Cloudy day photography tips (with camera settings)

A cloudy day is great for portrait photography, even better than a sunny day. With these cloudy day photography settings and tips you’ll see the benefits of photographing with an overcast sky.

Yes the cloud cover means there’s less light, which affects your shutter speed choice, but you don’t have to use a slow shutter speed. A wider aperture or higher ISO setting might be the answer.

But there’s more to cloudy day photography than just camera settings. So we’ll look at camera settings first and then I’ll share tips for cloudy day photos.

Basic camera settings for cloudy day portraits

Metering modeSpot metering
Shooting modeAperture priority
Shutter priority
Manual mode
ISO setting100 – 400
White balanceCloudy

Metering mode

The best metering mode for portrait photography is spot metering, because this ensures you expose the subject correctly. Place the spot on the subject’s cheek to meter the exposure.

Shooting mode

You have three shooting mode options to choose from:

  • Aperture priority mode – when depth of field is the most important factor
  • Shutter priority mode – when photographing movement
  • Manual mode – when you want ultimate creative control over your image (more on this in a moment)

You could also shoot in Program mode if you don’t feel comfortable changing settings, but I’d strongly advise trying one of the priority shooting modes as soon as you can.

Whatever you do, don’t use Auto mode. Program mode is also fully automatic, but it’s better as you can also select your metering mode, which is important.

ISO setting

Set the aperture and shutter speed you want and then set your ISO. Bear in mind it’s better to keep it low. For both aperture priority mode and shutter priority mode, you can also set ISO to auto ISO if you don’t want to worry about adjusting too many camera settings.

In manual mode I’d advise setting your ISO manually and keeping it relatively low at 100, 200 or 400 at most. However, you can use auto ISO if you prefer.

White balance

Set your camera’s white balance to the cloud icon. This will warm up the photos slightly to counter the cold blue light of overcast days.

Natural light portrait on a cloudy day outdoors

Photographed on an overcast day with a completely white sky, which is why the light is very flat and soft. I positioned the model with the light source was behind her to create the halo of light on her hair. Camera settings: F4, 1/400, ISO 100 with a 70-200mm F2.8 lens at a focal length of 200mm

Manual mode camera settings for cloudy day portraits – the quick solution

The short answer for cloudy day photo settings in manual mode is based on the sunny 16 rule and is a really easy rule of thumb for manual mode camera settings.

In manual mode set your ISO to 100 and your shutter speed to 1/100, then set aperture to:

  • F8 – for lightly overcast weather
  • F5.6 – for really overcast skies
  • F4 – for very dark gray skies
How Cloudy?ApertureShutter SpeedISO
Lightly overcastF8100100
Medium overcastF5.6100100
Heavily overcastF4100100

Why you need to know these camera settings

Because your camera’s light meter measures reflected light, the color of what you meter exposure off affects the reading.

You’ll get a different reading for somebody with a dark skin than for somebody with a light skin. Your camera wants to make dark colors lighter and light colors darker.

However, using a gray card to meter the exposure gives an accurate reading. Or healthy green grass, because that’s the same color, in black and white, as medium gray (the color of a gray card), which is what your camera is aiming for.

If you don’t have a gray card, healthy green grass, or something that’s the same as medium gray in black and white, metering exposure isn’t accurate with your camera’s light meter.

Cloudy day photography settings for creative portraits (manual mode)

Those quick cloudy day camera settings are just a starting point. They don’t take into consideration creative choices for photos. For example using:

  • Shallow depth of field to blur the background
  • A faster shutter speed for photographing moving subjects

Don’t worry – it’s not that difficult and I also have a quick solution for you. We just need to think logically through exposure settings.

To reduce depth of field you need to widen the aperture, which means something else has to give, either ISO or shutter speed. You need to increase the shutter speed by the same amount that you widen the aperture to counteract the increased amount of light entering the lens.

In other words, if you widen the aperture by 1 exposure stop, you must increase shutter speed by 1 stop.

I like this method, because you only have to remember the 3 aperture settings for lightly overcast (F8), medium overcast (F5.6) and heavily overcast (F4). Then adjust  exposure settings for your creative needs.

If you don’t have enough light to use the aperture and shutter speed you want, increase the ISO. But not before then.

So using the quick solution as a starting point…

Lightly overcast sky (F8, 1/100, 100)

The starting point is F8, 1/100, 100 ISO.

For a shallow depth of field, widen the aperture (more light) and increase the shutter speed (less time for light to enter).

