How many times have you ever thought to yourself, “It’s cloudy and looks like it’s about to rain, I’m not going to shoot today.” I’m not referring to dramatically stormy days either that litter the “most popular” fields in every social media art website, but to dreary overcast days that makes you just want to sleep in.
Remember that as complex as photography gets, it boils down to one very simple overarching idea. Photography is the recording of light. Whether it’s the effect of light from a specific source, reflected off a surface, or non-visible light such as ultraviolet or infrared, that is IT. I always try to bear that in mind when shooting. Though I’m not a huge fan of cloudy days, I’d never qualify using my camera then as inherently better or worse than a sunny day – just different.
What’s the best time to shoot on an overcast day?
Like a sunny day, shoot anytime; it just depends what you choose to photograph and your artistic preference. The nice thing is you don’t have to worry so much about taking pictures outdoors during a “poor light” time of day. My personal favorite time to photograph when cloudy is opposite to how I consider a clear day. Early in the morning and evening tend to possess much less light, so pending your camera’s ability, you’ll need to increase your ISO, slow your shutter speed down, and/or widen your aperture. You may even require a tripod. It allows opportunities for your greatest dramatic contrast between a dark sky with colors or highlights contained within your photo. However, you’ll get the maximum amount of diffuse light at “high noon” (you’ll notice most of the example shots are midday). The impact of time of day on your photography varies according to how light or murky the atmosphere above is.
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Black and white photography
One of the few things that actually sunk in from college professor during a B&W film photography course (g.o.y. 1995!) is that cloudy days provide excellent opportunities for black and white photos. It essentially turn the sky into the world’s largest softbox. Sure, we see in color and our digital camera sensors are recording in color, but the soft-balanced light, combined with less light bouncing from non-reflective surfaces can have quite an effect traditional black and white photography.
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Speaking of soft-balance light…
Ever shoot flowers or other foliage on a bright day versus a cloudy day? Diffuse light creates lower contrast and makes colors pop than if the subject matter was reflecting bright sunlight. Colors appear more saturated. That makes it great for subject matter such as portraits, still-life, and waterfalls. I won’t pretend I understand all of the physics, but the reason colors seem more vivid stems from the same reason we see color in the first place – a combination of reflected and absorbed light by a material. For a scientific explanation, here’s a good summary about the physics of color on Wikipedia. Also check out the book Light Science & Magic. It’s in my personal library and effectively explains the effect of light on objects and materials in a digestible graphic and verbal manner.
By the way – forgot to pack the neutral density filter or polarizer in your camera bag? A cloudy day will help negate blown highlights and reduce the impact of light poking through the top of foliage at slower shutter speeds.
Greater apparent detail
As just mentioned, all materials have varying properties of reflecting and absorbing light. Photography doesn’t record absorption, but opaque surfaces tend reflect as intensely or cast definite shadows when the originating light source has wider dispersion. That’s why there are all sorts of Tupperware-shaped doohickeys to purchase for your flash and ginormous umbrella thingies to fasten to your light stands. Therefore, when a material such as wood isn’t reflecting as much light, your eye picks up a greater amount of detail in that material. The apparent difference is even more so with our camera sensors because they don’t possess the vast dynamic range of our eyes.
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Photograph in 2D!
Okay – maybe not really in two dimensions. However a less-defined shadow allows you to consider things in profile you might’ve ordinarily looked at in full three dimensions. Sometimes sharp shadows are your friend and on other occasions they’re your enemy. However with those high-contrast shadows no longer streaking across, take the opportunity to scope underneath natural and human-made canopies such as shallow tree cover and roof structures.
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Cloudy days can turn the sky into one expansive back light. Play with how objects form against it.
My favorite impact of cloudy days are on reflective surfaces such as water and especially glass. You don’t have to worry about direct sunlight blowing out part of your photograph and I find the effect when you strip away the color to be beautiful.
ISO-100, F22.0, 1/15s, 1:23 PM CST
Composition and cropping
Use that blank canvas to create wide expanses or segments/slivers of negative space you wouldn’t have had with a blue sky.
ISO-100, F8.0, 1/400s, 1:14PM CST
It could rain (gasp!) –
- and that’s not a bad thing. These days, digital cameras are much better than they used to be and have greater resistance to water and professional equipment is considered air-tight. It can handle more than a few raindrops. Besides, the few moments before and after a rainstorm can add some drama that you weren’t getting when it was simply overcast.
ISO-400, F8.0, 1/100s, 10:24AM EST
I realize some “purists” cringe at anything post-processing, but I’ve made up my mind about S.O.B. photography a long time ago. Vignetting and playing with the S-curve, among many other development techniques, can aid the visual impact for seemingly mundane scenes. Play with it and see what you come up with.
Like many amateur and professional photographers, I get a thrill from interpreting urban and rural environments. Often overcast days reveal subject matter to evaluate and study that I’d otherwise miss on perfectly nice days. So don’t let a little down weather ever discourage you from satisfying your urge to shoot!
Opinions and facts (ha!) are subject to change. Suggestions? Corrections? LOLs and snide comments? E-mail email@example.com