How to Get Good Photographs in Overcast Conditions


For those of us that don’t inhabit tropical or sub tropical climes, overcast days are more often the rule rather than the exception. At first glance the uniform grey and lack of shadows can be off-putting, invoking a sense of melancholia in even the most optimistic of photographers. Don’t be downbeat though, you can shoot and you can make great pictures in overcast weather, you just need to think a little differently. Today we take a look at some options for shooting in this kind of weather.

Avoid the Sky: Sometimes there is nothing you can do to add any life to that uniform greyness. If this is the situation, point the camera down a little and try to avoid it. Look for shots where you can get down low and use leading lines and patterns to enliven the subject matter. Use a deep depth of field and some foreground interest to give the shot a feeling of depth and contrast.

Enhance the Sky: If there is a little definition in the sky, try to enhance it using a graduated neutral density filter. You might need to use a strong filter to bring out the details but you can transform that dull, lifeless sky into something altogether more moody. This technique works particularly well in black and white but remember to think in black and white before pressing the shutter. Be sure to read our article on camera filters if you're wondering about the intricacies.

A daytime view of Tower Bridge, with David Wynnes's statue of Girl with Dolphin, in the foreground
An ND Grad twisted to cover the top left had added some definition to the sky

Hit the Streets: Overcast days can be a really good time to shoot candid and street images. The soft even light will not change very often meaning you will be getting constant easy to read exposures. You will also not have to deal with a wild range of contrast, waiting for your subject to emerge from the shade into a less ideal but better lit location. The even, constant light means you can find the best locations and compositions to get great street images. Again street shots are a great subject for black and white.

Muted Colours: Whilst sunshine brings vibrance and saturation to all colours, overcast light has a very pleasing way of bringing out muted and faded colours. Look for locations with subtle colours, particularly where there are several contrasting colours together. This works particularly well if areas surrounding the main subject are dull or grey.

Early Monring ion a back street n Bruges, Belgium
Soft muted colors of this Bruges street come out well in overcast lighting

One very good colour subject in this kind of light are flowers. The soft even light gives definition and form to the flowers as well as punching out the natural colors.

Wildlife: Along with flowers, another excellent subject on grey overcast days is wildlife. On sunny days, the harsh light can cast shadows across the face and body of your subject, the soft light of an overcast day means that you can see all of the animal’s details clearly. It’s somewhat like having a giant soft box lighting your subject. The issues here are again because of the lower light levels you might find the need to bump up your ISO a touch to maintain decent shutter speeds.

2009-02-07 Paradise Bay 048
Soft lighting gives definition to the fur and detail in the blacks

Portraits: In a similar way to wildlife, outdoor portraits are a great subject to shoot in overcast conditions. On deep overcast days you can go for the enigmatic black and white portrait style, often incorporating the environment around. On light overcast days close facial portraits work well, perhaps using an off camera flash to add a light modelling and key lights to the face. These shots work well in colour, the soft light giving a pastel effect to the model’s skin.

HDR: Whilst high dynamic range photography is more often used for expanding the dynamic range on a bright sunlit day, it can be equally good at adding contrast and saturation to images taken on dull overcast days. The secret, as with all HDR is to be subtle. We are looking for a natural image but whose contrast has been boosted by HDR.

2014-08-22 London x1-037-HDR
Subtle use of HDR gives extra definition to a flat shot

There are many reasons not to be melancholy about overcast days, some we have listed above but the list is not exclusive. Sometimes the best way to beat the blue day blues is simple to take your camera out with you and see what comes to mind.

About Author

Jason has more than 35 years of experience as a professional photographer, videographer and stock shooter. You can get to know him better here.

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