Photography on a Cloudy Day

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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.”

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.

P.S. If you’re a professional real-estate photographer wondering what to do on cloudy days, make sure you check out the last section of this blog.

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 in relation to your shutter speed at “high noon”. The impact of time of day on your photography varies according to how light or murky the atmosphere above is.

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.

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.

But if you DID remember your neutral density filter or polarizer…

…then you can have even more fun. I used stacked neutral density filters to slow down the shutter speed for two different effects. First, is a 45-second exposure during a cloudy and windy day in Atlanta,

the second in order to overexpose the entire image, particularly the sky.  This allows a blank canvas to create wide expanses of negative space you would might not have otherwise.

 

If you want to further expose the sky above the horizon more than the earth below it, then use a graduated neutral density filter.

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.

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 look at form and material in ways you couldn’t with direct sunlight.

Silhouette
Cloudy days can turn the sky into one expansive back light. Play with how objects form against it.

Reflective surfaces.
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.

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.

You could also just photograph people…

Many photographers enjoy nothing more than shooting people on an overcast day, providing opportunities with little to no additional strobes.

REAL-ESTATE PHOTOGRAPHY

Q: WHAT DO I DO IF IT RAINS OR IT’S CLOUDY?

A: Well, you should be getting paid enough that you simply return on a different day and shoot when it’s nice.  However, if you insist, there are several things you can do:

Turn interior lights on for exteriors

Yup, turn those lights on.  During this 4-second exposure I panned a large LED lamp to better expose the front facade.

See what happens at sunrise or sunset
Sometimes a sneak of color emerges from below the clouds during sunrise or sunset, resulting in dramatic pictures for even the most mundane subject matter.

Interiors just got easier to deal with, so focus on that.
Without direct sunlight flooding into windows, it makes it easier to use your strobes or speedlights to evenly light a room.

Or if you prefer to use HDR, you’re not dealing with as much variation in dynamic range.

Like many amateur and professional photographers, I get a thrill from interpreting architecture and environments in different ways. Often overcast days reveal subject matter to evaluate and study that I’d otherwise miss during perfectly nice weather. So don’t let clouds and raindrops ever discourage you from satisfying your urge to shoot!

 

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