How do you take advantage of the soft, even light of an overcast day without ending up with images that look flat and unflattering? Don Marr explains how to expose photographs of people when it's cloudy out in this excerpt from his Amherst Media book Available Light.
This excerpt from Available Light is provided courtesy of Amherst Media. To purchase the book and learn more about the publisher, visit the Amherst Media website.
The light on an overcast day is completely flat with little or no shadows. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Don’t photography instructors always say that this is supposed to be good portrait light? It’s a natural softbox, right?
Well, they were wrong. While your subject may not be squinting from the sun, they are lit with such flat light that they may take on a flat, shapeless appearance themselves. An overcast day will create a hot spot on their forehead and nose, and it will probably give them bags under their eyes, too—not very flattering. Just because everything is lit evenly doesn’t mean it will guarantee a flattering portrait. No studio photographer places a huge softbox directly above the head of his or her model and expects flattering light.
Our goal, therefore, will be to give this all-encompassing, all-consuming light some control and direction. The good thing about an overcast day is that the light is consistent. Sometimes you can’t even tell where the sun is in the sky behind all of those clouds; 9:00AM looks like 3:00PM. That consistency is an advantage, because you can take your time to shape the light in whatever way you desire.
The following is an image sequence for shooting on an overcast day. In this example, the model stood on the steps in front of a building. The sun was buried behind the clouds above and to the left of the camera position. The light created unflattering results. The eyes became dark and the nose caught excessive light (1-1, 1-2; below).
1-1. An overcast day created flat light with no shadows.
1-2. The overcast sky gave the subject dark eyes and produced hot spots on the nose and forehead.
The first approach to modifying this type of light is to remove some of it; this is called subtractive lighting. By blocking some of the flat light, we can create more directional light, which will give shape to the subject’s face.
In image 1-3, the model turned away from the overcast sky and looked toward the steps, where the camera was now positioned. The dark steps blocked the light from illuminating her face directly. Light was now effectively subtracted from the front of her face, and the light from above and behind her wrapped around her face and framed it. An added benefit of having her turn away from the sky was that the overcast sky acted as a studio hair light (a light placed behind the subject aimed at the back of their head and shoulders). This lightened her hair and separated it from the background. (The light catching her nose and darkening her eyes can be improved as well, as shown in the subsequent shots.)
1-3. By having her turn to face the steps, light was subtracted from the front of the subject’s face.
Perhaps the most advantageous aspect of overcast light is that it creates large catchlights in your subject’s eyes. Catchlights are the reflections of the light source that appear in your model’s eyes. Always be aware of catchlights as you take portraits; the bigger the catchlights, the brighter the eyes appear. For a darker eye effect, minimize the catchlights. There is no right or wrong with catchlights. They are not required to create a successful portrait. Many good portraits have no or minimal catchlights.
In the next shot (1-4), the model was turned back slightly toward the overcast sky, with the dark steps behind her left shoulder. The overcast sky reflected in her eyes, brightening them significantly from the previous shot. The dark steps over her left shoulder continued to subtract light from that side of her body, giving shape to her cheek in a subtle and flattering way. Her nose is now as evenly lit as the rest of her face.
1-4. Use the large light source of an overcast sky to create large catchlights in your subject’s eyes.
In image 1-5, a 4x4-foot silver reflector was placed on the steps. A collapsible, PVC frame with silver material stretched over it (available from Calumet) was used here. The model was turned toward the reflector. This created more contrast on her face, as light was reflected from the shiny metal surface. This created more “pop” in the image. Notice that the catchlights are now at the bottoms of her eyes. The direction of the main light source can be established by observing the position of the catchlights in the subject’s eyes. This is a great way to “read” photographs and understand how they have been lit. The catchlights reveal the size and direction of the main light source.
1-5. A silver reflector was added in front of the subject to create more contrast in the image.
The Tunnel of Light
Another way to control the direction of the light on an overcast day is to place the subject in what I call a “tunnel of light.” This sounds like a piece of expensive studio equipment, but it’s just a term for any location that has an overhang—a doorway, hallway, or anything else that can block the flat,
overcast light from above and make it more directional. The further back your model steps under the overhang, the more directional the light becomes (for more on this, see pages 20–22). Because the size of the light source is reduced relative to the subject, it also becomes a harder light source with more contrast. Feel free to use the term “tunnel of light” with your friends and family. Doesn’t it sound more interesting to say that you were shooting all afternoon in a tunnel of light than underneath a pedestrian bridge?