  • F5.6 (i.e. +1 stop), shutter speed 1/200 (i.e. -1 stop), ISO 100
  • F4 (i.e. +2 stops), shutter speed 1/400 (i.e. -2 stops), ISO 100
  • F2.8 (i.e. +3 stops), shutter speed 1/800 (i.e. -3 stops), ISO 100
  • F2 (i.e. +4 stops), shutter speed 1/1600 (i.e. -4 stops), ISO 100
F81/100ISO 100
F5.61/200ISO 100
F41/400ISO 100
F2.81/800ISO 100
F21/1600ISO 100
Rule of thumb exposure settings for lightly overcast sky

For a shorter exposure time to record movement sharply, increase the shutter speed and widen the aperture. It’s the same thing, but thinking of shutter speed as the priority.

  • 1/200 (i.e. -1 stop), aperture F5.6 (i.e. +1 stop), ISO 100
  • 1/400 (i.e. -2 stops), aperture F4 (i.e. +2 stops), ISO 100
  • 1/800 (i.e. -3 stops), aperture F2.8 (i.e. +3 stops), ISO 100
  • 1/1600 (i.e. -4 stops), aperture F2 (i.e. +4 stops),  ISO 100

Medium overcast sky (F5.6, 1/100, 100)

The starting point is F5.6, 1/100, 100 ISO.

  • F4 (i.e. +1 stop), shutter speed 1/200 (i.e. -1 stop), ISO 100
  • F2.8 (i.e. +2 stops), shutter speed 1/400 (i.e. -2 stops), ISO 100
  • F2 (i.e. +3 stops), shutter speed 1/800 (i.e. -3 stops), ISO 100
F5.61/100ISO 100
F41/200ISO 100
F2.81/400ISO 100
F21/800ISO 100
Rule of thumb exposure settings for medium overcast sky

Heavily overcast sky (F4, 1/100, 100)

The starting point is F4, 1/100, 100 ISO.

  • F2.8 (i.e. +1 stop), shutter speed 1/200 (i.e. -1 stop), ISO 100
  • F2 (i.e. +2 stops), shutter speed 1/400 (i.e. -2 stops), ISO 100
F41/100ISO 100
F2.81/200ISO 100
F21/400ISO 100
Rule of thumb exposure settings for heavily overcast sky

Adjusting camera settings without math

And if the math makes your brain explode, just do what I do when my brain stops working… Count the number of clicks as you turn the aperture dial and then turn the shutter speed dial by the same number of clicks the other way.

My camera is set up to adjust exposure in one third stops, so 3 clicks of the dial means that I’ve changed the setting by 1 stop.

model sitting on a log in a field with cloudy sky in background

I intentionally included the cloudy sky in this image to show you how a dull sky adds nothing to an image. In this case, it’s distracting. Camera settings: F4, 1/500, ISO 100 with a 70-200mm F2.8 lens at a focal length of 70mm

4 tips for cloudy day portraits

Natural light portrait photographers wish for:

  • Good light
  • In the right place
  • At the right time of day
  • And no wind or rain

Here’s how to use a cloudy day for photos so that you don’t have to wait for the perfect day…

female model sitting on a log in field

This image is so much better than the one above as there’s no distracting strip of boring cloudy sky behind the subject. Another reason I prefer it is that I like not to include the light source in my photography. Camera settings: F4, 1/500, ISO 100 with a 70-200mm F2.8 lens at a focal length of 70mm

1. Exclude or embrace a cloudy sky

A blue sky and bright sunshine looks great, but so does a dramatic, moody, overcast sky. Use the clouds to make a feature of a stormy sky in photos.

When cloudy conditions aren’t interesting, exclude the sky from the photo. Position subjects near a building or trees or at the base of a hill to block out the sky and your viewers will never know.

2. Quality of light on overcast days

Light quality on cloudy days is very soft and therefore ideal for portrait photography. The sun’s light is diffused by the cloud cover, turning the sky into a giant softbox.

On cloudy days you won’t get harsh shadows on your subject’s face from direct sunlight.

The heavier the cloud cover, the softer the shadows will be, until you can’t see any shadows. Which can be a challenge.

Shadows in overcast conditions

Just because you can’t see shadows doesn’t mean they’re not there.

Because your camera has a lower dynamic range than your eyes, it’ll record shadows you don’t notice until your photos are on the computer, which is too late.

In cloudy weather you must still pay attention to light direction to avoid ugly shadows.

Highlights in overcast conditions

On the other hand, with softer light there’s less chance of overexposing highlights.

Cloudy days are perfect for using natural light as rim light or as a backlight. Bonus points if you also use a reflector to bounce light back into your subject.

