Trying to balance the light across a frame is a fundamental part of photography. When the sun is out, this is easiest, as the sun throws lots of light onto the foreground of the shot, while the sky is comparatively darker. The variation of light coming off both ground and sky is relatively similar, and all parts of the image can therefore be quite well lit.
When the sky is cloudy, less light reaches the ground. At the same time, counterintuitively in some ways, the sky itself is far lighter than on a sunny day- because light is being reflected among the clouds. When the camera tries to account for this, it has a choice- it can either expose for the sky, leaving the foreground dark, or it can expose for the ground, leaving the sky blown out without texture. On the whole, unless you’re looking for silhouettes, this doesn’t result in the most appealing photos.
As such, photography on a cloudy day can be a frustrating experience. That said, it can also be extremely rewarding. As I’ve posted a few times, I love the sky, and clouds in particular. On days when the sky is full of texture- particularly partly-cloudy days when gaps open up in the sky and the full vertical extent of clouds and their textures can be seen- photography can be a lot of fun.
I took the following photographs a couple of weeks back with the family at a botanical garden east of Melbourne. It was a cloudy, rainy day and opportunities for good shots might have been limited- it was a great location and could have produced some really colourful shots under full sun. However, working with a few approaches, I was able to snap a handful of images that I quite liked, and that I think show some of the things you can do to try and account for less uniform lighting conditions. All these images (including the title image above) were taken over a 90-minute period on a single afternoon.
The first is look for the sun breaking through. Every so often, a patch of sun will come through and light the foreground. If the sky is especially dark, this can produce some dramatic effects. In this shot, light is falling on this stand of trees, while behind the clouds are dark and menacing. The contrast makes for an unusual and interesting image.
Of course, such breaks are relatively rare, and you have to be in the right position and ready to take them when they do appear. Another benefit though is that the softer light of a cloudy day, while perhaps leaving landscapes a little dull, make portraits much more viable. Strong, direct sunlight light casts shadows on faces that may not capture the detail and interest of a face in the way you want. Cloudy days, however, offer great portraiture opportunities. In this shot, the fact that the sky is a little blown out and textures are soft really doesn’t matter, as it’s Miss Nine in the foreground that you’re interested in.
Here she is again. You can see that the soft light coming from multiple directions (scattered by cloud) means her skin is gently textured without any hard shadows or patches of contrast. There’s some sunshine coming through at this particular juncture- enough to light up her hair- but it’s watered down. Not great for landscapes, but perfect for this sort of thing.
Sometimes the light just won’t cooperate when you’re in position, and you won’t have the luxury of waiting around. Here’s where using graduated neutral density filters can help you out. You can apply these onto the camera or in post-processing. I’ve done the latter with this image, where in the original frame, the foreground was underlit. By manually lightening the foreground, I’ve pulled up enough colour and detail to keep it interesting, and still maintained the darkness of the sky for drama and contrast. This is a slap-dash job, five minutes of fiddling with Lightroom. Doing it properly takes longer, but avoids darkening treetops at the horizon or leaving an unsightly glow where objects touch the sky. HDR (High Dynamic Range) processing does something similar by layering two identical images with different exposure values and blending the best parts of each. Unless done well, I find HDR tends to look artificial and unappealing.
Click to view a larger size.
Again with the portraiture. Watch for moments, even if there isn’t direct sunlight on the foreground, when there is just enough soft light on the foreground and an especially heavy background- this can be all the contrast you need to capture a really nice moment. Here, the surrounds are not really well lit enough for a landscape, but there’s enough of a glow on Miss Nine, and enough darkness in the sky, that the effect works well. Here, the clouds themselves provide the interest for the backdrop- depth, texture, movement and drama- and a nice compliment to Miss Nine in the foreground.
Using fill-flash can achieve a similar effect artificially, if natural light is not cooperating. This can also be achieved in post-processing to some extent, although you will need to ensure that your original exposure is within certain margins. If whites blow out or darks are too pronounced, you will not be able to recover them.
The real trick, though, is to be ready when the light does change- and it will. When you’ve got foreground sun and background clouds, you’ve got a recipe for a nicely-lit and often dramatic shot, and this is when your colours are really going to pop as well.
I would like to head back to the Australia Gardens in full sun and take a handful of landscapes, but I wouldn’t change the conditions we had that afternoon for anything. Not only does the changing light make for interesting, contrasty and often dramatic photography, but it keeps you on your toes. You have to be watching, ready and in the right place, trying to predict when that next shift in the light will come, and then pounce on it. Admittedly, you need a lot more time and patience for this sort of snapping. But when the light does work for you, it’s so much more rewarding.
All photos taken at the Australia Garden at Cranbourne, VIC.