Overcast Days: The Lighting Simply Doesn’t Get Any Better

Am I alone here? Does anybody else get excited about shooting in overcast conditions? I use to think I was a contrast junkie, but I discovered that my passion is for detail, more one of an internal contrast issue than overall contrast.

When you consider the dynamic range of most digital camera image sensors, typical bright sunny days can present two challenges right off the bat: hot highlights and deep shadows. When the highlights in the original image are very hot and the shadows are very deep, extracting detail in the “near shadows” and “near highlights” turns into an editing issue. The holy grail of photographic exposure range is located in well within those bookend extremes. On a typical Florida day, the trick is to keep the critical quarter, middle, and three-quarter tones ideally balanced to capture critical detail. With highlights too hot, the inevitable shadows cast by the tropical sun tends to push critical three-quarter tones (shadow detail) into the mud.

But on overcast days, the filtering effect of clouds mellows the Sun’s harsh light, revealing significant quarter tones (highlight detail). The wonderful byproduct of this softer light is softer shadows, which in turn deliver more shadow detail. On very sunny days you might have to use a reflector or fill flash to open up the shadows, but on cloudy days, they’re already open! This natural diffuser renders rich colors and a full range of tones from the deepest shadows to the lightest highlights. This lighting is the ideal time to press your 18% gray card into action.

There is a reason why photographers like to balance their lighting around an 18% gray card. What’s the magic of the 18% value? For one, this is approximately the same reflective value as average caucasian skin color. But since skin comes in a variety of different colors (sometimes one full stop brighter than the gray card) this skin reference is only an approximation.

The real value of this card is that it is the sweet spot for all photographic exposure. Image sensors do their best work when you point them at this reflective value. Once this value is read by the camera, the lighter and darker tones in the scene fall quite naturally in line. The card also delivers a completely neutral reference point for color correction. Regardless of lighting conditions, once a reference shot is made with this card, neutralizing the color cast in a scene is a mouse click away.

And when the outdoor lighting falls neatly within the camera sensor’s “cruising range,” (with headroom on either side of the scene’s histogram), that my friends delivers top drawer results.

Don’t be afraid to put the scene’s tones in the middle of the histogram. There is no hard, fast rule that every image has to contain an extreme highlight or a near-black shadow, real life simply doesn’t appear that way to your eyes. Keep in mind that realistically speaking, the only thing actually “black” is the inside of a cave at midnight and the only thing pure “white” is a direct view of the Sun at noon. It’s OK to have highlights that aren’t pegged up against the right side of the histogram. Please think twice before you hit the dreaded Auto button in the Levels dialog of Photoshop. That kind of cookie-cutter photography should be left to those who don’t know any better.

The next time you find yourself surrounded by a clouded sky, go get your camera. Great color (and fabulous black and white) photography is there for the taking. Do keep in mind that outdoor shots under cloud cover will appear slightly bluish because the water droplets in those clouds scatter the longer (red) wavelengths while passing the shorter (blue) wavelengths. Set your camera’s white balance to Overcast or Cloudy. This setting will compensate for the bluishness of the scene. If you are using a gray card and have the time to set a situational white balance, you can zero in on the color even more accurately.

Even if you are shooting raw format, set the White Balance to Overcast anyway. Why? Because the initial appearance of the image on your computer monitor will be presented as a JPEG image with a white balance determined by your camera’s current settings. This simply makes WB in editing easier to get right. If you shoot raw, you’ll understand what I’m talking about. If you don’t get the whole “raw” thing yet, I’ll delve into that topic briefly in posts to come. I hope this inspires you to enjoy shooting on the cloudy days. Try it and you’ll look forward to the days that deliver this great natural lighting.

That’s the way eye sees it. Let me hear what you think about shooting in overcast conditions. Thanks for joining me. If you enjoyed this, let me know and tell your friends.

See you next time, Herb



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PS. if you have an iPad and are interested in learning about more about the fundamentals of digital photography, I suggest that you take a look at my Accurate Color iBook in the iTunes Store


About Herb Paynter

Herb is a published author, photographer, retoucher, color reproduction specialist and a regular writer for Digital Photography School. Download his iBook "Digital Color Photography: A Deeper Look" from the iTunes store and view his Light and Color Fundamentals video series at GottaKnowVideos.com.
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1 Response to Overcast Days: The Lighting Simply Doesn’t Get Any Better

  1. Great post, I agree – I love naturally diffused light 🙂

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