Overcast Landscape Photography Advice

by Nov 18, 2021Photography Tutorials

Robin Whalley Landscape Photographer

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Overcast Landscape Photography Advice

Trying to photograph the landscape when the weather is dull, grey, and overcast can be extremely challenging. The best approach is to avoid these conditions by picking the day and location based on the weather forecast, but that isn’t always possible.

Fortunately, when faced with photographing an overcast landscape, there are things you can do to improve your chances of capturing a successful photo. In this article, I’ll explain some of the things I do when shooting overcast landscape photography.

Limit the Sky in the Scene

When photographing the landscape, it’s very tempting to shoot grand open scenes, even when it’s dull. But when the weather is overcast this seldom works. A straightforward way to improve most scenes is to try to keep the sky out of the composition as much as possible.

Often when shooting a large landscape expanse, the light is diffused by the overcast cloudy conditions. When this happens, it evens out the lighting across the scene, reducing the contrast and removing shadows. This can work for some subjects but usually, landscape photography isn’t one of these. Instead, it can remove interest from a scene, making it appear flat and boring.

A large expanse of flat, grey, dull sky will appear very boring, especially if it takes up a sizeable portion of the frame. Where the sky lacks definition, it’s best to minimise it in the composition. If you can leave it out completely, even better.

Limit the sky in the frame

Whilst this scene shows a large landscape scene photographed in overcast conditions, the composition limits the sky. By limiting the sky to the top 10 to 20% of the frame it’s possible to create a more interesting composition. This draws the viewer’s gaze into the frame and helps to hold their attention.

Switch to Black and White Photography

Most landscape photographers shoot with their cameras set to RAW format. This provides flexibility when processing, allowing you to make the decision of creating a colour or black and white image in postprocessing. Despite this flexibility, it still helps the visualisation to set the camera to shoot in black and white. You aren’t then bothered by the lack of colour in the scene and can focus more easily on the composition.

Having the camera in black and white helps you to see your composition and visualise the finished image. It also allows you to focus on shapes without the distraction of colour. This is a crucial element in creating great photography.

Point the Camera in a Different Direction

One reason overcast landscape photography is so difficult is that the sky often lacks detail. Without having cloud structure, there’s nothing to hold your attention and the scene quickly becomes boring. Sometimes pointing the camera in a new direction can be all that’s required to capture increased cloud structure.

Even a featureless sky can look different depending on your camera angle and the position of the sun behind the clouds. You can further enhance the sky in a scene with the use of filters like neutral density graduates as well as digitally in postprocessing.

Look for structure in the sky

Whilst I captured this image without any filters, I enhanced the sky in postprocessing. A further trick that’s been used is to dodge the foreground, make it appear lighter. This helps to balance the exposure with the light area of the sky on the horizon, which to hold attention in the scene.

Use a Long Lens

A long lens allows you to create compositions that crop into areas of the landscape. It’s even possible to omit the sky completely from the frame in many scenes. When you do this, you will often find that colour works equally as well if not better than black and white, as in this image.

Landscape composed with a long lens to keep out the sky

Because this scene omits the flat overcast sky, colour works well. The colours in this scene are enhanced further by the damp conditions on the trees. In fact, you could even enhance these further by using the next tip.

Use a Polarising Filter

When conditions are damp and light is diffused, you can find light is reflected off wet surfaces everywhere. When this happens, it tends to kill the saturation and colour in a scene. The way to combat this is by using a polarising filter on your lens.

After composing your image take a moment to rotate the polarising filter. As you do this watch for the effect on the scene in brighter areas where light is reflected. It’s quite likely that you will find a point where the saturation improves as reflected light is cut. Once you’ve found this position check which you prefer, reflection or no reflection.

Light reflections cut using a polarising filter to improve colour and saturation

In this image the light reflected by the wet tree trunk was stifling the colour and saturation in the scene. By using a polariser to cut the reflected light, it was possible to enhance the colours, so they appear strong yet natural.

Photograph in Woodland

When faced with overcast landscape photography conditions, try heading into woodland. Often woodland will photograph much better in these diffused lighting conditions than in bright direct light. When conditions are bright the dynamic range of the woodland scene is often too high for the camera to deal with. But in dull conditions the lighting appears even and much more attractive.

This overcast diffused lighting works well with forest scenes and is often further enhanced by objects being damp. Photographing in these conditions together with a polarising filter can produce excellent colour images.

Try Macro Work

Another way to omit an overcast sky from the frame is to shoot close and macro subjects. You don’t even need to use a macro lens for this. Instead, try using a long telephoto lens. It’s often sufficient to get you close to small objects as in this shot.

macro woodland landscape photography in overcast conditions works well

For this image I used a Fuji 16-80 lens with the Fuji XT3. The overcast sky produces even lighting across the frame and prevents deep shadows. By using a long lens to crop in its possible to focus on the subject and throw the background out of focus with a shallow depth of field. Woodland location is ideal for finding interesting subjects to focus on.

Don’t Give Up and Keep Shooting

It can be extremely tempting to give up when the conditions are hard, but don’t. You never really know when the subject will work, no matter how dull grey and overcast the landscape seems. Often you will find yourself taken completely by surprise, so keep shooting.

dont give up even when the conditions for landscape photography change from overcast to heavy rain

This image was captured during heavy rain and high winds. In fact, if you want to see the conditions, watch the video below.

Overcast Landscape Photography Video

The images in this article were all captured on the same day. The weather forecast was for dull grey and overcast weather but later, things turned ugly. Watch the video now to see the conditions deteriorate.

Subscribe to my YouTube Channel

You can also watch this video on my YouTube channel. I publish a new video every week, often based on subscribers’ requests and feedback. Subscribe to my YouTube channel now and be sure not to miss future videos.

Summary of Overcast Landscape Photography Advice

I this article I’ve shared my advice to help you shoot successful overcast landscape photography. Overcast conditions can be some of the most challenging for the landscape photographer. But if you follow these simple points, they can help you to capture compelling photography in the worst of weather.

All the landscape photography in this article was shot on the same day, when the weather conditions ranged from overcast to severe rain and high winds. Despite this I was able to capture several images which I like and would consider to be keepers.

The final piece of advice that I would leave you with is to mention the importance of good postprocessing. Trying to capture a great image in camera without postprocessing is almost impossible in these conditions. It’s the combination of good composition, working within the limits of the conditions and dull weather postprocessing that dictates the quality of your finished result.

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