Call me crazy, but when I see the forecast calling for a cloudy day, or even light rain or snow on a day I am going out to photograph birds, I leap for joy. OK, best case scenario would be sun until one to one and a half hours after sunrise, then clouding over until one to one and a half hours before sunset 🙂 But please give me those clouds for the bulk of the day! Here are a few reasons why:
1- When the sun gets higher and stronger, so does the contrast, which becomes harsh and affects the quality of images once it gets too strong. Strong shadows underneath the subject become very dark and distracting (this is somewhat negated during the winter months for snowy countries, or at a beach with white sand as those act as reflectors, bouncing some light back up to fill in the shadows.) During the summer months if the sky is clear and the sun is strong I am often done by 9:30AM or 10AM unless I can find a good shaded spot. When it is cloudy I can be out all day to photograph in the soft light – who would not want to photograph birds all day!!
American Tree Sparrow, Canon 7D + 500mm f/4 II + 1.4TC III, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/500s., f/5.6, ISO 800.
The sparrow above was photographed during the midday hours, a time I would be back home doing some household chores had it been sunny out 🙂
2 – Cloudy days offer relief from sun angle issues. I like to photograph birds fully frontally lit, therefore I keep the sun directly at my back most of the time, give or take a bit. This causes a good 300 degrees or so of “wasted” opportunities around me as the light angle would be wrong should I turn around to photograph a subject. Add cloud cover and you instantly get 360 degrees of space to play with. Need to point your lens east during the morning, or west in the evening, or south any time? No problem! All of a sudden the full perimeter of a duck pond is good to go. A shoreline that is the “wrong” orientation for an evening shoot is fair game. The sandpiper below was photographed while I was staring roughly south-west during the early evening – a badly side/back lit scene had it not been cloudy, but instead the light is soft and even:
Semipalmated Sandpiper, Canon 7D + 500mm f/4 II + 1.4TC III, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/200s., f/5.6, ISO 800.
3 – Black birds and white birds, and especially black and white birds, are easier to expose properly in overcast conditions. The limited dynamic range of today’s digital sensors make for tough exposure challenges on these high contrast birds. Expose for the whites, some blacks may be blocked or much too dark. Expose for the blacks, and the whites become blown or much too bright. There is no fool-proof way (without the use of flash) to avoid having to process either one back to “real” tonality as we naturally see. The same can be said for some of the super saturated birds: have you ever tried to post process the reds of a Scarlet Tanager photographed in strong light? Yikes! Do add some clouds though, and all of a sudden exposing for both blacks and whites becomes a breeze! The soft even light of a cloudy day made it easy to expose for the whites and keep the black cap of the Common Tern’s head (and its eye) in check, in-camera:
Common Tern, Canon 7D + 500mm f/4 II + 1.4TC III, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/640s., f/5.6, ISO 800.
4 – During the winter, cloudy days usually offer relief from extreme cold temperatures, and in the summer it usually spells relief from hot, humid, high temperatures. There are exceptions of course, but more times than not this is how it is (at least for us in eastern Canada, and probably most of you in the NE U.S.)
5 – Clouds may bring unsettled weather systems, which means inclement conditions. Although many times challenging, those can bring lots of unique opportunities, with added drama to images. This is subject to a separate blog entry all in itself so stay tuned!
There are other, more minimal reasons that I love cloudy days but these are the main ones for me. So next time you cross a fellow photographer that complains about the light being terrible during a cloudy day, or wishing for more sun, just remember there are many advantages to those conditions that make it worthwhile to cheer for a cloudy forecast 😎
Horned Grebe, non-breeding plumage, Canon 7D + 500mm f/4 II + 1.4TC III, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/500s., f/5.6, ISO 800.
P.S. I was looking towards the south during mid-morning to photograph this Horned Grebe…try doing that successfully on a sunny day!