Good Photos in Bad Light: Remedies for the Blahs!

There is no such thing as bad light; just bad photographers!

Anyone who has taken an oopoomoo workshop has probably heard us say the little mantra above. Whenever there is no sunrise or sunset or the clouds roll in, most photographers think the light is bad and therefore there is nothing worthwhile to photograph! Of course, there is always something that looks great in the light that nature offers up. We need only be open to seeing the possibilities!

Sometimes, though, you need just a little push to help you learn to see… most often we give our workshop students directed assignments to help them take off their ‘tunnel vision glasses’ and see the world in a new and open way. If you can’t make it to one of our workshops for our teaching assignments then our Learning to See eBook will help you with personalized exercises in visualization.

Another way to ‘cheat’ the grey day blues is to try a fresh camera technique or two to get you thinking outside of the ‘good light’ box. Below are a few tips I shared with readers of Outdoor Photography Canada magazine a few years back. I hope they help you see the good in ‘bad’ light.

©Darwin Wiggett - Good photographers see great opportunities in bad light!

©Darwin Wiggett – Good photographers see great opportunities in bad light!

Shoot Tight 

The easiest way to get better photos from flat light is to shoot tight. Simply eliminate that overcast sky and concentrate on details in the landscape. On overcast days I often just ‘look at my feet’ to find intimate details that are otherwise easily overlooked in the hunt for the grand landscape. This technique often nets me pleasing images on grey days. Digital cameras love the even light of an overcast day and can render complete tonal detail from the darkest areas to the brightest highlights. “When the sky is white, shoot tight”.

©Darwin Wiggett - Cameras record details beautifully in overcast light!

©Darwin Wiggett – Cameras record details beautifully in overcast light!

©Darwin Wiggett - In grey light shoot tight!

©Darwin Wiggett – In grey light shoot tight!

On overcast days try mounting a telephoto zoom onto your camera and ‘extracting’ details from distant scenes. I regularly use my 70-200mm zoom or my 300mm telephoto lens to pull out small scenes of a distant landscape.

©Darwin Wiggett - Telephoto lenses can help you shoot tighter to eliminate the bright skies of an overcast day.

©Darwin Wiggett – Telephoto lenses can help you shoot tighter to eliminate the bright skies of an overcast day.

©Darwin Wiggett - Use a telephoto lens to abstract    landscapes when the light is flat.

©Darwin Wiggett – Use a telephoto lens to abstract landscapes when the light is flat.

Shoot Long 

Often overcast days are windy. I can get hamstrung by the wind when I try to get sharp detailed shots of vegetation in grey light. Rather than giving up, I work with the wind to give me images that show the motion and fluidity caused by the wind. I simply set my camera (on a tripod) at a large aperture number in aperture priority (e.g. f16) and use low ISO settings (e.g. ISO 50 or 100) to give me longer exposure times so the movement of vegetation shows up in the image. To give me even longer exposure times I might add a polarizer and a  solid neutral density filter to my lens to give me even longer exposures that I call painting with time.

©Darwin Wiggett - A 30 second exposure of blowing vegetation turns this forest scene on a grey day into a painterly image.

©Darwin Wiggett – A 30 second exposure of blowing vegetation turns this forest scene on a grey day into a painterly image.

Add Colour 

Grey light often means drab colours. One of the best ways to punch up lackluster colours is with a polarizer. Polarizers remove reflective glare from shiny surfaces like leaves, wet rocks, and the surface of water to give images with more vibrancy. Polarizers are easy to use – just screw one onto your lens and rotate the filter to see the polarization effect wax and wane. If you like what the polarizer does to the scene, snap the photo.

©Darwin Wiggett - This overcast day image was shot without a polarizer.

©Darwin Wiggett – This overcast day image was shot without a polarizer.

©Darwin Wiggett - The same scene shot with a polarizer.

©Darwin Wiggett – The same scene shot with a polarizer.

A specialty polarizer called the Gold-n-Blue polarizer is one of my favorite filters for adding colour to monochromatic scenes in grey light. Rather than removing reflective highlights from a scene, the Gold-n-Blue polarizer colours the highlights either gold or blue for dramatic images. Compare the photo on the far left (no polarizer used) with the photo middle left (shot a standard polarizer). The benefits of a polarizer are obvious! Now compare how the Gold-n-Blue polarizer can colour reflective highlights in tones of blue (middle right) or tones of gold (right) with just a turn of the filter. To learn more about filters see our free article: Why Every Landscape Photographer Should Use Filters – Still!

©Darwin Wiggett - a comparision of effects with a standard polarizer and a gold-n-blue polarizer.

©Darwin Wiggett – a comparision of effects with a standard polarizer and a Gold-n-Blue polarizer. 

