Photographer Jim Zuckerman talks about the advantages of shooting when there's a thick cloud cover in the eleventh article of his fifteen-part series on landscape photography.
Jim Zuckerman's images and articles on photography have been featured in hundreds of publications, and he has taught at many institutions, as well as through his own workshops. He is the author of 22 books on photography. To learn more about his work and subscribe to his emagazine, visit his website.
Photographs © 2009, Jim Zuckerman. All rights reserved.
One of the best times to photograph landscapes is when there is a thick cloud cover and the lighting is very soft on the land. This is contrary to what many photographers believe. However, many of my favorite (and most salable) photographs were taken on cloudy days. The advantage of overcast conditions is that contrast is at a minimum. You don’t have black shadows with little or no detail or highlights that are on the verge of overexposure. At the same time, patterns of highlights and shadows don’t cause distracting patterns that interfere with the composition and that compete for attention with the real subject. Patchy sunlight in a forest, for example, sets up mottled patterns that detract from the scene. The same landscape taken on a cloudy day is much more beautiful and much more photogenic. The top image and figure 11.2 are good examples. The river scene I photographed in the Great Smoky’s National Park is successful specifically because the lighting was so diffused, and Merchant’s Mill Pond State Park in North Carolina is similarly attractive due to the soft lighting.
One of the problems in photographing forests or jungle scenes is that the canopy casts shadows on the forest floor. The contrast of the results makes photography very difficult if not impossible. Photo 11.3 was taken in a swamp in South Carolina, and the lighting was similarly softened by a cloud cover. The sky was constantly changing, however, and sometimes the sun would peek through the clouds and cause patchy lighting on this swamp scene. I had to wait until the sun disappeared again to take the picture. You can see in figure 11.4, a shot I made in Kenya, that when the sun is out the patchy lighting is so contrasty that it’s just not attractive. There are black shadows and patterns of light and dark, and all of that distracts attention from the magic of the landscape.
The only disadvantage of shooting when there are overcast conditions is that if you include the sky in the composition, more than likely it will be lighter than the landscape. Sometimes it may even be completely white, which is often distracting. Once in a while this is OK, but usually it isn’t. A photograph that I like very much is a maple tree against white sky (11.5). In this particular case, I think the white sky works very nicely. It’s almost like a studio backdrop where you have nothing interfering with the subject at all and therefore all of your attention has nowhere else to go but toward the compelling subject. A very different kind of picture is figure 11.6. This was taken in Yosemite National Park under a thickly overcast sky in the midst of a snowfall, and the white sky in the background works in this case as well. In both of these pictures, the light is very diffused and therefore complementary to the subjects.
Fields of flowers always look better under overcast skies. The wildflowers I photographed near Austin, Texas (11.7) are a great example. Look how rich the colors are, even though the sun was not out. Contrary to popular belief, the colors of flowers are richly saturated in the absence of direct sunlight. Keukenhof Gardens near Amsterdam also benefited from an overcast morning as seen in figure 11.8. In fact, I photographed there for about two hours before the sun finally broke through the clouds. That ended my landscape photography in the gardens. I had to go inside their huge greenhouse to do macro work because I had the advantage of frosted glass in the ceiling of the building to diffuse the light just like clouds had done earlier in the morning.
Diffused daylight from an overcast sky has the same effect on autumn foliage. The red, orange, and yellow colors are much more intense under an overcast sky. Image 11.9 would not have been as beautiful if the sun had been shining on it directly.
The reason why studio photographers use large soft boxes or white umbrellas with their strobe equipment is to soften the light just like a cloud cover does to the sun. With the absence of contrast, detail is much more pronounced in the subjects that you photograph. Look at the rich detail in the color in the falling water in figure 11.10. This is Tahquemenon Falls in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and I would have been disappointed had the sun been out. If the sun had been shining directly on the scene the contrast would have been such that that kind of detail would have been obscured by the contrasty lighting.
Read the full series:
- Shooting at Sunrise and Sunset
- Dominant Foregrounds
- Mid-Day Lighting
- Shooting into the Sun
- Black and White
- Aerial Perspectives
- The Human Element
- Overcast Weather
- White Balance
- Depth of Field
- Shooting Snow