Bad weather photography tips for great photos outdoors on gray days

Photographing in woodlands in Autumn is a photographer’s dream setting. The colors are just amazing. On beautifully crisp, sunny days the light streams in through the leaves and the bokeh is to die for.

Bad weather photography days

But what about those days when thick black clouds have rolled in, rain is threatening and you can’t reschedule a shoot?

Well, on bad weather days, you work your backside off and pull out every bit of photography knowledge you have. Like everything in photography, it’s absolutely worth it to get the shots, because heavily overcast days are also great for photos!

It’s just a matter of knowing how to handle the low light of bad weather photography.

How to photograph a family in low light conditions

That was me a couple of weeks ago

I had a family shoot in a beautifully thick, autumnal forest (see photo above). So, already low light was going to be a problem.

Even on a sunny day, there would be reduced light in the thick of the woods. The weather was far from ideal, with a very heavily overcast sky and it actually started raining at the end of the shoot.

Ideally, I would have liked to postpone it, but we’d already postponed from the day before and my clients couldn’t do any other day. This is the biggest challenge with photographing families on location. Especially in the UK, where you absolutely cannot rely on the weather.

What to do when panicking is not an option

As always, I arrived early to scout the area and decide exactly where we’d be photographing. It’s really important to have a plan, especially when weather conditions are not ideal. The more prepared you are for a shoot, the more you can concentrate on taking great photos.

Further reading: 14 top tips for choosing the perfect photography location every time

So here’s how I approach a shoot in bad weather.

Step 1 – find a good area to photograph in

When it’s been raining for days and you’re photographing in thick woods the first step is to find non-muddy areas.

Tips on photographing children in bad weather

Towards the end of the shoot when the first drops of rain started to fall. Because the boys were sitting still for a moment, I could lower the shutter speed to cope with the low light. Camera settings: ISO 640, f5, 1/200

Step 2 – look for the light

When the sun is shining brightly it’s really easy to see shadows, but with gray day photography, when it’s so overcast that you cannot see a single shadow, what do you do?

One popular trick is to squinch up your eyes a bit so that you can’t clearly see the scene, but can see light and dark. This has never worked for me, so I don’t do it. Maybe I’m not doing it right, but I don’t think there are that many ways to squinch up your eyes.

The hand trick to find light for photography on overcast days

Here’s what I do when I have no idea where the sun is on a really cloudy day:

  • Hold out a flat hand with your thumb on top and your little finger on the bottom
  • Angle your hand fractionally so that your palm is facing upwards slightly
  • Now turn full circle and watch the light on your palm
  • When your palm is lightest, it will be pointing in the direction of the light source
  • In this case, the hidden sun

Now that you know where the sun is, you know the direction your subject needs to face.

In low light conditions you don’t want the light behind your subjects as their faces will be in dark shadow.

When shooting on a sunny day, you do want the light behind your subject so that they don’t have harsh shadows falling across their face. But not in a dark forest, in overcast weather, where you need to suck out every little speck of light possible.

Further reading: Low light photography – top 8 questions answered

Step 3 – check out your photography background

The next step is to make sure that there’ll be a good background behind your subjects if they’re facing into the light. If not, move on and find another spot.

Obviously, when it’s so dark you’ll want to shoot in a clearing where more light can get through. Bear in mind that your subjects need to face into the clearing and the light, rather than into the forest where it’s dark.

Further reading: Cloudy day photography natural light tricks

Camera settings for bad weather photography

You’ll need to:

  • Bump up your ISO
  • Open your aperture and
  • Set your shutter speed to as low as the situation can handle

This family had two young boys who were excited and exploring at speed, as young ones do.

I like to photograph children naturally to capture their exuberance and personality, so I don’t make them stand still and smile at the camera. Much. Maybe just a couple of times I’ll trick them into it, but the rest of the shoot they’re free to have fun.

Shutter speed for bad weather photography

As a result, I have to have a shutter speed of at least 1/250 so that they’re not blurred. Even then, if they wave their hands about, they will have blurry smudges for hands. So, if they’re particularly busy, I have to shoot at 1/320 upwards.

This of course can be difficult when you’re in a really dark forest on a dark day. So that’s when aperture and ISO settings become really helpful.

Further reading: The exposure triangle – what role does shutter speed play?

How to photograph in low light in woodlands

Bad weather photography can require a much higher ISO setting than you would normally use during the day. Camera settings: ISO 2500, f5.6, 1/250


Aperture for cloudy day photography

Because I was photographing four people who were not always standing right next to each other, and I shoot in manual mode, I had to constantly vary my aperture.

When there’s a lot going on, aperture priority is a good option. Just keep an eye on the shutter speed as you don’t want it to fall too low.

When two or more were in shot my aperture was at F8, because the boys were running back and forth, so they weren’t always in close proximity. Also, I couldn’t go smaller, because of the need to maximise the light entering the lens.

When I photographed the boys individually and together, or the parents together, I was able to stop down to F4 to maximise the light hitting the sensor.

I didn’t go down to F2.8 though, because of the changing distance between the two boys constantly on the move. The depth of field would have been too narrow to ensure both subjects were sharp.

Further reading: What does aperture do in the exposure triangle?

ISO considerations on dark, overcast days

So, because of the shutter speed and aperture limitations, I varied my ISO during the shoot from 640 to even as high as 2500.

Noise from a higher ISO is significantly better than noise caused by an under exposed photograph being brightened on the computer in post production.

If you prefer not to have to think about changing ISO as well as all the other factors involved in cloudy day photography, try Auto ISO. For the best results, make sure you know its limitations first – check out the Auto ISO tutorial link below.

Further reading: 

What is ISO for in the exposure triangle?

Auto ISO – pros, cons and how to use it

How to photograph a family in bad weather

Camera settings ISO 1000, f3.5, 1/250. Focusing on the children running back to the parents, who are out of focus, shows a lovely moment of family connection. 

Calorie considerations

After a shoot like this, you have the added bonus of knowing that you’ve had your exercise for the day and burnt off enough calories to counteract all that sedentary editing time at the computer.

Win win!

But seriously

Bad weather photography is challenging, but it can be so much fun!

Sure, as photographers we’re always chasing after gorgeous light. With good reason – beautiful light makes for beautiful photographs. But don’t let what looks like bad light, or no light, stop you.

The incredibly soft light of overcast weather can be magical too.

When you’re staring down the barrel of a northern hemisphere winter, if you don’t embrace the conditions, you’ll find you won’t take a photo until lambing season starts. That’s way too long for your camera to be in hibernation!

PS – my clients loved their photos! Happy photographer.

Further reading: Best time of day for outdoor photography – portrait tips

Leave a comment

If you’re struggling with bad weather photography and can’t get to grips with photographing in low and bad light, you can be sure that many others are struggling too. Please share your questions and/or struggles below and I’ll give you some help.

If this article has inspired you to get out there with your camera, even though the weather is not cooperating, tell us about your bad weather photography experience – we love a good story!

Leave a Comment