Add Light 

When nature gives you plain light, you can often spice up the dish by adding your own supplemental light. A touch of fill flash or maybe some alternative light sources like flashlights, headlights, or street lamps can often add that little extra zing to take your drab light photo to the next level. You will usually need to wait until dusk to add supplemental light because even though grey days are dim, the overall ambient light is much brighter than the light from man-made light sources. I find that the shooting at dusk when the brightness of your supplemental light source is slightly brighter than the ambient light results in interesting photos. Using supplemental light with longer exposures is call ‘light-painting” and you can read more about that technique in our free article on light painting.

©Darwin Wiggett - Here I used a flash light and a long exposure at dusk to add light to the tree trunks.

©Darwin Wiggett – Here I used a flashlight and a long exposure at dusk to add light to the tree trunks.

Take Away the Bright 

If you want to include the grey sky in your composition usually the sky is so bright that if you expose for the foreground then the sky will burn out to glaring white. To keep detail in the photo you will need to use a specialty filter called a neutral density graduated filter which holds back exposure in the sky while allowing full exposure of the darker foreground. Combining a polarizer with a grad filter gives you a one-two-punch of contrast control! If you are new to using grad filters we have a video tutorial you can watch here.

©Darwin Wiggett - No filters on the left image; a polarizer plus a 2-stop soft-edge grad filter were combined to record the image on the right.

©Darwin Wiggett – No filters on the left image; a polarizer plus a 2-stop soft-edge grad filter were combined to record the image on the right.

Shoot it Wet 

Don’t let a little drizzle and grey skies ruin your outing. You can get great shots in the rain especially since vegetation looks really saturated when wet. Remember to use your polarizer to further increase colour saturation. I often just use two rubber bands to hold a plastic grocery bag over my camera and lens to keep them both dry while I venture forth in the wet weather to find dripping colours. But you can buy specially made photographic rain covers if you want a solution more user-friendly and elegant-looking than my plastic bag and rubber band contraption. Check your local camera store or type in “camera rain covers” on your internet search engine for a pail full of solutions.

©Darwin Wiggett - During or after a rain, colours are super saturated. Be sure to use a polarizer to remove reflective glare!

©Darwin Wiggett – During or after a rain, colours are super saturated. Be sure to use a polarizer to remove reflective glare!

Go Out Anyway 

I used to play a game while on photo trips. I would wake up at the sound of the alarm and stick my head out of the tent – if it was overcast, I would sleep in. If it was clear or mixed clear sky with cloud I would get up. Numerous times I went back to bed only to be awakened by brilliant colours effusing through the tent walls. Sure enough my overcast, ‘bad’ light wake up call burned me and I missed great light by assuming a grey sky would not yield spectacular colour. Now when on photo trips I always get up and out with the ring of the alarm and many times I have been rewarded with spectacular light even when the sky was totally cloudy and rain was spitting from the heavens. Being out there is the key – the more you go out in all types of light the more great shots you’ll come home with.

©Darwin Wiggett - When bad light turns good!

©Darwin Wiggett – When bad light turns good!

And Finally…

What separates great photographers from good photographers has little to do with gear or camera technique and everything to do with creative vision. Great photographers see the extraordinary in the ordinary and can translate their wonder into images. There is nor shortcut to creative vision except for practice, practice, practice and shooting images that have meaning for you personally.

©Darwin Wiggett - Personal seeing will trump bad light every time!

©Darwin Wiggett – Personal seeing will trump bad light every time!

About the Author

I am a Canadian landscape and outdoor photographer who loves long hikes in the woods, yummy food, hairy dogs, good company and a good guitar jam.

7 Comments

  1. Anne Jutras
    January 22, 2015

    Great advices Darwin!
    Never underestimated gray skies, there may be lots of treasure to photograph.

    Reply
  2. Fran Gallogly
    January 22, 2015

    Wonderful blog!

    Reply
  3. George
    January 22, 2015

    With the digital camera I can mess around with lighting by slowing down or speeding up the shutter speed and open or stop down. Keep what I want and delete the rest.
    Great tips on taking photos on an overcast day or in light rain for better colours.

    By the way I’m still on the pending list on your Facebook page

    Reply
  4. Carolyn
    January 22, 2015

    Great article and I love your photos!

    Reply
  5. Charlie
    January 23, 2015

    Cool. I liked your long exposure picture. I’ll keep the technic in mind.

    Thanks 🙂

    Reply
  6. Darrell Uruski
    January 26, 2015

    Great article, well written and very helpful!

    Reply
  7. Allison George
    January 27, 2015

    Thanks for sharing Darwin…Great tips

    I really like the pen & ink sketch feel to the light is flat abstract shot

    Reply

Leave a Comment

Top