

Having a cloudy day means having a soft light. And having a soft light means having a flat even light with minimal shadows. So the key in shooting in this situation is to find out the right subject - subjects that would require even lighting.

Did you know that professional photographers try to achieve this type of light in a studio using a soft box? This is usually done when shooting portraits or product shots. The omni-directional nature of the soft light minimizes the shadow which in turn hides imperfections on the skin such as wrinkles, blemishes and bumps. This makes the skin more flattering. Likewise because the highlight-to-shadow contrast is lower as compared to a hard light, it is much easier to get the details of the subject as in the case of a product shot.

So, learning from this, when shooting on a cloudy day, we will have more success if we limit our subjects to people, animals, flowers or specific, individual things.

Also, since a low-contrast subject will have a tendency to blend with the background, it is best if we shoot close-up or use a telephoto lens. This minimizes capturing the background unnecessarily and allows us to focus on the details.

Avoid shooting wide, panoramic images as this would appear flat in cloudy, low-contrast lighting.

Tip No. 2 – Angle of the Subject

Shooting portraits on a cloudy day is just half of the solution. Even though the light is diffused and shadows are minimized, still there is a tendency for shadows to fall under the subject’s eyes. If this happens, ask the subject to turn his/her head slightly until the face is fully lighted.

Tip No. 3 – Using a Reflector

Another solution you can do is to use a flat white surface to act as a reflector to bounce light on the face of your subject. The light, though diffused, will still brighten up the face and further minimize or remove unwanted shadows. This will result in a more appealing and vibrant photo. The only problem you’d have to anticipate here is for someone to hold the reflector for you, especially if you are shooting an animate subject like a pet or a little child that would not hold still. But if you are shooting an immovable object like a toy car or a flower, clipping the white reflector to a stand will suffice.

Tip No. 4 – Use a Flash

Instead of using a white reflector to add some light to your subject, another method is to use a flash. The challenge though would be how to adjust the strength of the flash so that it wouldn’t overpower the light from your surroundings. The result would be an image looking unnatural. But sometimes it can work, especially if you know how to control the direction of the light like in this image:

If you don’t want to be limited to shooting people, animal or specific things on a cloudy day and would still like to shoot landscapes or wide-angled shots, it would still be possible with a flash.

This method will be great if you use the flash off-camera with a radio trigger. There are a number of cheap radio triggers available in the market today and they are very useful. The set comes with a transmitter that is attached to your camera’s hot shoe and the receiver to the flash. The radio trigger allows you to reposition the flash anywhere within a 100m+ radius. This will allow you to light up subjects or points of interest even at a distance. By doing so, you will be imitating a stray of light hitting the subject of interest on a cloudy day.

Tip No. 5 – Adjusting the Camera’s Picture Control

Another method you can use is to tinker with your camera’s picture control. If you go to your camera’s picture control menu you will be presented with different options such as standard, neutral, monochrome, portrait, landscape, vivid, etc. By selecting vivid, you can increase the saturation of your photo and come up with a vibrant image. So if you see your subject as plain, uninteresting or monotonous, sometimes boosting the saturation will add life to the colors. Voila! You now have a much more interesting image.

Or maybe you can choose the monochrome option and convert your image to B&W or a toned image. Sometimes, even though you have a low-contrast image as in a cloudy day, if your subject has a strong visual appearance and is not dependent on color, then you can still produce an outstanding monochrome image.

Tip No. 6 – Shoot RAW

By shooting the cloudy scene using RAW format, you will be obtaining an image with all the picture information that your camera sensor sees. It’s like having a negative image on-hand. If you shoot in JPEG, the camera would post-process the image you shot based on the inputs you’ve made like boosting the saturation (as in Tip No. 5). The output from your camera would already be a post-processed image that was done in-camera and all other information originally captured will be discarded.

With the RAW file, you could further make adjustments on the drab image using your computer. Not only will it contain the complete original information, you will also have more leeway in making contrast adjustments, boosting the saturation or converting into B&W.

Tip No. 7 – Convert to B&W

Sometimes an image becomes more dramatic if the distracting pale color is removed and the eye is left to appreciate the image visually in its graphic form.
By converting the image to B&W using post-processing software, you will have more options as compared to getting the camera to do it for you. Options like adjusting the contrast to adding tints will come in handy. However it would require extra time and patience until you get the results you want.

Tip No. 8 – Use Photoshop or Lightroom

If none of these suggestions works for you, or if you have already taken the shot before any of these came up, don’t despair. You can still keep your image and post-process it using Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Lightroom or any software that allows you to do post-production work.
With Photoshop, you can do further manipulation on the image to make it more interesting. Or with Lightroom, the software can churn out a number of variations of the image that you can choose from.

Hopefully with these suggestions, you won’t find any more reason to skip shooting on a cloudy day

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  1. Ajit says:

    Very good and quite informative article.. Understanding light made easy .. Thanks

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.