Landscape photographers work primarily in natural light, which presents a few problems — for starters, the most beautiful lighting conditions each day last for no more than a few hours. Other times, sunsets will be lost behind cloudy skies, making it impossible to see a landscape at its best. When the sky is gray or the sun is directly overhead, it can be tough to find inspiration for high-quality photography. My hope with this article is to share some tips that have worked for me when I photograph in bad lighting conditions — something which every photographer experiences at some point.
1) Look For Colors
The beauty of the light at sunset and sunrise is that it sculpts the landscape with saturated hues — in other words, the lighting provides the scene with color. When skies are overcast, though, natural lighting doesn’t offer the hues necessary for a richly-colored photograph. Instead, to create a colorful image, you must search for a vivid subject.
With an overcast sky, your light will soft and gentle. Take this opportunity to look for muted colors that would not be visible in the saturated light of sunset — soft purples and blues, perhaps. These colors may be too subtle to appear at sunset or sunrise, but a cloudy day allows them to shine.
After a rainstorm, too, it is possible to take beautiful images of deeply-saturated colors. Even with the dreariest of skies, a rainforest will always look vivid and green — a wonderful recipe for a landscape photographer. Remember to bring your polarizing filter!
2) Isolate Details
Although a grand landscape may look its best at sunrise, some detail-oriented photographs work just as well in cloudy conditions.
In part, this is because overcast skies are so drab — photos rarely benefit from having a featureless blob across the top. And even though some overcast skies still have texture in the clouds, it is important to ask yourself if they are helping your composition. If the sky is not interesting, it will not add interest to your photo.
On a cloudy day, my telephoto lens is nearly always glued to my camera. This brings the added possibility of wildlife photography, as well — another subject which can look beautiful under overcast lighting. Although I tend to stick with landscape photography when the sky is gray, I am careful to watch for other details to isolate as well.
3) Focus Closer
Another type of detail to keep in mind for gray days is the world of macro photography.
Overcast skies provide soft shadows, which makes it possible to see the true colors and tones of a close-up subject. Some macro photographers prefer to use a flash, of course, but clouds can lead to wonderful light as well.
The colors of macro scenes are naturally more saturated than distant scenes, since there is little atmospheric haze between your lens and your subject. Take advantage of this fact by searching for vivid objects to photograph — the macro world is full of color.
Often, following a rainstorm, you will be able to find drops of water to photograph as well. The geometric patterns of water droplets can be beautiful, and they are ideal subjects under overcast lighting.
4) Long Exposures
With an overcast sky, a crucial issue is that your photos will lose a sense of uniqueness. This problem is easy to fix, though — use a neutral-density filter.
As explained in our landscape photography filter guide, a neutral density filter is a darkened plate of glass that allows you to use a long (multi-second) shutter speed, even during the day.
Of course, such a filter does not help in every scene; for many, in fact, it has almost no effect. But when you have anything moving — clouds, water, people — a long exposure can provide an out-of-the-ordinary image regardless of the light.
Long exposures also tend to emphasize colors that are hard to see with the naked eye. If you set your camera to take pre-dawn long exposures, even on an overcast day, you could be pleasantly surprised by the amount of color in your photos.
5) Convert to Black and White
When the color in a scene is drab, I usually remove it. I don’t mean to downplay the importance of black and white photography — I often find it more effective and poetic than color photography — but many of my best monochromatic images would look bland in color.
With a cloudy sky, high-contrast monochromatic photos can still convey a sense of drama and beauty that would be impossible with the dull colors from overcast lighting. In part, this is because black and white photography is inherently surreal.
People tend to like landscape photos that show the world in an unusual way — more beautiful than they encounter day-to-day. Sunsets, of course, fulfill this requirement by showcasing landscapes with rarely-seen colors. Monochromatic photography does not have the same vividness, but high-contrast black and white photos can stand out just as much as their saturated counterparts.
Perhaps this is why high-contrast black and white photography remains so popular in the fine-art world. Such photos are simple by nature, yet they can be just as eye-catching as color images.
6) Mid-Day Light
So far, all of these techniques have been suggestions for photographing on overcast days. However, a landscape photographer also fears the complete opposite: the harsh sunlight of mid-day.
Such lighting is not as gloomy as an overcast sky, but it can be just as frustrating. On one hand, it becomes difficult to avoid harsh shadows and bright highlights, potentially rendering your photo as a contrasty mess. On the other hand, mid-day lighting is not particularly unique — few people will be awed by a landscape in its most typical state.
This isn’t to say that you should avoid photography when the sun is overhead, though. You just need to use the strengths of harsh sunlight to your advantage.
Personally, my first instinct with mid-day lighting is to look for shadows that can lead to an interesting composition. This technique may be tough for grand landscapes, but it works well for detail-oriented shots or cityscapes — shadows can give a scene personality.
Keep in mind that you want to retain highlight detail as much as possible, even at the expense of darkening your shadows. Feel free to dial in some negative exposure compensation — many famous street photos were taken at mid-day, with much of the image near-black.
At some point, all photographers will find themselves in amazing locations with sub-optimal light. Although everyone wants to photograph a scene with beautiful lighting, few people can wait for days or weeks to see a scene at its best.
Of course, a gray day can be a great time to edit old photos or scout new locations — indeed, many landscape photographers search for their next treasures when the light is dull. Many people, though, especially traveling photographers, do not have the time necessary to plan a shot so far in advance. However, although good lighting beats drab lighting by definition, photographers still can take wonderful images when the conditions are not ideal.
The takeaway is that you need to recognize the lighting conditions in a scene, then target your photos to take advantage of that light. In mid-day sun, look for strong shadows to fill your composition. In flat, gray lighting, search for saturated subjects to provide color to your images, or consider converting to black and white. No matter the lighting conditions, there are always good pictures to be made.
In a sense, there’s no such thing as bad light — but there is a such thing as incompatibility between your light and subject. When you take a photo, you should ask yourself about the emotions that you want to covey, and then confirm that the light in your scene is on the same page. I certainly hope that this article will help you make the most of whatever lighting conditions you encounter, but there’s no denying that this is an area where a huge number of photographers still struggle — including many who are very, very talented. The problem is that there simply aren’t very many resources out there that cover the most important parts of light, especially for genres like landscape photography. But, if this topic interests you, all is not lost. Specifically, I strongly recommend our eBook, “Creative Landscape Photography: Light, Vision, and Composition” if you’re trying take your skills as far as possible. Frankly, eBooks in general don’t have a good reputation, but I hope that you’ll give this one a chance. Every bit of information it contains is designed to be as accurate and tangible as possible, in a field where accurate and tangible tips can be remarkably difficult to find.