Taking Photographs on Overcast Days with Flat Light

What Type of Photographs Can I Take on Overcast Days?

A lot of outdoor photographers often write off cloudy overcast days. On a cloudy day, the light tends to very flat and not particularly interesting or dramatic. There was a time when I rarely took out my camera on days like this. I’ve come to realise however that there are in fact certain types of photography that are very well suited to overcast conditions. The flat light of a cloudy sky can act as a giant soft box creating a soft even light that makes setting exposure easy and is perfect for a range of subjects.

Using the Even Light to Capturing Details

You can use these days to focus on details rather than vast sweeping landscapes. The even light makes it easier to capture small details in flowers and plants for example without worrying about harsh shadows obscuring part of the subject. The next two photographs were taken in gardens on an overcast day.

Flat light is excellent for photographic close up details like these droplets on a leaf.
Water Droplets on a Leaf
The even light of an overcast day is excellent for close up photographs of flowers.
Yellow Flowers Close Up

Street Photography on Overcast Days

Street photography in overcast lighting conditions - Venice, Italy.
Women by a bridge on an overcast day – Venice, Italy

Capturing detail at street level is another great option on a cloudy day. The even light makes setting the exposure easy. You set it once and you don’t really have to worry about it again unless the light changes dramatically. This leaves you free to concentrate on finding interesting street scenes to capture such as these two women sitting having a chat by a bridge in Venice.

Street photography in overcast lighting conditions - Street Musician in Bucharerst Old Town.
Street musician in Bucharest Old Town

Cloudy days create the perfect conditions for shooting environmental street portraits like this one of a violinist in Bucharest Old Town. The cloud filtered even light is better than any studio lighting!

The flat light of an overcast day is suitable for photographing building details - house in Venice.
Courtyard in Venice photographed on an overcast day.

Overcast days are great for capturing the details on building facades. The sky was not particularly interesting the day I took this next shot in Venice so I just left it out completely and concentrated on this rustic house facade in a tiny courtyard.

Streetscapes are actually much easier to capture in flat light. Take a look at the two photos on the next page. They were both taken in Temple Bar in Dublin. In the first one, the light was too strong leaving one side of the street in deep shadow. In the second one, the overcast light allowed me to capture all of the detail in the scene.

Too Harsh Sunlight can cause exposure and contrast issues - clipped shadows and blown highlights.
Temple Bar on sunny day with a mix of bright light and deep shadows.

This version has plenty of exposure problems with clipped shadows and blown highlights.

Overcast Conditions - Flat Light - Street Scenes
Temple Bar, Dublin photographed in the even light of an overcast day.

The flat light allowed me to capture all the details in the scene in this version. There are no very deep shadows or overly bright areas. The light is quite even throughout the scene.

Street scene in Venice on an overcast day with flat light.
Street scene in Venice on an overcast day.

There is plenty of detail in all of the textures in this Venetian streetscape thanks to the even light.

Black and White Street Photography on Overcast Days

Black and white street photography is also a great option on overcast days. Take a look at these two examples from Dublin.

Black and White Photography in Overcast Light - O Donoghue's Pub in Dublin
O’Donoghue’s Pub Dublin on an overcast day.
Black and White Photography in Overcast Light - Cyclist on Merrion Square, Dublin
Cyclist on Merrion Square, Dublin.

Not having to worry too much about exposure settings allowed me to concentrate on finding interesting scenes to photograph in the above photos. I quite enjoy the freedom of shooting without a tripod during the day and simply walking around a location looking for interesting photographic opportunities.

Wildlife Photography on Overcast Days

The flat light of a cloudy day is ideal for wildlife photography. Once again, the light on such days lights the scene very evenly, making it possible to capture plenty of detail. As with street photography, you can concentrate your efforts on your subject matter rather than fiddling with exposure settings.

Wildlife photography works well in overcast flat lighting conditions.
Seer in the Phoenix Park, Dublin.

I rarely photograph wildlife but I was lucky to be there when this herd of deer crossed the Phoenix Park in Dublin. One deer suddenly stopped and looked back, possibly remembering he’d forgotten to turn off the immersion that morning.

Minimalist Style Photography on Overcast Days

Minimalist style photography in Venice on an overcast morning.
Minimalist photography in Venice, Italy

Featureless overcast skies are perfect for photographers who prefer a more minimalist feel to their images. The lack of detail in the sky above focuses the viewer on the street lamp and the church of San Giorgio in the distance. I’ve become increasingly interested in this more minimalist style photography recently. Most of my photos feature plenty of detail and bold colours. It’s nice to try something different every so often and move out of your comfort zone.

In the next tutorial, we will look at taking photographs from the evening to night time.

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Barry

I am a travel photographer from Dublin, Ireland. I specialise in urban, street, architecture and landscape photography. One of my favourite activities is wandering around a new and unfamiliar location with my camera at the ready. In the blog section, I share photography tutorials and tips as well as some of the stories behind my photographs and travels.

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