Many people see an overcast sky and think, “What a bummer. I guess I’m going to have to photograph on another day.” Think again. An overcast sky can be a photographer’s best friend. Instead of battling with the harsh rays of the sun, an overcast sky can be looked at as a photographer’s softbox as it creates soft and even lights over subjects. In an overcast sky, the clouds act as a natural diffuser. So, the more clouds, the more evenly dispersed the light appears.

Whenever the sky is overcast, I cannot wait to break out my camera and shoot landscape, food, and portraits. As a photographer myself, moving back to the Pacific Northwest was the best thing we’ve ever done. Pacific Northwest has a lot to offer from the ocean, mountain range, and beautiful landscapes. My kiddos were enjoying so much outdoor here compared to when we used to live in Texas. I think the quality of life here is way better. My husband was born and raised in the state of Idaho. So I am biased. For me, this place is like Heaven on earth. I have done probably 90% of my photography in this state. 
Fun facts: My 1st and 2nd child was born in Coeur D’ Alene, Idaho. 

When shooting portraits on an overcast day, the sky can act like a giant soft box creating soft, even light. You generally don’t have to worry about bright sunshine making your subject squint, dappled light coming through trees, or harsh shadows on your subjects. However, because this giant softbox is positioned directly overhead, it can be hard to have anything other than flat lighting, catchlights can be hard to come by, and portraits can sometimes seem flat and boring.

With all that being said, an overcast sky can also create a flat, boring photograph due to the lack of contrast, lighting, catchlights … the list can go on and on. So, how do you make the most out of overcast weather?

1. Shoot in RAW, not JPEG: I keep saying this, don’t I? JPEGs are fine for many photographic situations, but a RAW file has so much more exposure information embedded in it. Working with a RAW file, we can adjust or tweak exposure levels and color profile to accomplish the final image we desire. 

With a RAW file, we can assign a color balance as we see fit after the exposure. We can also pull out a whole lot of shadow detail in the image, adjusting for contrast and tweaking the exposure value.  RAW is where digital photography really comes into its own. The image manipulation possible with a simple post-processing program allows for creating superb final images when used for cloudy day portraits. A full program such as Photoshop, Photoshop Lightroom, or ACDSee lets us do almost anything with the image.

2. Be thoughtful when including the sky in your image.: A dark, stormy sky can be as interesting in a portrait as a beautiful blue sky. That being said, a flat overcast sky often wants to blow out to white or turn a light gray, and can really take away from a beautiful portrait. Consider not including the sky at all in your image or conversely embracing the flat backdrop as an integral part of your image.
3. Consider adding a pop of color in clothing, props, or processing:  The gray skies and lack of sunshine can sometimes make an image appear dull. Having a brightly colored prop or article of clothing — such as a great hat — can add some interest and a focal point back to an image. Another way to make your subject stand out on a cloudy day is to make sure the background behind them is a fair amount lighter or darker than they are.
4. Post Process in Black and White:  Often, when photographing in low-light situations, photos tend to be grainy due to the camera setting used to capture the moment. Black and white photos have a tendency to hide the grain. When you upload your photos, select the one that would look the best in black and white. Amp up the contrast while you post the process and you will love the result.
5. Add Color:  If you’re photographing people in overcast light, consider the clothing and accessory options. You don’t want your subjects to wear grays and whites (unless you’re going for a flat look) because the overall look and feel of the photograph will be flat. Instead, add a pop of color or two to really draw the eye into the photograph and create interest. You can also add brightness to a person’s face by having the person look up to the sky.

6. Capture the Mood: Instead of a bright and cheery photograph, why not capture the mood and tones of the moment? An overcast sky can help you do just that. Embrace the overcast sky and use it to help tell a story. Whether it comes to landscape or food photography, I always love to use the lighting situation to help set the mood and tone for the end result.

7. Watch your settings:  These camera settings let you make the most out of a cloudy day outside. But you can also use the weather to your advantage. For example, if the cloud cover isn’t too thick and dark, it will naturally diffuse and soften the sunlight. If it has just rained, you can position your subject in front of a puddle or other shiny surface for more light. Or you could just shoot the clouds — an approaching storm front makes for a powerful picture.
Beat the dim lighting with the right camera settings on a cloudy day. Here’s what you should do: 

*Sensitivity — Bump your camera’s ISO value up a bit to ensure that its sensor catches enough light. An ISO between 400–800 works great on an overcast day.

*Exposure — Lower your shutter speed to let more light reach the cell, making your photos brighter. A tripod helps you keep your camera from shaking.

 *Aperture — Open your aperture up as much as possible to let your camera take in more light — although you’ll sacrifice some depth of field.

8.Lighten up your pictures with a photo editor: On top of creative camera settings, you can edit your shots of a cloudy day to make them shine. Adobe Photoshop Lightroom is a great tool for brightening up your photos. Its presets make it easy to adjust the levels, colors, and brightness of your photos in a couple of clicks — and they’re also fully customizable.
9. Add Grain (cautiously): That brings me to my next tips. Embrace the grain in your photos. By adding just the right amount of grain, you can enhance the story of the photograph. Be cautious, though. Adding too much grain to a photograph will make it look busy and a bit sloppy. The right amount of grain will add to the mood, cold, isolation, noise … whatever you are trying to tell through your photograph. The bottom line is to never let overcast days get you frustrated. 
Next time the clouds come and cover the sun, embrace that nice, even lighting, and use it to your advantage to create lovely portraits even when the sun isn’t shining.

Len Parent

“The most important thing to remember is that you can wear all the greatest clothes and all the greatest shoes, but you’ve got to have a good spirit on the inside. That’s what’s really going to make you look like you’re ready to rock the world.” —Alicia Keys

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1 Comment

  1. July 22, 2022 / 3:19 PM

    I have always admired your photos on Instagram but never knew you are a photographer. Thanks for sharing all these great photography tips.

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