5 tips for taking photos in overcast weather

  • Watch your settings when shooting in Overcast weather

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.

1. Shoot from slightly above your subject.

When your subject looks slightly down or even straight ahead on an overcast day it can be hard to get enough light in their eyes to make the beautiful catchlights we strive for as photographers.

However, if you can get higher than your subject by having them squat down, bringing a step-stool, or finding a hill or structure to raise you above eye level, they will be looking up at the sky. Suddenly you will find their whole eyes filled with light.

If it’s too bright this may make them squint, but on the dark, overcast days typical in the Pacific Northwest at this time of year, this can make for a beautiful portrait. It’s a really easy thing to do with babies, and the flat lighting works so well with their sweet little faces, but it’s a tip that works for any age.

Try shooting from slightly above your subject to get better light in the eyes.

2. Use your surroundings to create directional light.

Light on an overcast day tends to be pretty flat. This can cause people to look somewhat flat and dimensionless.

To create dimension, you can use anything in your surroundings – buildings, trees, a fence, etc. – to block some of the light in one or more directions to create directional light. You can also use a reflector, a scrim, or even a flash to craft directional light on an overcast day, but since I tend to shoot without an assistant I look towards existing structures to help me mold the lighting.

In this set of images there is a street and open sky camera right and a row of buildings camera left giving some shadowing and dimensions to her face.  In the closeup she is turned slightly more towards the street (notice the orange building behind her) so while there is still some shadowing it’s not as pronounced as on the full body shot.

Use your surroundings to create directional light

The same sort of thing can be accomplished in a more natural setting as well.

These are taken on a sidewalk near my home. There is a fence and dense row of trees camera left and even though there are some trees camera right, there is also more open area and more light coming from that direction.

In the closeup, notice the catchlights coming from her looking upwards a bit as well as still getting some shadowing from the fence/trees camera left.

photography in overcast weather
shooting in overcast weather

3. 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.

Be thoughtful when including the sky in your image.

overcast photography tutorial

4. 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.

Consider adding a pop of color in clothing, props, or processing.

5. Watch your settings.

Since there is generally less light on an overcast day, you’ll want to watch your settings to make sure you are getting a proper exposure. Often you’ll want to bump your ISO to 400, 800, or even 1600 to let in enough light. Even then you may need to open up your aperture or slow your shutter. Just be careful not to let your shutter speed drop lower than you can easily freeze the scene in front of you when trying to get a nice sharp portrait.

Watch your settings when shooting in Overcast weather

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.

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About the Author:

With her Nikon D700 and assortment of prime lenses in hand, Kristin loves to take portraits and describes her style as “organic and clean/pure with just a hint of whimsy.” She has an art/design degree from college and worked for years as a designer but like so many others really got into photography once she had children. In her own words, “I started to capture our family life, and somewhere along the line I got bit by the photography bug.” Her ideal day off would consist of shooting for herself, spending time with friends, and some quiet time alone curled up with a good ebook and possible a Starbucks/Tazo Iced Green Tea and chocolate. With her husband and three daughters, Kristin currently resides in Kirkland, WA.

18 Comments

  1. Rebekah Feb 21 2013 at 11:18 am - Reply

    Cloudy days may be a bit boring where light is concerned but it does make things a little easier sometimes also. And for a wedding the couple would like to remember what the weather was like on the day they married so I always grab a sky shot and try to incorporate a portrait in that as well. Catch lights or not. : ) Thank you for the tips! Especially getting a little higher and getting them to look up. I’ll be using this more often!

  2. Cate Feb 21 2013 at 3:54 pm - Reply

    Beautiful, informative, post! So helpful that I clipped it with Evernote’s Web Clipper! Thank you!

  3. Maureen Petru Feb 21 2013 at 4:32 pm - Reply

    Very well thought out and expressed tips. I have read other posts on this subject, but I will view the images and still feel something is missing. Not with your images! They are some of the most beautiful cloudy day images! Thanks for taking time to write the post.

  4. DawneC Feb 21 2013 at 4:32 pm - Reply

    Great tips Kristin… particuarly helpful for us Pac NW’ers embracing the gray!

  5. Jax Feb 21 2013 at 4:36 pm - Reply

    Great post, Kristin! Overcast conditions always seem get the better of me so its great to have an arsenal of tips to practice!

  6. Elena Feb 21 2013 at 8:28 pm - Reply

    Shooting on overcast days is my favorite! I find it much easier than when the sun is shining bright. Great post; I’m off to visit your blog!

  7. Melissa Feb 21 2013 at 11:07 pm - Reply

    Great tips, Kristin! I love the idea of adding a pop of color!

  8. Kate @ Songs Kate Sang Feb 21 2013 at 11:40 pm - Reply

    These are great tips! Thank you so much!

  9. Faune Feb 22 2013 at 2:19 am - Reply

    Hi! Great tips, thanks for sharing. I am new to photography and always love to ask what lens you prefer to use. Shooting family portraits, day to day hustle and bustle with children. Thanks!

  10. Lisa (Tout Petit Pixel) Feb 22 2013 at 2:27 am - Reply

    Great tips, Kristin! Thank you for sharing <3

  11. Zuzana Feb 22 2013 at 8:31 am - Reply

    Great tips, in England we have overact weather almost all the time :))

  12. Nicole Arnold Photography Feb 22 2013 at 12:58 pm - Reply

    I love the tip on a pop of color. It made me remind my tomorrow morning portrait session to try and incorporate that into their look. As much as I love a cloudy day, I can’t wait for a day of sunshine and blue skies 🙂

  13. Lacey Feb 23 2013 at 11:55 pm - Reply

    Fantastic advice, Kristin! And amazing images as always!

  14. Stephanie Mar 01 2013 at 11:32 pm - Reply

    Miami is having unusually cold & gloomy weather. So glad you wrote this. Tku.

  15. Kim Peterson Mar 14 2013 at 1:20 pm - Reply

    Thank you so much for the insight and tips!!

  16. Sarah Oct 27 2016 at 1:53 pm - Reply

    Great article! I dread shooting in cloudy days, but these are some great tips to keep in mind. I am otherwise shooting in ideal light, backlit subjects 95% of the time! I feel out of my element in the clouds; my reflector is my friend in the sun. Great tip to shoot from above to still grab catchlights in the eyes.

  17. Randy Mason Aug 11 2017 at 8:32 am - Reply

    Great, useful article. Thank you Kristin for sharing these ideas. I now feel confident I can produce fantastic engagement photos for my son and his fiancee even though the weather forecast is for cloudy skies.

  18. Anhthu Vu Le Jul 04 2018 at 12:00 am - Reply

    Thanks for your tips. Now I know what to do on an overcast day. I don’t like it when there is light on top of the models head at all. Love your article.

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