Landscape photographers might always wake up hoping to catch a sunny day, but there is actually a lot of opportunity that an overcast sky can provide for taking unique shots of nature in all its glory. No matter how dreary the sky or pale the scene may look on account of the overcast sky, a clever photographer can still produce stunning images if they know how to properly account for the presence of a cloudy day.
To help you feel a bit more encouraged to still give the shoot a shot even if the weather is not what you hoped it would be, I’ve made this short guide to help you get the most out of an overcast day that you may otherwise write off as a loss.
The Opportunities of Low Lighting
When the sun is not obscured by the clouds, the illuminating rays it provides give scenes and landscapes a huge swath of vivid colours, which are great for all sorts of photography. But when the clouds come to hang over your scene, the colours change quite a bit, with soft blues, gentle purples, ethereal greys and a host of other colours suddenly presenting themselves. This gives you an awesome opportunity to take subtle shots which highlight the colours of an overcast day, and create moody effects with the relatively dim lighting.
These sorts of deeply saturated colours are revealed in relatively low lighting situations. In full sun light, these colours might be drowned out by brighter and more attention grabbing hues, but the low light and the dampening of brightness provided by overcast skies gives them a chance to really pop out of a well taken photo. Try using a polarising filter to get the most out of these colours!
If You Want Colour, Think Vivid
There are a lot of things you can do when the sky is overcast to create images which have something of a dreary quality about them. But if you still want to capture vibrant colours, you need to find something truly vivid to photograph. The deeply saturated colours I mentioned above will stand out brilliantly, but vivid colours which look great under full lighting can also stand out well when photographed under an overcast sky.
An excellent example of this is in macro photography. Taking close ups on an overcast day affords an excellent opportunity to capture the true colours of a subject in macro. This is due to the soft, natural shadows provided by overcast lighting. Since macro photographs are more saturated than wide-field landscape scenes, the overcast lighting provides an excellent back drop to highlight the vivid colours of your subject.
Emphasise Colours with Long Exposure Shots
Taking a long exposure shot is a great way to really bring out some colours which might not be obvious when looking at the scene with the naked eye. These types of subtle colours are perhaps even more present on an overcast day, when some more striking colours are removed from the scene. On an overcast day, the result of these colours being captured during the long exposure lends the scene a palette of colour that might be quite different from what you’ve expected!
Experiment with some long exposure shots on cloudy days to get a feel for exactly the kinds of colours you can hope to bring out with this technique. You may find it creating some very visually intriguing and artful landscape photos with the unique atmosphere of a stormy day as the backdrop. Try adding a neutral density filter if you plan to take a long exposure of something in motion (clouds, water, etc.) as this can produce the sort of “flowing” effect popular in waterfall photography.
If It’s Too Drab, Think Monochrome
Sometimes the landscape you are provided with is simply incompatible with an overcast sky. Sure, you might be able to coax some cool shots out of vivid macro subjects, or catch some neat natural details that look cool in this particular lighting. But sometimes you’ll be going through the photo review and everything is just grey, pale, and icky looking. In these cases, you can often salvage your shots by simply tossing them into black and white.
The atmosphere of an overcast photo can often make a great black and white photo, so take the opportunity of a cloudy day to look for some subjects for black and white photography. The muted colours can provide a chance to put some extra contrast into your black and white photos. Give it a shot!
Lose the Sky
Sometimes an overcast day brings with it amazing cloud formations which are worth photographing all on their own, but it can also mean the exact opposite: a dreary, featureless sky which adds nothing to the photograph. Often the best way to go on an overcast day is to remove the sky entirely from your shots if possible. Focus on the details of your selected subject, find interesting angles, and do what you can to avoid having too much of the grey, detail lacking clouds above in your shot.
Of course, this is not a hard and fast rule: it depends on your composition and subject. The overcast sky might be exactly what you are looking for. However, keep in mind that your photo might not benefit from having large portions of it be nothing but bland cloud bottoms.
The Simple Rule
To sum it all up, what could we consider the one rule of photographing on a cloudy, overcast day? Simple: look for saturated colours. In muted lighting, they are your friends. Bring them to life and suddenly the “curse” of an overcast day becomes instead a unique opportunity.
Don’t be afraid to take a lot of photos! Next time you feel like the weather isn’t quite what you’d hoped for, give it a try anyway and see what you come up with. You might learn a thing or two, and get some neat shots in the process. Just make sure you don’t get your camera wet in the process!