I’m here to help you deal with the challenges of cloudy day photography so that you’re never left waiting for the next decent day to go and take photos. If you’re a natural light portrait photographer, your photography life is wrapped around wishing for:
- Good light
- In the right place
- At the right time of day
For photographers in the UK, where the light is just so dull for much of the year, it’s even more of an obsession.
So here are some tips that will not only help you with cloudy day photography, but have you wishing for it!
The 2 steps of cloudy day photography
Like anything in photography, a little bit of planning and knowing what to look for is the key to a great shoot in any weather. On a heavily overcast day there are two challenges to overcome.
- The first part is figuring out where the light is coming from when you can’t actually see the sun.
- The second challenge of cloudy day photography is taking that really dreary light and channelling it so that it makes beautiful, soft, directional light that is perfect for portraits.
Photographed under cover on an overcast day in winter. I’ve included photos of the location further down.
1. Figuring out the direction of light on overcast days
Needless to say that when the sun is shining, you know where the light was coming from. So, we’re not talking about sunny days. Not even normal cloudy days.
We’re talking about cloudy day photography on those days when you can’t imagine getting a decent photo. The days when the clouds are so thick there isn’t even the slightest shadow to be seen and, no matter how hard you inspect the sky, you cannot make out where the sun is.
You might think on these heavily overcast days that the direction of the light doesn’t make a difference.
Just because you can’t see a shadow on heavily overcast days, doesn’t mean that the light has no direction. You just need to look harder.
Or maybe you don’t know the hand trick. Here’s how it works…
Using your hand to find light direction on cloudy days
- Stick 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. About half way to palm up to the sky.
- Turn in a circle and observe how your palm gets lighter and darker as you turn.
Actually, you don’t even need to be outside to try this. Give it a go now. As long as you’re not inside a pitch black room, you’ll be able to make out the direction of the light.
Now that you know where the light is coming from, you know how the light will hit your subject – from the front, the back or the side. So you can decide where to place your subject for the shot you want.
Download our handy cheat sheet for helping with finding light direction for photographing on heavily overcast days.
Now you’re ready to move onto the real challenge of cloudy day photography, which is how to take that very soft, but dull, light and make it beautiful.
Further reading: Soft light photography – 4 facts every photographer should know
2. Channelling dreary light on cloudy days
When I’m photographing with natural light only on heavily overcast days my favourite trick is to use locations that are ideally suited to channelling the available light.
This way I’m using the natural light like a softbox on studio lighting.
Instead of the dull light just being everywhere, it’s blocked and directed, which changes everything. The play of light and shadow across my subject takes what would otherwise be a dull photo to a whole new level.
Further reading: Open shade photography the right way – avoid rookie mistakes
As it happens, those days also tend to be quite wet and windy, so I like to find locations where we’ll be protected from the elements.
What’s a good location for natural light cloudy day photography?
To explain what I mean, I’ll take you to three of my favourite natural light locations for bad weather photography.
1. Spectator stand
Here’s the spectator stand at a local sports ground. It’s not particularly interesting or pretty at first glance. But for cloudy day photography, the way the light channels in there is just gorgeous!
As you can see it’s open at the front only, with windows on the sides.
What this means from a light point of view is that the light will enter mainly from the front, with a diffused light entering from the sides. The roof and back wall prevent light from entering the structure, so the closer you get to the back, the darker it will be.
The spectator stand on a cloudy day. As you can see, the sky is completely white.
The next two photos were taken at this location on very dull days.
What this means to me and my camera is that the light coming from the:
- Front – will be strongest and that will be the light that I’ll use as the main light on my subject
- Sides – won’t be as strong, so that’ll make a nice backlight or sidelight, depending on where I place my subject
Instantly, even on a really dreary day, I’ll have interesting, directional light.
And, as a huge bonus, it won’t matter if it starts to rain, because we’ll be sheltered.
I used natural light only for these shoots in the spectator stand. Both were on heavily overcast days that would normally be considered really bad for photography. In fact, not even cloudy day photography, more like stay indoors and don’t even try to go outside! Looking at the first photo of the spectator stand, we were about two thirds of the way up on the left side.
2. Covered walkway
Here’s another location that I really love for cloudy day photography.
Like the spectator stand, it’s open on three sides, except, because it’s a long tunnel, the light at either end is far away.
This was a summer’s day, but the sky was a pale, washed out blue. I’ve shot here on really stormy days as well.
3. Close together structures
Lastly, here’s a location that’s simply a series of black wooden huts close together.
The light channels through the narrow gaps between the huts so beautifully, even on the dreariest of days.
This location is great for cloudy day photography for two reasons:
- There’s no roof overhead so the light from above adds a nice hair light to the subject
- and having so much black close to my subject creates negative fill to deepen the shadows and create more contrast
Narrow alleyways with tall buildings either side would also make great locations. It would be similar to the above, but with a more diffused light, because the space would be bigger.
The trick is to look out for the right locations perfectly designed for cloudy day photography. They’re everywhere and now you know what to look for!
So, on a bad weather day when you’re not feeling all that inspired, go and search for these unlikely locations. You’ll get a feel for the light and they’ll get you excited and eager to go back for a shoot on the next cloudy day.
You’ll probably find this article really helpful too: How to take great photographs in bad weather
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