Photographing overcast weather: there is no such thing as bad light

Written on 12th July 2019 | No Comments

Many landscape photographers shy away from taking photos on cloudy days because often the light is flat and the sky is uninteresting. I think that’s a great shame because taking photos on overcast days can be really rewarding. But to make the most of them requires a change of mindset and knowledge of suitable locations.

Choosing the right location

It’s important to pick a location that suits flat light as many places need direct sunlight to bring them to life. Terrain with an interesting skyline, such as mountains, or views with obvious focal points often work well.

This picture of Ystradfellte in the Brecon Brecons was taken on an overcast morning a couple of hours after sunrise. What drew me to it was the curve of the dry stone wall and the colourful grasses growing next to it. The muted greens, oranges and greys had very defined shapes even in the soft, flat light. The dry stone wall acts as a strong leading line that continues through the picture towards Fann Nedd, the prominent hill on the horizon. 

Dry stone walling leading through fields towards Fan Nedd in the Ystradfellte Valley, Brecon Beacons. Purchase a print.

On a similar day I took this photo of Tryfan in Snowdonia. Here the light tones of the flowing water contrast greatly against the grey rocks and dull browns of the landscape below. The triangular shape of Tryfan is echoed in the shape of the prominent foreground rock which helps to create a visual relationship between foreground and background. Because of this link it doesn’t matter so much that the mid ground is relatively monotone.

Water cascading down a fall on the Afon Lloer, overlooking the Ogwen Valley and Tryfan in the Glyderau mountain range, Snowdonia, Wales. Purchase a print.

In both instances I’ve included a minimal amount of sky, focusing on foreground and mid ground detail instead.

Picking the right time

There are advantages to taking pictures on overcast days. In the UK, there are a lot of them, so there’s plenty of opportunity for practise! Furthermore, the nature of flat light means that it doesn’t change very quickly. Shooting at sunrise or sunset can be a race against time to decide on composition and set up your camera before light fades. However, under a cloudy sky light changes slowly, allowing you time to make sense of a scene and get the composition right without worrying about missing a crucial moment.

I spent about an hour and a half taking one composition of this Hawthorn tree at Winskill Stones Nature Reserve in the Yorkshire Dales. It’s surrounded by limestone pavements which look like a giant jigsaw puzzle of natural shapes. Much of my time was spent deciding on where to position my camera and what focal length to use as that dictated how large or small the tree appeared in the frame and how dominant the foreground was.

A lone hawthorn tree growing on Limestone pavement at Winskill Stones Nature Reserve in the Yorkshire Dales. Purchase a print.

Taking this photo was a very relaxing process as I was in no hurry. I could see for miles in all directions and there was no sign of the cloud breaking so I was comfortable in the knowledge that the light wasn’t going to change quickly.

Sunny days aren’t always best

For some locations a sunny day is not good. This is particularly true for woodland and waterfalls, both of which look best when the light is soft and contrast is low, making it easier to balance tonality and exposure.

Waterfalls are one such subject. They often look most pleasing when captured using a slow shutter speed, which is easier to achieve on overcast days. I almost always use a circular polarising filter when capturing flowing water. With the filter in the right position it will cut specular highlights such as the sheen created by the sky reflecting on the surface of water. A polarising filter will also decrease the amount of light entering the camera by around 1.5 stops which also helps lengthen exposure time.

Sgwd Ddwli Uchaf in the Brecon Beacons on an overcast day. A circular polariser helped lessen the sheen of the sky reflected in the water’s surface.

The moodiness of a heavy cloudy sky can work well at the coast, especially early or late in the day when light levels are lower. I like to use a variety of focal lengths depending on the subject matter, from very wide angle to longer telephoto. Wider shots of coastal features work well if the sky has interesting cloud patterns or textures.

This photograph of Lilstock Beach in Somerset relies on the diagonal lines created by water flowing along cracks in the beach’s limestone ledges. The patterns of the clouds overhead also appear to lead into the frame. It was taken after sunset so light levels were low, allowing me to use a slow shutter speed of 4 seconds which blurred the water’s movement.

A moody sky over Lilstock Beach on the Somerset coastline, UK.

On the other hand, using a longer lens and omitting the sky from a picture can be very effective too. This closeup of a row of wooden groynes on Porlock Beach in Somerset was taken at 200mm using a shutter speed of 0.8/sec. Timing was important as I wanted to capture the backwash of waves lapping around the groynes, giving a sense of movement in the picture.

A row of wooden groynes on the beach at Porlock, Somerset, as the incoming tide washes over them. Purchase a print.

“It ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings”

Cloudy days can sometimes change unexpectedly for the better, as I have been lucky enough to find on occasions. For this reason I only ever walk away after sunset when I am absolutely sure nothing is going to come from it. At dusk or dawn it can take just a small break in the cloud cover to produce a burst of intense colour.

This picture of Staple Plain on the Quantock Hills in Somerset was taken at the end of a very wet and grey November day. I’d been out photographing woodland and decided to stop at this viewpoint on my way home. I didn’t expect to see any colour in the sky but went about composing a picture of the view anyway. As sunset drew near the clouds parted slightly and although the sun was very low on the horizon there was enough light to colour the sky. The yellow and orange hues in the sky complimented the colours in the foreground nicely. I deliberately used a slower shutter speed to blur the movement of the grasses and soften their texture.

Autumnal view from Staple Plain into a wooded valley and beyond to rolling countryside. Quantocks, Somerset, UK. Purchase a print.

In a similar twist of events, I waited until well after sunset to capture this picture of the lighthouse at Burnham-on-Sea on the Somerset coastline. It looked like nothing was going to happen until a small break in the clouds behind the lighthouse gradually expanded. Although it was a very grey scene to start with, it wasn’t long before the sky exploded with crimson ripples as the last rays of the sun filtered through a clear patch of sky.

The wooden lighthouse at Burnham-on-sea, Somerset, during a colourful sunset.

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