How to take spectacular photos on an overcast day

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When I travel, I stay several days in each place I visit to increase my chances of encountering a great light. But even a week is sometimes not enough to get a single colorful sunrise or sunset. Either the sky remains cloud-free or it is completely overcast, preventing any interesting light from breaking through. Night photography is one way to deal with clear skies. But what to do in gray weather?

When clouds cover the sky, you still have something to work with if those show structure. You can experiment with black and white photography and work on the details of these clouds. Or you wait for the blue hour to breathe some color into the sky. If it’s just a flat gray, you can try shooting woods, waterfalls, or subjects that allow you to exclude the sky from the photo.

But as the gray weather drags on, you’ll probably want to shoot some dramatic light at some point. The good news is that gray skies can give you just that if you head to the right place at the right time.

Light pollution

The absence of complete darkness can have a negative impact on plants, animals and humans. For this reason, light pollution is generally seen as something negative. Landscape photographers often try to avoid it to keep the illusion of untouched nature and show no signs of human civilization in their photos. For astrophotographers, knowing where to find the dark spots is even more important. Apps like Plan.it Pro or Lightpollutionmap help with this.

But if you want to turn a gray sky into a scorching one, you can use light pollution or skyglow to your advantage. In this case, you will be looking for a place with a lot of light pollution. These places are in or near major cities, which create what are known as domes of light at night. They can give gray skies with low and medium clouds an intense orange glow.

It happened while I was photographing Playa de la Arnia one morning. The city of Santander behind the cliffs in the distance lit up the middle clouds to create a dramatic scene that looks like a dramatic sunrise.

Skyglow is best experienced when the blue hour begins in the morning or when it ends in the evening. Because it’s quite dark outside, you’ll often need to expose for a minute or more to show landscape detail. An alternative is to increase the ISO of your camera, which will allow you to expose for less time at the expense of image quality.

I generally use high ISO shots to fine tune my composition in the dark and to get an idea of ​​how the glow will look in the final image. To the naked eye, it will often appear much less dramatic than what the camera reveals during a long exposure. A shorter exposure at high ISO can also help calculate the correct exposure time for the final shot at low ISO. If you need to expose for 10 seconds at ISO 1600 to get a good distribution of tones in the image, you need to keep the shutter open for 160 seconds at ISO 100 for a similar result.

To capture the full dynamic range of the scene, you should also include shorter exposures to prevent the bright orange colors from being clipped. Another technique you can apply is time blending, which I talked about in a previous article. If your foreground is too dark when you capture the sky glow, take additional shots during the blue hour and use them to reveal more detail via exposure blending.

In the morning, I usually keep my camera up after capturing the glow and take additional shots for the foreground once it gets brighter. In the evening, I start my photo session at sunset to photograph the complete transition from day to night. The photo of the Kuala Lumpur skyline shows how a gray sky at sunset first turns blue and then begins to pick up reflected light from the city.

Balance

It doesn’t always take as much shine as in the Playa de la Arnia photo to get an interesting result. Sometimes just a splash of orange or magenta in the sky is all it takes, as shown in the photo from Kuala Lumpur. If I had taken it later, the whole sky with most of the city would have turned orange. At that time, the image would have had a noticeable color cast, which is usually difficult to fix. If glowing city lights are the only light source in a photo, natural colors will fade behind an orange haze. For a well-balanced image, you’ll want to avoid this monochromatic look. The goal is to show at least one additional dominant color.

If you time your exposure correctly, the blue hour will provide that balance. At one point, the orange glow and the ambient light in the sky are in balance. This is the moment you should try to capture. Keep your camera in place throughout the morning or evening and take plenty of photos. Later, choose the one that shows the best colors for post-processing or combine multiple images to get the best result.

Photo editing

You have to be careful if you want to mix photos taken throughout a period of changing light. Blue hour colors often don’t mix well with those captured when the sky is bright. If your goal is to use the blue hour photos to reveal more detail while maintaining the colors of the bright sky image, you can use the Luminosity blending mode:

  1. Make the photo with the shining sky the base layer.

  2. Put the blue hour images on top and set their layer mode to Brightness.

  3. If there were shifts between different images, select all layers and use Editing – Automatically Align Layers….

  4. Apply a black mask to all layers except your base layer.

  5. Use a soft, white brush and start painting in the details.

In addition to these steps, it’s helpful to adjust white balance, brightness, and contrast during raw processing to better match photos before loading them into layers in Photoshop. This step is something you should do in preparation for any exposure mix. This will help you create much smoother results. If you equalize images properly, you don’t even need special masking techniques during blending.

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