What To Photograph On An Overcast Day

Photo by Steven Burke (used under the CC-Attr-NC-ND license)

Photo by Steven Burke (used under the CC-Attr-NC-ND license)

In Southern California, we have this thing called “June Gloom” where pretty much every day in the month of June is overcast or cloudy. Some people call it our punishment for having bright sunny days for the rest of the year.

But, I look forward to the overcast skies because although they produce some gloomy feelings, they also create some very unique lighting conditions that bring out some of the best colors found in nature.

What’s so special about overcast lighting conditions?

Overcast skies are special because of the soft and balanced light they produce. The clouds act as a natural diffuser, so the more clouds you have in the sky, the more balanced the light will be. This balanced light will eliminate virtually all shadows and reflections.

So, what are these conditions good for? Well, two great examples are wildflowers and waterfalls.

Example #1 – Wildflowers

Photo by Steve Berardi

Photo by Steve Berardi

As I discussed in a previous article, the secret to getting perfect light for your wildflower photos is to photograph them on an overcast day.

On a bright sunny day, the harsh rays of the sun will blow out the highlights of wildflowers and create some ugly dark shadows. The natural diffuser (clouds) helps balance the light to eliminate these shadows and cast a soft light on the flower (preventing those highlights from being blown).

Example #2 – Waterfalls/streams

Photo by Steve Berardi

Photo by Steve Berardi

The soft and balanced light of an overcast day is also helpful for photographing waterfalls because it helps reduce contrast and reveal detail in the shadows.

Another great benefit of photographing waterfalls/streams on overcast days is the need for longer shutter speeds. Since cloudy days are significantly darker than sunny days, you’ll need a longer shutter to capture the scene. These longer shutters are great for achieving that “silky” water look like in the photo above.

Another option: Capture the gloomy mood

If wildflowers and waterfalls aren’t your thing, then perhaps you can just capture the gloom of overcast days. Maybe you know of a lone tree in a meadow somewhere, that looks especially lonely on a cloudy or overcast day.

There’s no rule that says all your photos have to be happy, so don’t be afraid to capture the gloom :)

For example, here’s a scene I photographed on a gloomy overcast day:

Photo by Steve Berardi

Photo by Steve Berardi

Sanderlings (the bird pictured in this photo) are almost always seen in large groups, so the fact that this one was alone is interesting. But, the overcast light gives this scene more of a gloomy feel, and helps emphasize the bird’s aloneness. If I took the same photo on a bright sunny day, I don’t think the image would have portrayed the same feeling.

What did I miss?

Is there something else you’ve noticed that looks especially wonderful on overcast days? Please share it with us by leaving a comment below!

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steveb2About the Author: Steve Berardi is a naturalist, photographer, computer scientist, and founder of PhotoNaturalist. You can usually find him hiking in the San Gabriel Mountains or the Mojave Desert, both located in the beautiful state of California.

Comments

  1. Another interesting post. Thanks. The natural soft-box effect can be useful in almost any high contrast situation where you don’t want to blow highlights. Most people want sunny weather for weddings – but with the bride in white and the groom in black overcast days make for easier exposures.

    Overcast days can also be great for archtitecture and abstracts. The trick is to avoid getting any sky in the photo as it will tend to go white and featureless.

  2. @Ian – good point about weddings, architecture and abstracts.. I don’t really photograph people, but one of the other great things about overcast light is that people don’t squint in it, like they do when it’s sunny (an annoying thing in portraits!). Yeah, you can have them stand in the shade, but that of course limits your background options.

  3. hey steve got quick question for lighting purposes, an overcast day means what?

    is it diffused, directionless light ideal for outdoor portrait taken.

  4. @Katerina – You’re correct: overcast skies create smooth and balanced/diffused light. The clouds are the best possible light diffuser you can get.

    Although I don’t really photograph portraits, I have heard repeatedly that overcast light is great for portraits.. It’s similar to shooting in the shade.

  5. thank you steve for your help if you dont mind me asking you one more question..

    exposure needs to be carefully calculated when using a filter and what?
    in-camera meter
    handheld meter
    using a large eperture

    and one more
    special effects filters

  6. dramatic coastal scenes, great to have some low clouds.

    I’m still looking for clear RAW tutorials.

  7. Tiberman Sajiwan Ramyead says:

    Yep – Over the years I have taken hundreds of shots of a garden by the sea, in the village I was born. Last Sunday was overcast; just clouds and no sky. I got fantastic shots (by my beginner standards); I could’nt believe it. And they were all on auto with ADL on.

  8. Good article Steve ! I was photographing a water fall the other day, and it was sunny ! I wanted the silky look to the water, but slowing down the shutter let in too much light ! I’ll have to try again on an overcast day ! Could I use any filters to achieve reduced light so I can slow the shutter right down ?

  9. Use your camera on manual settings for aperture/shutter speed combination. Set the ISO on the lowest value possible. Use Neutral Density Filters and you will cut down the light so that you can use the slower shutter speeds/smaller aperture combinations that give you the smooth, flowing look of the water. Be sure you are on a tripod to minimize camera shake and use the mirror up mode if available and/or self timer. Sometimes a circular polarizer will cut down the light a bit but it may not help in bright sunlight to cut down the light enough.

  10. sugavanam says:

    In Bengal, during monsoon, it will b cloudy. I think now I can explore during that season and get some wonderful pics… Thanks once again for your article…

  11. ratkellar says:

    Autumn colors can also be more striking with an overcast sky as background. This surprised me since blue and orange are complementary colors.

  12. Your examples are appropriate .This lighting is good for portrait also.Thanks.

  13. In the Northwest we call this month Juneuary, though living here we’re quite used to photographing on overcast days.

  14. Frank Townsley says:

    Another subject that almost necessitates an overcast sky is forests. It is impossible to properly expose when the sun lights half the trees and the others are in the shade. Backlighting leaves in a deciduous forest is very dramatic, but to coin an old phrase ‘you can’t shoot the forest for the trees’.

  15. Hi Steve, Yes, I love those overcast days. Probably my favorite for photgraphy. They really bring out the colors of a forest as well and cut down on the glare and contrast that makes photographing forests and leaves so difficult. Was out yesterday photograhing waterfalls with the many overcast days we get in New England.

  16. I always enjoy your posts. I look forward to overcast days especially on weekends when I have the time to photograph. What I really need help on is what to photograph on bright sunny days at mid day when you don’t have the choice of being at a great location at dawn or dusk.

  17. G. premachandraratne says:

    Superb photos and your advice.

    Thanks.

    G. Prem

  18. Great Article! i enjoyed your post

  19. Great point. We also get June gloom in northern CA. This is my favorite light to shoot product photos of my glass jewelry. No reflection off the glass and the color does not get washed out. Thank you for your tips.

  20. Overcast days are also my favorite time for photographing wildlife.

  21. Jorge Caballero says:

    Hi Steve,
    I will be taking landscape pictures in Vancouver and Alaska under overcast conditions during the next week. Should I use a polarize filter? Do you recommend me any special setting for this kind of weather? I plan to use a Sigma 18-250mm F3.5-6.3 DC OS MACRO.
    Thanks.

  22. Thank you!, good reading for getting the right direction.
    Leo

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