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Photography Tips: Exploiting Overcast Days

Skill Level: Professional

In landscape photography, we are often at the mercy of the weather. Sometimes it's a fortunate coincidence of great weather when you happen to be out shooting, but more often than not, the weather just doesn't cooperate. Nature doesn't want to make photography easy for you.

I'm a big fan of making lemonade when nature gives you lemons. It has the sweet taste of victory. So I'm going to show you how to make lemonade out of a lemon of a sky. Specifically, overcast days.

Overcast days don't give you the most stunning light for landscapes. Great for macro work, but generally bad for landscapes. If you're going to conquer the scene in front of you and make an awesome photograph regardless of the dreary sky, you have to take what you're given and exploit it.

What you're given is dark, bluish light and cold weather. So instead of fighting these things and trying to make a typical sunny landscape, take that dark feel, that blue tone and that cold sensation and exploit it. Highlight it.

The first way to do that is to underexpose your landscape by a little bit. Maybe 2/3 to 1 stop. For instance, in this shot, let's say I would normally meter that rock at -0.7 on a typical sunset with less cloud-cover (shooting in Manual, of course). With this overcast sky, I'm going to underexpose the scene by a little bit to create a mood that matches the dramatic, overcast sky. So instead of metering that rock at -0.7, I'll meter it at -1.3. That brings the entire exposure down by 2/3 of a stop to create a darker picture that jives better with the dark weather.

Rock Metered a Little Darker Than Normal

Same goes for the sky. Let's assume I'm going to use some split NDs to get the sky properly exposed. To render the clouds "accurately," I'd want them to line up around -1.0 on the meter. But I want to underexpose this shot. So instead of using filtration to get the sky to -1.0, I'm going to use a little bit stronger filter to get it around -1.7 (2/3 of a stop darker).

Filter the sky a little darker

The result is an image that's darker than real life. But just because it's darker than real life, doesn't mean it's incorrectly exposed. Correct exposure simply means the exposure turned out how you wanted it to. You wanted this shot to be darker so as to better match the sky and to create a mood. So, it's a correct exposure.

That's how you exploit the dark light you get with overcast skies, but what about the bluish tone and the cold weather. That's where white balance comes in. In order to get accurate colors out of this landscape, you'd choose a "cloudy" white balance setting. Only problem is...that's boring. Here's what you get:

Cloudy WB Setting

Instead of going for accurate colors, exploit the bluish, cold light by using a WB setting that will give a bluish hue to the shot. Daylight or 5200K should get the job done, but if you want even bluer, try the tungsten setting (that will be really blue), or dial in about 4800K.

Finally, a long shutter speed of 15" blurs the water into an ethereal fog that goes perfectly with the cold, dark mood of the shot.

Corona Del Mar, CA

With the darker exposure, bluish WB setting and long shutter, you get an image that has much more mood than an "accurate" shot. Now you're telling a story instead of just documenting a mediocre day at a mediocre beach.