Which brings me to my next point…

3. Light direction on overcast days

Cloudy day photographs can be challenging when clouds are so thick you can’t see shadows. How do you know where to position your subject? For example:

  • Racoon eyes happen when a light source is too high, making the subject’s brow bone cast a shadow over and below their eyes. Not a good look. On a sunny day you can see deep shadows, but not on overcast days.
  • It’s tricky if you want to shoot backlit or use front lighting etc, but don’t know where the light’s coming from.

Luckily there’s a handy little trick for figuring out light direction

How to see light on overcast days

  • Hold your arm out in front of you with your hand flat, but turned so that your thumb is towards the sky and your little finger is towards the ground.
  • Now twist your hand slightly so that your palm is angled up towards the sky. Slightly.
  • Turn in a circle and observe how your palm gets lighter and darker as you turn.

You don’t even need to be outside to try this. As long as you’re not inside a pitch black room, you’ll see how it works. Try it now.

4. Add color to the photo session

The best thing about a gloomy day is that it’s really easy to draw attention to your subject with colorful clothing.

Add a pop of color like a bright red, yellow or orange jacket or hat to make subjects stand out against the muted background.

Advanced cloudy day photography tips

The challenge of cloudy day photography, is to take very soft light and make it beautiful soft light.

In other words, instead of the flat lighting that we get in an open area on overcast days, make it directional light.

Channelling flat light on cloudy days

When I photograph with natural light on heavily overcast days I use locations that channel the light. Blocking and directing the light creates shadows and gives form to my subject.

Heavily overcast days also tend to be quite wet and windy, so locations where we’ll be protected from the elements are ideal.

3 ideal outdoor locations for cloudy day photography

To explain what I mean, I’ll take you to three of my favorite outdoor photography locations for a rainy day photoshoot.

Natural light female portrait in spectator stand

Photographed in a spectator stand. I set aperture to F2.8 to blur the background for this natural light photoshoot in the spectator stand on a winter day with a gloomy sky. I used a 24-70mm lens at a focal length of 70mm

1. Spectator stand location

The spectator stand at a local sports ground isn’t interesting or pretty at first glance. However, for cloudy day photography, it channels the light beautifully!

The stand is open at the front only, with windows on both sides.

Light enters mainly from the front, with more diffused light entering from the sides. The roof and back wall block light, so photographing near the back is great for increased contrast.

Spectator stand for photography on cloudy days

The spectator stand on a rainy day, with an overcast sky.

Sports stand photography location for overcast weather

Light coming from the:

  • Front – is the brightest light, so I use it as the main light on my subject
  • Sides – isn’t as bright, so it’s great for rim light, backlight, depending on where I place my subject

Here I don’t have to wait for the perfect time to photograph, because I have the best light all day, any time of year. It’s as good on sunny days as it is on a gloomy day.

Woman in walkway with graffiti on cloudy day

We did this photoshoot on a really stormy day with strong winds and rain. I set the aperture to F2.8 to isolate the subject, blur the background and make the artwork on the pillars less distracting

2. Covered walkway location

This covered walkway is another location that I love for cloudy day photography.

Like the spectator stand, it’s open on three sides, except, because it’s a long tunnel, the light on the ends is far away.

Because it’s open down one side, on windy days it does get a bit wild. However, for a gritty photoshoot that’s great.

Woman leaning against black wooden shed on overcast day

For this natural light shot on a very overcast day I used the narrow passages between black sheds to give direction to the light. There’s another shed immediately to camera left just out of shot, so the gaps between sheds are very narrow

3. Close together structures

This location is a series of black wooden huts positioned close together.

It’s great for cloudy day photography, because:

  • Light channels through the narrow gaps between the huts so beautifully, even on the dreariest of days
  • There’s no roof overhead, so the light from above adds a nice natural hair light to the subject
  • The black wood close to my subject creates negative fill, which deepens shadows for more contrast

Narrow alleyways with tall buildings either side also work well for directional light on cloudy days.

On your next bad weather day go and search for these types of locations. They’ll get you excited about cloudy skies.

Leave a comment

If you have any questions about cloudy day photography settings, let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my cloudy day portrait tips have helped you, share that too.

2 thoughts on “Cloudy day photography tips (with camera settings)”

  1. fascinating and so helpful
    your examples are always clear and to the point
    Appreciate the effort going into these wonderful lessons

  2. Thank you for this article, Jane. It’s so helpful to have the camera setting and the detailed description of how to find the direction of light.


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