Touring through Western Australia, I steeled myself for the worst, photographically speaking. The forecast offered us four days of back-to-back frontal rain systems. That meant falling water (never good for lenses and camera electronics) and grey skies. And while I have nothing against grey skies per se, they tend to make landscapes flat and dull.
That’s not to say cloudy skies can’t be interesting. On the contrary, depending on what you’re after they can be great. As with mist (see the earlier post on flowers), what clouds do (as far as light is concerned) is a) reduce light (we know this) and b) scatter light. The tiny water molecules act as little prisms that bounce light in all sorts of directions, so that although we look at a grey sky and go “oh, what a dark sky”, in fact a cloudy sky has far more light coming off it than a blue sky (which gives very little light off, as all the light is fleeing straight out the atmosphere and into space). (Of course, when we’re really lucky, the raindrops really do act as prisms, splitting sunlight as it refracts into its different wavelengths, and giving us a rainbow, one of those rare and ethereally beautiful additions that, if you can catch them on camera, can make a shot really special).
The landscaper’s dilemma is this: Light reflects differently off the land and off the sky. On the whole, there is less light coming off the land, and more light coming off the sky. A photographer can expose a frame so that the land is perfectly exposed, but then as a rule the sky will be overexposed (bright and burned out), or can expose a frame so that the sky is well exposed, but then the land will be underexposed (dark and without detail). On a sunny day with a blue sky shooting away from the sun, this contrast is minimised- there’s extra light on the ground, and not much light in the sky. Throw in a polarizer, and you cut out even more glare from the sky, and can get a really nicely balanced shot for both sky and land. The flip-side of this is on a really grey day, when there’s almost no sun on the ground, but lots of light scattering randomly in the clouds, so the difference between ground and sky is exacerbated. These are the landscapes that, quite frankly, suck. Either a landscape you can see clearly but which is flat, set in front of a white sky (a lot of shots in the tropics come out like this), or a sky that is dark and moody and brooding, in front of which is a landscape so dark as to be largely meaningless.
You can do a few things to manage this. If the clouds are exciting, you can chose to sacrifice the foreground in favour of the sky, get a really textured cloudscape, and end up with silhouettes in the foregound. To make this work, you really need to pick something interesting as a silhouette, however. Things that are fairly close, interestingly shaped, and stand out prominently from the horizon work best. So interestingly-shaped trees (usually alone), water towers, peculiarly-shaped buildings, basically anything tall and oddly-shaped, will work well here. A range of mountains, or a forest, or a city street, probably won’t. You need to pick your subject.
You can also use what is called a Graduated Neutral Density filter (GND). These are grey (neutral) coloured filters that go gradually from being dark at the top to clear at the bottom. By placing the filter appropriately in front of the glass, you can make the sky appear darker, therefore creating a better balance in the difference in light values coming off sky and ground, and getting shots where the ground is well exposed, and the sky doesn’t burn out and lose all its textures. You can apply these on the camera itself as a gel filter, or you can apply these in post-processing using something like Photoshop or Lightroom. Either way, this technique works best for landscapes with a relatively flat horizon. Anything sticking up above the horizon- a tree, or a house- will get darkened as well, and the subtlety of the effect will be lost.
The third option is (in my humble opinion) the funnest- but it also requires luck and patience. The challenge of taking photos on a cloudy day is that the ground is underlit, and there’s too much light in the sky. However on a day where the cloud cover is a little patchy, you might just get lucky enough that a stray sunbeam will light up the foreground you want to shoot, giving you enough light to expose for the ground, while the background remains dark and brooding. I say fun, because the effect, visually, can be so dramatic. And fun, because you often have only a few seconds to line up the shot you want and get it while the light remains. You do a lot of running. And if you’ve got a photo buddy, some shouting too. And there’s more than a dash of disappointment when that sky closes back in just as you’ve got your frame set up, and you realise there’s no more light coming your way for another half hour.
This is why I like natural-light photography. Light is a one-off. You’ll never get the same arrangement of photons bouncing off your subject in quite the same way again.
