Dull day photography: what (and how) to shoot when the sun isn’t shining

Dull day photography: what (and how) to shoot when the sun isn't shining

No sun? No worries. There’s still opportunity for great pictures. In this tutorial we explain a few simple photography tips for making the most of dull days.

Words and images by Mark Hamblin

Dull day photography: what (and how) to shoot when the sun isn't shining

As humans we crave sunshine. It puts us in a better mood. It makes us feel good. It’s only natural then that as photographers we also crave blue skies and sunshine as we strive to capture those sun-kissed cheery feelings in our images.

But sunshine is not always as good a thing as you might think when it comes to shooting landscapes. In fact it can be a real problem in some situations, leading to high contrast, deep shadows, blown highlights and washed out colours. So it’s just as well that the sun isn’t always shining, as it gives us the chance to shoot some sublime landscapes on dull and dreary days.

Add water to your compositions
Fortunately, modern digital cameras are exceptionally good at dealing with low light and are capable of producing exquisitely detailed images in the dullest weather conditions imaginable.

Add to this the capabilities of post processing software that allows you to bring out the fine nuances of tone, colour, contrast and detail from your raw files and you have the tools to create amazing pictures irrespective of how bad the light might appear to be.

Of course you have to choose your subject with care. One ingredient that arguably works better than anything else in dull weather is water. Whether as a reflective surface, flowing through a landscape, or lapping onto a beach, water gives you something to work with in a creative sense.

On dull days, when light levels are inevitably lower than on a bright day, you have the luxury of being able to shoot moving water at slow shutter speeds to create silk-like ribbons through the landscape.

If dreamy waterscapes are your thing, find fast-flowing water, which might be anything from a tumbling mountain stream to waves crashing over a rocky coast.

Waterfalls are perfect for dull day photography

Waterfalls are also perfect for this treatment, but try to avoid any with too much white water, as this will be recorded as a featureless amorphous empty space. Instead look for water that falls in thinner rivulets, or fans out and breaks up as it cascades over rocks.

This will form a more pleasing pattern and will show up more distinctively against the darker surroundings. Often the most impressive looking waterfalls don’t make the best pictures.

On calm days, pools, lakes and even the sea act as a mirror to create perfect reflections of buildings, trees or mountains. In most cases is advisable to crop out the pale sky by using a short telephoto zoom in the range 70-200mm. This helps to concentrate attention on the main subject to form a simple but striking composition.

Experiment with the framing in terms of the ratio of the subject to its reflection, which can be a very precise central split or a 1/3 to 2/3 composition. Alternatively, shooting the reflection alone – especially if there are small ripples in the water – can create very effective images.

Away from water, think in terms of creating miniature landscapes by honing in on a smaller section of the wider landscape. Again, it is often best to avoid the sky in your pictures and instead concentrate on forming interesting compositions from the juxtaposition of key features such as walls, trees, isolated buildings or distinctive patterns in the landscape.

Strong colour combinations also work very effectively. Above all, keep your compositions simple with a clear focal point to create images that have a strong graphic appeal. Once you start down this road you’ll discover plenty of inspiration the next time you go out shooting in dull weather.

PAGE 1: Why you should add water to your dull day compositions
PAGE 2: Best subjects to shoot on dull days
PAGE 3: How to shoot waves
PAGE 4: Three essential tips for shooting in dull weather

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