Home How-To Tip Of The Week How To Shoot On Overcast Days—01/10/11
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Monday, January 10, 2011

How to shoot on overcast days—01/10/11

Winter weather can make outside shooting a challenge

This Article Features Photo Zoom


Mountaineering landscape photographer Brandon Riza recently told me about how difficult it can be to shoot on overcast days. Fog is one thing, he said, because it creates interesting images all its own. But a sloppy, gray, overcast day tends to suck all the color and drama out of a mountain landscape. On those days, Riza spends more of his time climbing and much less of it shooting. Unless you’re doing most of your photography on top of mountains searching for grand vistas, you can keep shooting on overcast days. Here’s how.

- Overcast skies mean soft light, and soft light means no shadows. So instead of looking to emphasize depth and texture that comes from shadows, look for patterns and large swaths of shape that actually benefit from overall softness.

- Cloudy skies create a gray/blue color tint. You can correct that with a custom white balance created in camera, or by simply choosing the cloudy day preset in your camera’s WB menu. It’s especially important to correct for this in images where accurate color is paramount—like portraits, for example.

- Gray skies usually make colors seem not so vibrant. In these cases, look for subjects that aren’t color driven (a red barn, blue sky, orange flowers) and instead try to find compositional strength that comes from graphic shapes and patterns—like the weather texture of a barn, dramatic clouds in the sky, or the variegated patterns in a flower.

- You actually can shoot color even when it’s cloudy, though color is tricky on overcast days. In some instances things look less saturated and vibrant, but in others they can actually look better without direct sunlight. That’s because instead of dealing with the reflections and contrast issues that often accompany bright sun, subjects such as flowers and feathers might actually appear more true to life on an overcast day. Don’t feel the need to avoid color altogether; just understand that it’s going to look a little different.

- Overcast means lower contrast, which often means images have less intensity and drama. Because you can see into darker shadow areas than you could on a bright sunny day, the lighting tends to be overall very flat and even. This can be used to your advantage to create soft, quiet images that you couldn’t on a sunny day. Likewise, vibrant, high-energy scenes are harder to achieve in the low-contrast light of a cloudy day. So just be sure to shoot with a mood in mind that’s appropriate for the weather.

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