Do you have the dull day blues?

Is it dull, dark and raining? Are you thinking your day of photography wont happen? Then dont, as Craig Roberts has the perfect solution.

10/12/2010 - 11:59

Add an ND grad filter to empahise brooding clouds overhead.
Add an ND grad filter to empahise brooding clouds overhead.

It can be a real pain when the weather doesn’t play ball. It’s especially annoying when you have crawled out of bed at the crack of dawn to capture the first light of day and then find that the great weather the forecasters promised the night before has materialised into a thick covering of cloud instead. This flat lighting does nothing for that otherwise stunning landscape in front of you and ruins any other plans for a day’s photography ahead. 

However, don’t despair, because all is not lost. You can still take great pictures on these kind of days, you just need to adapt your style and subject matter to suit the prevailing conditions. Although a sunny day is ideal for most subjects, especially landscapes as it can transform a scene by casting light

and shadows across the subject, which creates vital depth and contrast, not all subjects benefit from this. 

Overcast days soften the light and the cloud acts like a giant softbox, just like the kind you have in a photography studio. This, therefore, makes the light ideal for portraits. Soft lighting is kind to the complexion and you don’t get the harsh shadows that portrait photographers have to fill in with a large, white reflector. It’s a flattering light and again portrait photographers prefer shooting in shade, rather than place their subject in bright sunlight for the same reason. So, make the most of this soft light to practise your portrait skills instead, knowing that you are going to get results that will be pleasing to the subject. 


Window-lit indoor portraits are ideal for overcast days.

If your intention was to shoot beautifully lit landscapes, simply change your tactics and look for details within the landscape instead. Swapping to a telephoto lens and picking out finer details in the landscape and excluding the sky, will make ideal abstract images. Although these details help make up the whole scene, they are great photographic subjects in their own right. 

Look for shape and form with subjects such as dry-stone walls or natures natural patterns. Fallen trees, colourful vegetation, old fences, isolated trees and soft, rolling fields can make great subjects when photographed in abstract form with overcast lighting, where their shape alone will make the image. 

Go closer and macro subjects can be shot with the same technique. Whether it’s a close up of a butterfly, a colourful flower or any other micro-sized subject, soft, even, overcast lighting certainly makes it easier to shoot.

You can still take landscapes that are full of mood on overcast days by adapting your style.

The same types of subject can be found at the coast. Low tide reveals all sorts of subjects that lend themselves to being shot as abstracts, from the rippled sand on the beach to different shaped rocks and coastal erosion, to the cliff faces. Rock pools and beautifully scrubbed pebbles are revealed at low tide. 

Even if you are thinking of shooting in woodland, an overcast day is an ideal time to venture under the canopies. A bright, sunny day causes far too much contrast of light and shadow and your camera won’t be able to cope with the tonal range. On an overcast day, however, everything is evenly lit and so the subject in the wood or forest becomes the point of view rather than the way it is lit. 

Waterfalls are a similar situation. These are often situated in darkly lit areas of the landscape where a bright day throws them into deep shadow, making your camera’s meter struggle to expose well.

The low level of light of an overcast day also helps to keep your shutter speeds down, so that when you photograph the waterfall with the camera firmly on a tripod, you can easily use shutter speeds or 1/4sec or longer to blur the water and create lovely soft movement, which contrasts nicely with the hard rocks and vegetation that usually surrounds them. 

Even in the landscape, you can use the extended shutter speeds required on a dull day to add movement to your images. Water, foliage blowing in the breeze or even overhead clouds can add a sense of drama to an image if allowed to move during your exposures. 

You can use a neutral density filter on the lens to increase the exposure time further. An exposure time of thirty seconds allows lots of movement and is quite possible on a dull day with an ND filter, especially when combined with a small aperture and low ISO setting. This is virtually impossible to achieve on a sunny day. 

If you like to try black & white occasionally an overcast day is ideal to make the most of the medium. Black & white photography is more about shape, form and texture than light so subjects shot in black & white can benefit from an overcast day. You can add drama to a black & white landscape by emphasising heavy clouds overhead with a strong two- or threestops grad over the lens, to bring out

the definition of the clouds and even make them appear darker and more brooding than they are in real life. Some tweaks and simple manipulation in post-production can add to this. 

Use window light on a dull day to shoot still life shots indoors.
Use window light on a dull day to shoot still life shots indoors.

You can also use filters or the camera’s white-balance setting to add much needed mood to images that you shot in colour. By bringing the colour temperature down with the tungsten setting or adding a blue filter, you can give landscapes a bleak, cold look, which gives a sense of isolation

and despair. Increase the colour temperature above 5500K with the cloudy or shade white-balance setting or add an 81 series warm-up filter, you can counteract the cool cast of a overcast day giving your images an injection of warmth. 

One last thing to try if the weather is poor outside and that’s to go inside. Whether shooting the interior of a building or using window light to shoot a still life set up, an overcast day is ideal for both and the soft, even light coming in through the window makes shooting much easier than strong sunlight streaming in and creating areas of dark shadow in the room. 

You could also shoot portraits if it’s too cold outside for your subject. Photograph them using window light and add a reflector on the opposite side to create pleasing, natural results.  Whenever the weather hasn’t turned out as intended, don’t give up and put your camera away. Learn to embrace the change in conditions and use it to your advantage. 

There are plenty of photogenic subjects that will benefit this flat lighting and it’s a new challenge for you to find them when fellow photographers have just given up and gone home.

Words and images by Craig Roberts.

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