Generally speaking, an interesting sky (clouds, sun, moon, etc.) make for more interesting landscapes… Unfortunately, though, we can’t always control all the variables. Here are some tips to still enjoy landscape photography, on gloomy grey days.
Even in a studio environment, as much as I’d like to, I don’t have full control over the subject. Mother Nature dished up one heck of a winter, complete with massive snowfalls, and ice storms. Terrible for people and business, but fantastic for a photographer 🙂
So, I find the time to go out shooting one cold winter morning, leaving very early to beat the sunrise…
I know the perfect spot for what I want: the warming glow of the sun rising, trees covered with ice and snow glistening in front of the clouds that are lit with oranges and yellows and reds from the sunrise. I drive to my spot, and drag out the gear (Nikon D800, Nikon 16-35VR, Nikon 70-200VRII and my Manfrotto tripod) and hike to the location, anticipating the sunrise.
Only it’s warmed through the night just enough to melt the freeze off the trees; everywhere but here is still ice/snow covered, but not this one spot. The sun rises, but there is so much cloud cover, you wouldn’t know it; the scene just goes from dark, to slightly less dark. It would be easy to just pack it in and call it a day; given the uninteresting sky many times I might do just that, but I decided to keep with it. Here are some ways to work around a dull sky…
Change perspective and use the grey to isolate
So I make the most of it; switch to the 70-200VRII to get tight on my scene, get really low to isolate a single tree on the perceived horizon line, and adjust white balance in post production to get a bluer and colder image, turning it into a cold and lonely tree.
Get the sky out of the frame
Seems simple enough, because it is. Find a composition that doesn’t rely on the sky to add drama. Look for interesting patterns, or lines. Use the grey to add some mystery (like the disappearing train tracks below), and make something else the dominant content in your image.
Balance against the grey
Contrast the grey with either bright and bold colours, or lots of darks (more often than not, the latter is more readily available on overcast days). Use black and white to really end up with a balance of three shades, white, middle and black, and aim for approximately equal proportions of each.
Head for cover, completely
Look for the interesting shots away from the sky. Go into the forest, and look for interesting mushrooms, ground cover, water features, or in the winter, frozen tree-lined paths.