To create image 1-6, the model stood in the foyer of an apartment building. It was a small space, about 8x8 feet, with light-colored walls. It was a rainy day and overcast daylight poured in from an 8-foot-wide, 10-foot-high archway to the right of the camera. The walls of the foyer bounced a subtle amount of light back onto the shadow side of the model’s face. In essence, the effect created is similar to using a large studio softbox with a small amount of fill light from a reflector. Explore your neighborhood. The whole world is your studio!
1-6. Soft light came from slightly behind the subject, creating a classic short-light look.
The direction of light created in this image is classic Hollywood short lighting, used in countless movies—and usually in romantic scenes. Soft light comes from slightly behind the model to light the side of their face that is further from the camera (the “short” side). The front cheek is lit, but the front ear remains in shadow. This lighting direction shapes the front cheek nicely and casts beautiful light in the subject’s eyes.
Image 1-7 is a variation of the last shot. Instead of soft light coming from slightly behind the model on one side only, it now came from two sides. The model faced a doorway while standing under a long archway connecting two buildings. This was like a tunnel with the sides opened to the sky—an excellent “tunnel of light” location. Overcast daylight wrapped around the side of her face to shape her cheeks. Since she was standing close to the building she was facing, the light only partially wrapped around the front of her face. If she had stood further back in the archway, closer to the far building, the light would have come more from the front. A long archway like this can be effective in creating a variety of looks.
1-7. Soft light from the rear wraps around the subject’s face.
Here’s another secret “tunnel of light” location. In fact, you must be sworn to secrecy if I give this information to you. Maybe we should form a secret Tunnel of Light Society (TLS? The Tunnelers? Maybe the Mole People?). This spot exists right under your nose in your local park. It usually has a theme and lots of kids around. Yes, it’s the jungle gym.
The next shot (1-8) was actually taken beneath the rope bridge at a pirate-themed jungle gym. Overcast light spilled over the back of the model to light her hair, while the light from the front created flattering catchlights in her eyes. Thinking in subtractive light terms, the light was subtracted from above her head and from her left and right side. An added benefit to the jungle-gym experience was that the ground was covered with wood chips, which created a warm bounce light from below the subject. Feel free to use this location—hey, you might even want to photograph an actual kid there.
1-8. Overcast light was subtracted from the top and sides of the subject.
The next two shots (1-9, 1-10; next page) were done under an overhang at the entrance to an office building. The entrance was white concrete, making it much like shooting inside a big white box. The corners and walls of the entryway effectively flagged parts of the overcast sky to keep it more directional, from the front and rear only. On an overcast day, look for areas where the light can be partially blocked.
For the first shot (1-9), the model stood against one of the columns. The column and the overhang blocked the light to camera left and overhead, which, in effect, directed the light to come mostly from camera right. This created nice shading on her face and the top of her head.
1-9. Columns work well to subtract light and give it more direction.
For the next shot (1-10), the model sat on the white concrete floor in the same office entrance. Light bounced all around the “big white box.” If she had been sitting in a darker area, with the walls and floor painted gray, then the shadow side of her head might have been much darker. The light-colored concrete here effectively filled in the shadow side of her face. The light was still directional, though, since the overcast sky shone through the opening to the building at camera left.
1-10. The light-colored concrete effectively bounced light into the shadow side of the subject’s face.
Leaving the suburbs and heading downtown, you can find many locations to set up your next makeshift studio. Parking lots, alleys, and lobbies are great tunnels of light. Please be aware about photographing on private property, though. You may want to stick to public buildings, such as libraries and public parking lots. Even then, don’t be surprised if a security guard asks you what you are doing. If you are asked to leave, don’t worry. There are plenty of other locations.
This photo (1-11) was not done in the studio. It was taken at the street-level exit of a parking-lot stairwell. This is basically the inside of a giant gray concrete box with the right side open—very similar to the last shot. The space measured about 10 feet square and the model stood five feet in from the opening. The overcast sky once again acted much like a large studio softbox placed to camera right. The gray walls helped bounce enough light in to fill the shadow side of the model’s face.