The frontal cloud systems we had in WA were perfect for this latter game. Strong winds were blowing the clouds overhead at dozens of miles an hour and faster, and we could watch the sunbeams chasing eachother across the hills. I was shooting with Pam, and was doing a little tutorial on landscape photography and light at the same time, which was [allegedly] good for her, and good for me as well, as I find you never learn anything quite so well as when you teach it yourself. The effect the shifting light had on the subject was so dramatic that we had object lessons in front of us in the space of five minutes that it might have taken a week in less varying lighting conditions to dry and demonstrate.
There are, of course, as many ways to shoot a landscape as there are landscapes and photographers to shoot them. I don’t wish to negate anybody else’s efforts. However I hope that if you’ve been trying to take photos of landscapes under a grey sky and been disappointed with the results, the above gives you food for thought the next time you head out with camera in hand. Good hunting.
1. Country Lane: Open fields and a track, somewhere between the Stirling Ranges and the Porongorups. The clouds were doing a pretty good job of obscuring the landscape and in fact sixty seconds later had closed in for good for the evening (notice the shadow encroaching on the bottom left-hand corner)- but I managed to get this last shot of the fleeting foreground light and the balance worked nicely to give strong colours on the ground, but plenty of depth in the sky.
2. Nameless: An obscure and pointless shot of scrubland. The sky is nicely textured, but with no light on the foreground, it’s just a tangled mess largely devoid of interest.
3. Windmill Silhouette: There wasn’t much light on the windmill and water-tower in the foreground, so I went the whole hog and underexposed the shot, giving a dark sky with plenty of texture in those three-dimensional clouds, but leaving just the outline of the subjects in the fore. Shooting against the sky (or against a low, flat horizon works just as well) keeps them distinct and uncluttered for a good composition, and it’s important to make sure that when you underexpose for silhouettes in more average lighting conditions such as these, that you do it all the way and the subject goes black. If you leave any detail in the subject it just looks like you didn’t do your exposure correctly and it distracts. Note the difference in impact between this shot and the 2nd- here it’s all about subject and composition, as the lighting is almost identical (as is the location- one was shot at 90 degrees from the other).
4. The Impending Storm: There was plenty of lightning in the sky that chased us to Margaret River that afternoon. Here I applied a Graduated Neutral Density Filter in post-processing, which meant that colour was retained in the ground, but the sky didn’t burn out and instead stayed really dark and brooding. It’s worth noting that if you’re applying a GND on the camera, you darken the sky, but if you’re applying it in post-processing, it’s easier to lighten an underexposed shot than to darken an overexposed one, so it’s best to shoot dark and capture the sky, and then reverse the effect and lighten the foreground instead.
5. Stirling Highway Cloudscape: Here was another roulette of a photoshoot, where the passing clouds were obscuring the highway every couple of minutes, and a bit of patience and good luck was required for the whole landscape to come good. Worth the wait, however, as the combination of bright sun on red dirt and green bush, some patchy light on the hills, the road running across nowhere and the textured, nicely balanced sky all came together nicely for this shot. In my opinion a landscape photograph should always be the combination of a landscape and a skyscape. You can’t have one without the other.
6. Bringing it All Together: Pam puts theory to the test as we get a fleeting flash of light on the red soils of the Stirling Ranges (and on Pam as well) while the sky overhead stays grey and foreboding. Notice how dramatic the mood is- it’s an unusual combination of bright light and dark sky, which lends itself well to eye-catching shots if you can pull it off. Well worth waiting for.
7. The Luck Factor: I couldn’t have (and didn’t) plan for this shot, but it nicely illustrates the combination of technique, and sheer providence. Dark clouds and rain had blotted out this shoot at Mandalay Beach, but as we were leaving, stray beams of light started to punch through, giving rise to this rainbow. You can see that the clouds are heavy and low, without much light in them, but (as per my shadow) the beach has been struck by strong sunlight from behind- a perfect opportunity. By exposing for the much-brighter foreground, I was able to keep the sky really dark, maintaining mood and texture, and also catching all the colour of that beautiful rainbow. This sort of shot, though, I can’t take without a little help from the Creator…