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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.

Coast Magazine Cover

Coast Magazine Cover Image

I'm happy to announce that my image "Crescent Bay Sunset" made the cover of Coast Magazine for the month of March!

Coast Magazine is available at newsstands throughout Orange County, but if you can't get your hands on a copy, check out the online version here.

Crescent Bay Sunset

Dealing With Criticism

Every artistic field is rampant with critics. Movies, music, painting, sculpture, photography - every art form has an entire sub-field of writers, bloggers, personalities and just average Joe's who make it their job to criticize other people's work. But it's not just professional critics. You'll find critics in your friends, family and casual acquaintances, too. Pretty much anyone who views your work is one comment away from being a critic.

It's this phenomena that gave birth to the old phrase "everyone's a critic." But although it can feel like everyone's a critic, it's actually a very small number of people. The only problem is, critics are loud and, so, they seem like a bigger group than they are. Most people you'll run into will have only positive things to say, or nothing to say at all (which is almost as good) about your work. But every once in awhile, some critic won't be able to resist the urge to take you down a peg. Especially when you're starting out, these criticisms can be really demoralizing and can even hang you up for a little while in a mire of self-doubt.

With a little over 11 years experience under my belt and a few successes to my name, I'm happy to say I'm no longer bothered by criticism of my work. It rolls off my back like water off a duck. But it's because I've realized a few things - things I want to share with you so you can avoid letting these criticisms get the best of you.

Keep in mind that when I say criticism, I don't just mean the blatant ones. Sometimes they won't be as obvious as "that's a bad picture." Those criticisms are actually easy to brush off because the person just comes off as a jerk. It's the more subtle criticisms that you don't even really notice until later that can really bog you down. I mean comments like "You know, I've taken a picture exactly like that" or "You must have a really great camera" or "That's pretty good for how long you've been shooting."

It's just anything that hints at you being inferior or not knowing what you're doing. Camera store salesmen are pros are dropping these comments.

These comments can really gnaw away at you and make you want to scream at the person who's saying them. But these comments are much easier to ignore when you realize the mechanism behind them.

These people who make a career out of bringing people down a peg - and I don't mean literally make a career, I mean they tend to bring everyone around them down a peg regardless of the topic at hand - these people do it because they are scared. They are scared of the entire world around them. They're afraid of people being more successful than they are, they're afraid of people being more talented than they are. To these people, life is a competitive sport and everyone is competition. And instead of spending time practicing and being a better person in order to get ahead, they take the easy route of bringing everyone around them down to their level. Instead of working hard to be first place, they work hard to make everyone else last place.

If it seems a little extreme, just think about it. Think about something you are completely confident in your abilities to perform. Cooking, making birdhouses, photography - whatever. Just think of something you are a pro at. Now think of someone who's worse than you. Someone who sucks at cooking or making birdhouses. Do you criticize their work? Do you make comments to demonstrate your superiority? I'm betting not. You're clearly more competent than they are, so you don't need to bring them down a peg. Ever notice that the most critical people are never themselves any good at what they criticize?

Most people operate this way. Most people are generally nice and don't want to hurt other people's feelings. They won't offer up criticism unless really provoked and they will be much quicker to point out the positives in your work. Even if you really, truly suck, people are too nice to say so. They don't stand to benefit from making you feel bad about your work, so they will either lie and say you're great, only point out the positives or just say nothing at all.

That's most people. But it's these critics you gotta watch out for. They are few, but they can really mess you up.

So next time someone critizes your abilities, whether it's a peer, teacher, friend, family member or camera store salesman, just feel bad for them. Pity them. See that they are either consciously or subconsciously intimidated by your abilities. They see you striding out towards first place and they're just trying to grab a hold of your shirt to pull you back to second place. Their survival mechanism is kicking in - that's all.

My advice here may seem a little trite and even a little motherly, but it's really true. Next time someone criticizes your work, take a look at their work. It's probably worse than yours. If it's not worse than yours, then you should feel extra bad for them because they have serious self-esteem issues that prevent them from seeing their own talent. People who are competent and confident in their abilities don't waste time making other people feel bad about their work.

These critics only bother speaking up when they see a threat. So really, if you think about it, criticism is usually a compliment. 😀