Nature photography relies on capturing your subject in the best natural light. Often the best option for a subject is to take your photos on a cloudy day, so photographers should not be discouraged by waking up to grey skies.
Great nature photography relies on good natural light above all else. Even a beginner soon learns that for most landscape photos, the best results are usually early in the morning and late in the afternoon, when the sun is low, and the light is soft and colourful. This is a terrific rule to follow in most situations, but busy lifestyles do not always allow us to choose the perfect conditions for our nature photography.
Have you ever planned and set aside a day to get out and practice your nature photography, only to wake up to grey, cloudy skies? You are not alone, this happens to us all; professional and beginner alike. And of course when you are traveling, you often only have one chance to take your photos before moving on, so you have to make the best of the situation as you find it.
Photographers, don't despair. There are many situations that suit cloudy skies just fine; in fact, there are some situations when cloudy skies are the best option for a good nature photo. Here are just a few situations that you could explore when cloudy weather threatens to derail your photography outing.
#1. Rainforest Photography. When the sun shines through the trees in the forest, it creates a patchwork of light and shade that makes correct exposure almost impossible. You simply can't manage the contrast in these conditions. Cloudy weather is actually the best way to take good rainforest photos. Some would say the cloudier the better, because if your rainforest is high enough to be in the clouds, you can capture some very atmospheric misty effects in the forest.
I live in South East Queensland, so I am close to both the beach and some fabulous rainforest. My rule is: If it's sunny, go to the beach. If the weather is grey and cloudy, grab your camera and head for the rainforest.
#2. Wildlife Photography (Pets and People Too). Bright sunlight can be a problem when shooting wildlife. In the middle part of the day, the sun can create heavy shadows which make exposure difficult, and rob your photo of essential colour and detail that gives the subject its character. Worst of all, sunlight can create shadows on the face of your subject. As you know, the critical part of any good wildlife photo is the eyes. If the eyes in your photo are lost in shadow, the personal connection with the subject is lost.
Animals do not like looking into the sun any more than you do, so even early in the morning and late in the afternoon, when the light is softer, photography can be difficult. More often than not, you will probably find your subject turning away from the light.
If you take your photo on a cloudy day, you can capture your wildlife subject in soft, even light that allows perfect exposure without ugly shadows. There will also be less glare reflecting off shiny surfaces (a snake's skin, a bird's feathers etc.) so your picture can actually appear more colourful.
#3. Sunset Photography. Clouds create a much more interesting sunset photo than clear skies. All you need is for the sun to break through the clouds as they cross the horizon. A good nature photographer learns to read the sky and try to predict what is coming. Often on a grey, cloudy day you will notice that the only patch of clear sky is far away near the horizon. If that is the case, you can go looking for a good location and set up for your sunset photo.
With a bit of luck, there will be several breaks in the clouds before the sun goes down. If so, you could be on the spot to photograph spectacular sunbeams, a truly wonderful effect that every nature photography hopes to capture.
Like all things in nature photography, all the planning in the world means nothing without a bit of luck. You may get your photo all set up, only to see the gap in the clouds close and your chance of a good photo disappear. Persistence wins in the end, so keep trying and from time to time you will end up with some breathtaking sunset photos.
I hope that next time you wake up to cloudy skies, you will not let that stop you from getting out there to take some great nature photos. As your experience grows, you will find it easier to read the light and know what sort of photography suits the conditions. Until then, practice, practice, practice!