When you look out the window in the morning and see a gray, cloudy sky, you might be tempted to pull the blankets right back over your eyes, thinking there’s nothing beautiful to photograph on such a dreary day.
But, if you know what to look for and a few techniques to make the best of things, you can make beautiful photographs on cloudy days and even in the ugliest weather.
Not all cloudy days are created equal. The clouds can be light, soft, and gentle, or they can be low, dark, rolling blankets that envelop the horizon. This difference will have a huge effect on your photo’s overall mood. Even if the sky isn’t visible in the frame, the type of light it creates by obscuring the sun’s rays changes the appearance of objects on the ground.
You can use any type of weather to your advantage by thinking about the atmospheric conditions and the mood they create, and then trying to emphasize that mood with the techniques you use.
When you’re out shooting on a cloudy day, ask yourself “What kind of mood does the sky exhibit?” How do you feel when you look at the weather? Is it sad and lonely, or is it sort of comforting? Is the wind blowing violently, or is there a stillness in the air? In storytelling, this is known as “pathetic fallacy” – using the weather to mimic and emphasize the mood of your subject (think about a broken-hearted man walking in the pouring rain).
Weather has a strong pull on peoples’ emotional responses which you can use to your advantage when establishing the mood of your photograph.
When there are lots of clouds in the sky, but there is good separation between the clouds, you may have the best conditions possible for a landscape photograph! These clouds generally enhance a landscape, creating shape and contrast that is far more interesting to look at than a blank, empty sky. The shape, colour, and brightness of the clouds combine to create a strong compositional element that does a great deal to define the photo.
Thickly textured storm clouds are very dramatic, and dapple the scene with varying degrees of light and dark. Rain clouds create a certain mood which can’t be attained at any other time. Rain also creates wonderful visual effects as the light reflects off and refracts through the droplets and pools.
When there is very little or no separation between the clouds you still have a couple of options. First, take a look at the clouds to determine if there is any definition in them at all. Is the sky just plain white, or can see you a bit of texture and definition in the clouds?
If there is some definition, then you can make photos that include the sky. In post-processing increase the contrast and clarity to bring out that definition and make the sky more interesting.
Days with thick blankets of cloud often provide unique opportunities. There is a chance you may come home empty handed, but then again the clouds might open up for just a moment and give you a spectacular show of light.
If the sky is totally white, eliminate it from the scene and focus your attention on the smaller details, using the soft light to your advantage. A totally white sky acts like a giant soft box, diffusing the light and reducing contrast. The light is very gentle and even without any shadows. This can be the perfect natural lighting flowers and other subjects that you want to appear soft and smooth.
White sky days are perfect for photographing waterfalls because there will be no bright spots where the sun’s rays hit the water directly. The whole waterfall will be evenly lit.
A word about gear…
To protect your gear from getting wet, wrap it in plastic bags and shield it under an umbrella. There are also a number of special camera-shaped protective covers on the market that are designed to shelter your baby from all kinds of adverse weather.
Be very careful when shooting in the damp conditions too. Even in the fog, water can seep in through the cracks of your camera, potentially damaging the electronics and facilitating the growth of mold. If you notice any moisture on the inside of your lens or LCD screen, remove the lens, battery, and memory card and place all equipment near a warm – not hot – heater with all accessory inputs exposed (lens face down, camera face up), and let it dry for several hours.