The Many Benefits of Photographing on a Cloudy Day
There's a common misconception that blue skies and sunny days are ideal conditions for photography. What these people don't realize however, is how much better the light is on cloudy days. With a soft diffused quality, contrast is greatly reduced, making difficult exposures easier to handle. Sure, we all welcome warm summer afternoons and the pleasant evenings that follow. Yet, show me a forecast that's mostly cloudy, and I'm heading out with my camera.
A reader once emailed me to find out why his waterfall images weren't turning out as expected. In looking at the work, the issue was immediately clear. Each scene was dappled with the mixed light of sun and shade. This creates the type of harsh contrast that can ruin a landscape photo. The solution is not technical, but merely requires that this type of photography be done on a cloudy day.
Dark ominous clouds can be used to evoke emotion in our viewers. By manually controlling the exposure, you can deliberately underexpose them to add even more drama. Another option is to use a graduated neutral density filter to darken the sky by two, three, or four stops. Working this way gives you the ability to craft your own reality. The actual sky may not be this dark, but as the artist, you have final say over how it will appear.
At sunset, clouds are very effective at extending the window of shooting time. Almost like a sponge, they absorb the colors in the sky, allowing them to linger far longer than what's possible on a clear day. This extends well past the actual sunset time with vibrant hues often stretching into dusk and early evening. To best capture this with your camera, try the cloudy or shade white balance preset. These warmer color temperatures better match the golden hues of magic hour.
Properly exposing birds with white feathers is particularly challenging in bright sun. There is simply too much contrast between the highlights and shadow area to keep it all well exposed. Under cloudy skies however, this contrast is greatly reduced allowing you to capture feather detail as well as the darker tones. As a result, wildlife photographers can shoot all day rather than the hours around sunrise and sunset.
The same concept applies to outdoor sporting events, particularly when one team has white uniforms. To handle this effectively, meter off of the jersey and add a stop or two of exposure compensation. This will make the uniform truly white as opposed to light grey. As an added benefit, the player's face will also appear brighter. Expressions are a key component to successful sports photography so it's important they're not in shadow. If you shoot sports on a cloudy day, your percentage of keepers will absolutely be increased.
Put simply, clouds can add visual interest that's absent on a clear day. In this example, I photographed the same scene a few hours apart. In the first shot the sky is mostly blue. A few hours later, impressive patterns of clouds stretch above the park. As you can see, this second shot is ultimately more interesting. The next time the weather calls for overcast skies, use it to your advantage and head out with your camera.