When I first got into shooting landscapes I made the mistake of thinking that I needed direct sunlight to create great pictures and, as a result, I typically dismissed overcast conditions as unsuitable. But in recent years my thinking has changed completely – partly due to a change in style but more from a realisation that ‘dull’ weather doesn’t mean dull images and in fact overcast conditions are a distinct advantage for many forms of landscape photography. I still love low golden sunlight of course, but now when faced with cloudy skies it’s a case of shifting my horizons and seeking out subjects that are better suited to overcast light.
So what’s dull weather? Well, essentially I’m talking about extensive cloud cover with no direct sunlight and no shadows – the kind of weather that happens most weekends! It’s the kind of lighting that is often described as being flat, resulting in landscape images that can look wishy-washy with a lack of contrast. Without sunlight to reveal contours and textures, landscape images lack depth and come out looking very two-dimensional. Dull weather also reduces the colour palette to softer tones and muted colours that lack the vibrancy of images taken on a sunny day.
All this doesn’t exactly sound very inspiring. But once you disregard scenes that you know won’t work and tune into the kind of images that are possible in dull weather, then there’s plenty to get the creative juices flowing. That said any successful image has to have something to interest the viewer and in the absence of strong colours and contrast you have to work that extra bit harder to capture interest in your landscape images in flat lighting. This typically comes from a strong composition, using shape, form and line to create a compelling photograph. This can take practice and an ability to look beyond the obvious, but clever use of composition can make the most ordinary subject, extraordinary.
When faced with an uninspiring sky, wide landscape views are usually off the shooting agenda. But these conditions are perfect for shooting moving water using a slow shutter speed of several seconds to create silky water. This can often be achieved by simply setting the lowest ISO setting on your camera, coupled with a small aperture of f/16, especially at either end of the day when light levels are low. If I need to generate a slower shutter speed I’ll typically fit a polarising filter, which reduces the exposure by approximately two stops. For even longer exposures I use a 3-stop neutral density (ND) filter in addition to the polariser.
Coastal scenes are always a saviour in dull weather because the movement of the sea provides the all important interest to the picture. The constant rhythmical movement of the sea and waves washing onto the shore adds dynamism to the photograph and means that you can create exciting images very easily with just a few basic ingredients. Foreground rocks, headlands and sea stacks work very well in terms of providing a focal point to the picture, whilst the movement of the water can be used to create interesting patterns or a simple wash of colour. I usually include some sky in these coastal scenes even if it’s fairly uninspiring but this may be just a slither. To control the exposure – so that the foreground and sky are properly exposed – I use a 0.6 (2 stop) or 0.9 (3 stop) graduated ND filter.
Another favourite haunt on cloudy days is a woodland interior where the low contrast light is perfect. One form of ‘bad weather’ that really makes a woodland come alive is mist or fog. This simplifies the landscape and helps to hide background clutter. Fog also creates a natural recession of tones in the tree trunks as they fade into the background helping to add depth to the picture. The moisture in the air also filters out red light leaving the picture with a cool blue colour cast. This can be ‘corrected’ by adjusting the colour balance, but I prefer to leave it as it is to add mood.
Overcast light is also ideal for shooting more intimate views of the landscape. Landscape details such as rocks, leaves, water, and natural patterns provide an alternative perspective that hints at the wider landscape. With the lack of shadows you are free to shoot from any angle and can concentrate on the basics of composition – shape, colour, texture – and the juxtaposition of elements within the frame. Images can sometimes appear a little flat when shooting RAW but this is easily corrected in Photoshop by adding contrast, vibrancy and colour saturation.
The lack of strong colours means that dull weather is great for black and white conversions. Even a completely featureless sky can be used very effectively as a backdrop in a black and white picture. If you shoot black and white images on a regular basis you’ll already have a good idea of what will work. But, like me, if you need to pre-visualise how a scene will look in black and white then set the camera’s picture style (or equivalent) to monochrome. The RAW file you capture will still be in colour, which you can convert later but the image you see on the LCD monitor will be displayed in black and white.
Of course, clouds bring other potential ‘problems’ – rain, sleet or snow. A good reason to pack the camera away and head indoors but in fact such inconveniences should not bring an end to photography. Instead embrace and utilise the conditions to create images with a difference. Once you get past the psychological barrier of photographing in wet weather and providing you can keep the camera and front of the lens dry there is every reason to keep shooting. Dress properly in waterproof gear, use waterproof covers for your gear and you are good to go.
The bottom line is that however dull or ‘bad’ the weather appears to be there are great pictures to be taken and digital photography has provided us with the tools to capture the worst that the weather can throw at us.