This time of year, much of the country starts to experience more frequent cloudy gray days than at any other time of year. Maybe they’re no more frequent, but the colder temperatures sure make winter gray days less fun than a cloudy summer afternoon. Even though steel-gray skies don’t appear especially inviting for your photography, what if you want to shoot on a gray weather day? Never fear, cloudy days offer unique photographic opportunities, as well.
– Consider quiet landscapes. While overcast skies won’t create dramatic lighting, what they do allow you to do with landscape photographs is make beautiful, quiet, landscapes that fit a more subdued mood. Longer exposures and more evident subtle tonal changes can help make quieter landscapes this time of year.
– Instead of graphic power, go for subtlety. Overcast skies make it easy to create detail-rich photographs. Details that might be lost in the dark shadows of a more contrasty lighting situation pop on cloudy days. Rather than the harsh shadows of a sunny day or the golden light of magic hour, an overcast day offers opportunities to concentrate on details that may be lost under other, more traditionally appealing lighting conditions.
– Shoot the weather itself. It can be tricky to photograph a clear blue sky. After all, it’s clear. But gray cloudy days offer more tangibly “photographable” weather opportunities. Low cloud cover, fog, mist—all offer opportunities to create interesting photographs of the air itself, and that’s inherently interesting.
– Go black-and-white. Colors can be a little drab and desaturated on overcast days, so instead of fighting with those colors start to think in black-and-white. If you’re looking for an opportunity to shoot grayscale—be it landscapes or portraits—gray days offer the ideal opportunity.
– Watch for water. The little bit of shine—on the surface of a street, or a rock or a leaf—that comes from a wet surface can help make a flatter, less contrasty image pop. So, consider venturing outside to make photographs after a rain, or in a location where moisture is evident—such as the rocks along a stream or river.
– Look for patterns. The pop that may come from graphic compositions caused by strong shadows on a blue-sky day won’t be there on a cloudy day. Instead, you’ll have to find actual patterns to make strongly graphic compositions. The furrows of a barren field, for instance, or the branches of a leafless tree… Patterns are everywhere, and they make for ideal subjects this time of year in this type of light.
– Adjust that white balance. Gray skies produce cooler light that looks blue. Now, that could be a good thing—but only if you want your photograph to have a cool blue cast. If you do, use a daylight preset and really crank the blue. But if you don’t, adjust your white balance for cloudy days to make a more neutral color balance—a warmth that can be essential for people pictures in cool gray light.
– Add pop with a flash. Many subjects, but especially portraits of people, will benefit from a bit of pop, a touch of depth and dimension, to counteract the flatness of a gray sky illumination. Accomplish this by adding a flash. If at all possible, get that flash off your camera so that it adds shape to the subject (rather than flattening the already flat light even further by coming directly from the lens axis), and consider an orange gel to warm up the flash and emulate a bit of sunset glow.