1-11. A parking lot staircase functions perfectly as a tunnel of light.
Here is another high-tech studio setting for the tunnel of light: a freeway underpass! This image (1-12) was shot on an overcast day. I shot from a low angle about halfway back into the underpass. Accounting for all of the bright backlight and how it would affect my exposure, I used a center-weighted metering mode to obtain the correct exposure on the subject’s face.
1-12. A freeway underpass blocked the light from overhead, keeping it directional from the front and back only.
Image 1-12 was taken to show the light source for image 1-13. See that big triangle of white light behind the model where the underpass opens up to the daylight? There is another one of those behind the camera position. This is the light source—basically a huge triangular softbox, as seen in the triangular catchlights in his eyes. A soft but directional light has been created (or found) just off the Main Street exit.
1-13. This is what overcast daylight looks like when all of the light from above is blocked. It’s soft yet directional light—great for portraits.
These types of pre-existing studios are everywhere. You just need be on the lookout for them. The only difference when shooting this way is that you will have to position your model to catch the light, whereas when you are in the studio you can place the light to catch the model. Since the light is fixed outdoors, you may have to adjust the angle of your model’s face or body position so that the light is hitting them where you want. There’s no need to rush, though; you will have plenty of time to work with the consistent light on an overcast day. Anyway, your models will feel like they are having a more active roll in the shoot if you bark out instructions—“Chin up!” “Chin down!” “Eyes up!” “Head left!” “Relax your teeth!” (That last one always confuses them.)
Controlling the Quality of Light
The next image sequence shows how the quality of light can be changed by placing your subject outside, just a bit inside, or far inside the tunnel of light. These shots were taken on a partly cloudy day. There was some blue sky showing overhead, but clouds obscured the sun at the time the photographs were taken.
For the first shot (1-14), the subject stood on the front lawn at the entrance to a house. The overhead soft light made his eyes dark and gave him the notorious bags under the eyes that always result from an overcast day. For the second shot (1-15), the subject was moved back about ten feet to sit on the steps of the front porch. Since the porch blocked a lot of the overhead light, the light became more directional from the front. You can see that there is less light on the top of thesubject’s head and his eyes are
more brightly lit.
1-14. This is the classic overcast day look. The subject has dark eyes with bags. There are also hot spots on the nose and forehead. Not good!
1-15. Moving the subject under the overhang of the porch made the light more directional from the front.
For the next shot in the sequence (1-16), the subject was moved even further back to stand about a foot inside the now opened doorway. The light came entirely from the front, but it still remained soft. The eyes received much more light than in the previous two shots. Note that the interior walls of the house were several stops darker than the subject, being ten feet from the open door light source. Only a window in a back room is visible in the image.
For the final shot (1-17; previous page), the subject moved further back (another eight feet) until he was completely inside the house. The light source was still the open front door. However, because he was further away from it, the light source was smaller in relation to him. Notice the increased contrast in the quality of light that this distance created. A smaller light source produces harder light and higher contrast. Also, when compared to the previous shot, note that exposure of the room itself has changed in relation to the subject. Since the subject and walls are about the same distance from the open front door, they both receive the same exposure.
1-16. The subject is even further back, just inside the doorway. The light becomes even more directional from the front.
1-17. Light from an open door becomes higher in contrast as the subject moves further away from it.
So which is the best shot? It’s up to you to decide which of these setups would work for you and your subject. Some faces look better with very soft light. Others look best with a harder, higher contrast light. You could also try this same series with your subject turned 90 degrees to the light to create soft or hard side lighting. It’s all just light from an overcast day and you can control it.
Shoot a progressive sequence of portraits of a friend on an overcast day.
- Do the ugly shot. Position your subject directly under the overcast sky to give them the sunken eye look. It gets better from here. We just need a starting point.
- Subtract the light from above by flagging it. Either place some opaque material above your subject or move them under an overhang—a doorway or anything that will block the light from above. This will give the light direction from the front.
- Add a silver reflector from below your subject to lighten their eyes, create catchlights. and add overall contrast to the image.
- Move your subject further back under the overhang so that the light source becomes smaller in relation to them. This will result in higher contrast.