Cloudy Day Photography | How to Get Great Pictures with Overcast Skies
If you didn’t know better, you might consider cloudy weather and overcast skies a no-go for photography sessions. Sure, an overcast sky might put a damper on plans for capturing natural golden hour portraits, but that doesn’t mean that all is lost. As you’ll soon discover, cloudy days provide plenty of opportunities for photographers to shine. Check out these ten cloudy day photography tips for getting great pictures in less-than-ideal weather.
Tip #1: The Sky is a Softbox with Cloudy Day Portrait Photography
Photographers spend an enormous amount of money on lighting and lighting modifiers. One of the most popular lighting modifiers on the market is a soft box, which diffuses & softens the light passing through it. Clouds, which essentially act like giant soft boxes in the sky, diffuse sunlight on a grand scale, often resulting in flat lighting. While some photographers fear flat lighting, it has a time and place, and portraiture calls on it often.
For closeup portraits, flat light reduces the appearance of lines, blemishes, and imperfections in the skin to create a more flattering look. Go ahead and place your subject in a bright, open area. The clouds should provide enough cover to keep your subject from squinting while you direct your subject into a pose and cue whatever expression you’re after.
Tip #2: Create Directional Light With Overcast Skies
Flat lighting is not your only option when in cloudy day photography. If you want to add shadows for dimension, you can easily create directional light using one of two methods to either add or subtract light.
Option 1: Add Light
To add light, use the white or silver side of a 5-in-1 reflector and position it at a 45-degree angle in relation to the camera and the subject. It helps to have an assistant so that he/she can hold the reflector. You can also use flash to add directional light.
Option 2: Reduce Light
To subtract light (see the image below), place the subject next to a dark object (building, tree, or the black side of your 5-in-1 reflector) and position your subject so that the dark object reduces the light reflecting on one side of your subject’s face. A large open space will allow more light to fall on your subject, but the dark object will cut or block some of the light falling on that side.
Tip #3: Capture Catchlights from Above
In addition to serving as a giant soft box, a cloudy sky can also stand in as a large reflector. If you’re shooting at eye level with your subjects and you ask them to look down or off to the side, you’ll likely struggle to find any catchlights in their eyes; however, if you position yourself at a higher vantage point, either by standing on a bench or asking your subjects to sit, you’ll find the cloudy sky provides a great source for catchlights as your subjects look up at you.
Tip #4: Get Moody with Off-Camera Flash
Off-camera flash definitely opens up the creative possibilities of any shoot, and we recommend familiarizing yourself with various flash photography techniques. One thing flash photography allows photographers to do is add drama to an image. By lowering ambient exposure to retain more highlights and using flash to expose your subject’s skin, you can take advantage of the cloudy sky to capture a moody portrait that wouldn’t work as well in a clear, blue sky. This maximizes the potential of cloudy day photography so long as there is some color behind the clouds.
Tip #5: Go Bright for a Clean Backdrop
In the opposite direction from the previous tip, you can embrace the bland nature of the cloud cover and use the dreary sky as a canvas to create a clean backdrop. This is one of those situations where it’s okay (even encouraged) to blow out the highlights for effect. Check your histogram and enable your highlight alert to ensure you only blow out details in the sky, not on your subject’s skin. A clean background can set the scene for an elegant portrait and draw more focus to your subject, especially if you follow the next tip.
[Related Reading: Tips to Overcome Bad Weather from 14 Wedding Pros]
Tip #6: Add a Dash of Color
When set against the drab backdrop of an overcast sky, bright colors tend to pop a bit more and can be used to create visual interest and emphasize the focal point in a photo. If there’s time to plan ahead for wardrobe, brush up on your color theory and choose colors to enhance the mood in the image or establish a complementary or monochromatic color scheme.
Tip #7: Adjust Your Settings for Reduced Light
When shooting on a cloudy day, you will need to boost your ISO to compensate for 2-3 stops of light reduction from the clouds. This means if you typically shoot at ISO 100, you’ll need to bump your ISO up to 400-800, sometimes needing to go as high as 1600. Most modern digital cameras make easy work of this adjustment without adding too much graininess or noise to the photo.
Tip #8: Try It in Black & White
If you find you’re still lacking adequate contrast in your cloudy day photos, go bold & dramatic with black and white edits. I’m not saying that you should edit the entire session in black and white, although that is an option, depending on your taste. Instead, choose an image or two and adjust the highlights and shadows to create more contrast. You can go beyond a standard black and white conversion and create incredible monochromatic images from your cloudy day photographs with just a few key adjustments.
Tip #9: Create Your Own Golden Hour
If your clients have their hearts set on golden hour shots, they’ll delight to hear you can still make it happen on a cloudy day. Creating golden hour portraits under an overcast sky will require off-camera lighting gear, but the setup is pretty quick and easy. You can learn more about using this technique here. We even offer a complete mini-workshop on the subject.
Tip #10: Backlight the Rain
In the event that the cloudy weather gives way to rain, fear not! So long as you come prepared, you can take advantage of the downpour and lift your portraiture to new heights with a backlit shot. Gearwise, you’re going to need the following items:
- Rain Sleeves/Zip-lock Bags for Your Camera & Lighting Gear
- Off-Camera Flash
- Portable Light Stand
Your subjects/clients are going to love the look of the illuminated raindrops glowing from a light placed behind them. Simply place a flash behind the couple and point it directly at them to create some unforgettable images. If your cloudy weather photoshoot turns into rain, make the most of it!
[Related Reading: 8 Rainy Day Wedding Photography Tips You Need to Know]
We hope you enjoyed this article on cloudy day photography and how to get great pictures in unideal weather. Here’s a quick recap of the tips we included above:
- Use the cloudy sky like a giant soft box
- Create directional light
- Capture catchlights from above
- Get moody with off-camera flash
- Go bright for a clean backdrop
- Adjust your settings for reduced light
- Add a dash of color
- Try it in black & white
- Create your own golden hour
- Backlight the rain
Your results & options will vary, of course, depending on the intensity of the cloud cover, but just remember that you can make most weather scenarios work in your favor with a little planning & creativity. If you’d like to dive further into your photography education, check out our Premium subscriptions, which include streaming access to all of our workshops on everything from photography fundamentals to advanced lighting and editing techniques, as well as a number of complete training systems (flash photography, wedding photography, photography business, and more).