When you think of great light for photography, you probably picture a brilliant sunrise or the rich golden-hour glow. When the clouds move in, you probably aren’t excitedly grabbing your camera and tripod, and heading for the nearest natural icon… but maybe you should! Heavily overcast skies produce soft, filtered lighting… which can result in reduced contrast through the lens. Low contrast photographs are characterized by soft textures, and subtle shadows and highlights. It can be difficult to create images with impact when the light is less interesting… but it’s an excellent way to challenge your creativity!
When we visited White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, the skies were heavy with thick clouds. Skies like these filter and scatter the light so that shadows are all but eliminated. Minimalist compositions work especially well in conditions like these, so I pushed my tripod feet into the sand, and positioned the camera to remove all distractions from the frame. The smooth curve of the dune, understated colors, and the repeating patterns in the sand combine to create a spartan composition. Subtle imagery and subtle light go hand in hand.
I actually enjoyed the challenge of working with the weak light in such an interesting location. Rather than following the light and building a composition around the best part of the sky, I found myself free to let my foreground elements take center stage. I found so many interesting details in the sand – like the circular patterns in the sand that had been sketched by the grasses as they blew in the wind.
Fog creates low-contrast conditions, too – and it’s fascinating to work with. This shot from Banff National Park in Canada shows the gradual reduction of contrast that results from foggy conditions. Notice how clear the foreground appears. Contrast is much higher in the foreground, but as the distance increases, contrast decreases because of the moisture in the air. The result is a moody image with a heightened sense of distance and depth. You can use that fading contrast to create unique and beautiful compositions.
Overcast or foggy days call for a different mindset. We aren’t shooting spectacular sunbeams, crazy colors, or incredible cloud formations. Instead, we pay attention to form and texture. Notice the different colors that appear as the light changes, too. Subtle colors can be just as appealing as brilliant ones. Compare these two photos of the Pacific Ocean near Mana Island in Fiji. I took the first shot from a boat on a sunny day on our way to Mana. The intense colors in the water are so different from the softer colors that appeared late one evening as the sun was setting behind low-hanging clouds. For that shot, I waded into the waves with my tripod, and took the shot with a long exposure to smooth the surface of the water. Is one photo “better” than the other? I think both are appealing.
Of course, sometimes dull lighting can wash out colors and make the whole scene feel uninteresting. When color doesn’t add anything to the image, I start thinking in monochrome. This shot of Cannon Beach in Oregon is a perfect example. The sky was a dull grayish blue, and the blue tint to the light left the sand looking lackluster. On the other hand, the beauty of the landscape hadn’t gone missing! I waited until the incoming tide washed away the footprints on the beach, snapped a couple of shots as quickly as I could, and then grabbed my tripod and backed off as big waves covered those rocks in the foreground. A place like this doesn’t need a blazing sky to make it breathtaking. I took this shot knowing I would convert it to b&w. The emphasis is on texture, form, and tone – the colors in the original version feel like a distraction.
When the skies get heavy, don’t pack up the camera and head home! Low contrast light calls for creativity. Pull out your gear, change your mindset, and work the subtle light for all it’s worth! Embrace the challenge!