Dealing With Gray Days

Dealing With Gray Days

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It’s winter in the Pacific Northwest corner of the USA. You know, Seattle? That infamous gray place? Well, it’s gray today alright and looks to be gray tomorrow. On top of that, the days are pretty short with the winter solstice only weeks behind us. Once in a while we get a nice sunset when that hot ball of gas is kind enough to break beneath the clouds when they aren’t looking, just before it sets behind the Olympic mountains. Not to be seen for another 16 hours.

For the most part, though, it’s gray for a couple of months around here. Yet I still like to get out of the house and do some outdoor shooting. I won’t see any sun drenched beaches, Mt. Rainier glowing orange at sunrise or lush green fields and bright red barns shimmering in the sunlight tomorrow. That doesn’t mean gray is a horrible time to shoot; you just have to be a bit more creative. This then is a small list of ideas of what and how to shoot on a gray day.

Live With It And Learn From It

Sometimes the world appears dull, lifeless, flat. That’s just the way it is on these days and it’s nothing to complain about, it is simply the way it is. Ok, maybe if you have a shoot for a swimsuit calendar and need a sunny beach, you can complain. But chances are you would have headed to Hawaii. You’re not there, you are here, in the grayness.

Rather than letting your mind glaze over at the dull of it all, sit with it. Take a true critical look around your settings and pick apart what appears and is different in this light. Photography is all about light and you have light, you simply need to take a different approach to using this type of light. Learning the difference between a bright, sunny day and a gray day, in the minutia of a scene, can help open up a more critical way of experiencing light through your photography.

The Beach

Yes, the beach. I know I just bemoaned not seeing it drenched in sun, but that is no reason to avoid it. I live realtively close to a beach and have visited a number of times in the winter. Mostly on the few sunny days we have, but also when the sky is not blue and the water clear.

A beach takes on a completely different character during gray days. Water that stretches to the horizon will mingle with the sky, sometimes making one continuous spectrum. The shadows in the rocks and driftwood (in these parts) is softer and more life can often be spotted.

Close up

Gray days are an excellent time to break out the macro lens. Why? Because of the even lighting close-up subjects will receive. Think of it as Nature’s built in lighttent. Yes, there is less light in general, requiring a slower shutter, for instance. But the evenness of the tones without having to shade your subject is a great way to spend a gray day.

Think B&W

If the world around you seems too lifeless and dismal after two straight weeks of no direct sunlight, show that! There will be time enough for colorful photos when Summer rolls around. Now is a great time to touch up on the Zone System when colors are more muted and easier to understand in regards to that system. If the world around seems black and white, start using that to your advantage and practice more black and while photography.

Give It Grain, Capture Its Mood

Whether using a program in post-production or simply jacking up the ISO to 3200 and beyond, gray days and B&W photos sometimes scream for grain. I’m a bit biased here and this point in particular is quite subjective, I realize that. If I’m not trying for a super clean, pin-sharp representation of the scene in front of me, I often swing the other way with B&W photos and become very choosy about adding grain. Too much can ruin a picture for sure. Just the right amount can bring in other elements which can’t be represented by the photo alone, such as noise or cold or isolation. Starkness. This is an artistic area that can be fun to play with on a gray day.

The Industrial Side of Town

Back to the Think B&W item; take that idea to the industrial side of town and work the grain there. Shadows are typically reduced on gray days and more details can be brought out of dilpaitated old buildings and factories belching towards the sky. This isn’t the sunny, happy side of town, typically, and it is well represented in the shades brought about by evenness of diffused light. It also makes shooting up into tall buildings or smokestacks easier to meter and capture.

Conclusion

Gray days don’t have to end your shooting impulses. It does take some people more motivation to take photos on the blandest of days, but there is still a whole world out there begging to be seen in a new light. Don’t miss your chance!

What other ways have you found to explore light and photography on a gray day?

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Peter West Carey leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics - A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

Some Older Comments

  • Sara July 20, 2011 01:28 pm

    Great advice! I'm new to photography and live in Guangzhou where because of the pollution and stuff, the sky is grey way too often. If I would wait for a clear sky, I would only have handful of days to photograph!

    I've learned a lot from this blog during these two days after buying my new camera!

  • Singapore Wedding Photography February 9, 2011 11:50 pm

    I tend to avoid grey sky days. And when it happens, I often ahve no chpice but to go BnW. I'm a sucker for warm skies and grey days are really a downner.

  • lelinda January 22, 2011 06:03 pm

    You mentioned that youd have to be in Hawaii to get different shots.... hmmm my friend just returned and posted her photos from Hawaii and they are all pretty much grey. In fact she commented on it being gray quite a bit... guess not even Hawaii has any color these days... which is truly hard to believe... i imagine it to be the most colorful place in the world, what with all those aloha shirts and all! ;)

  • Phil Manning January 21, 2011 11:19 am

    Inspirational. Thanks!

  • mandi January 21, 2011 10:25 am

    actually the cloudy days are my favorite times to shoot in. i prefure the cloudy days.. i do portraits.. i have no studio just outdoors. check out my facebook page and become a fan if you want!! http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=376898450825&set=a.376898185825.166819.168213295825#!/pages/Andreasen-Photography/168213295825?v=wall

  • Chris Hansen January 21, 2011 09:00 am

    Gray foggy days are also superb for portraits. They offer a diffuse light unmatched by any other kind of weather. They are also great for shooting monochromatic scenes.

  • violetta January 21, 2011 07:41 am

    Thank you! I'd thought so too, about suiting our photographs to grey days instead of just complaining. :)

  • Trep Ford January 21, 2011 07:16 am

    I too live in the PNW, near the beach, thankfully. Two more tips I'd add ... (A) don't be afraid to warm up the color balance on those steely gray days. Just a touch of added warmth can transform a shot from lifeless to inviting. (B) By all means, hire a model and shoot on the beach no matter what the weather. Nothing warms up a shot like a warm smile and a few pleasing curves.

    Gray (or grey) weather is surely no reason to keep the camera in the bag. My wife and I have done some really fun shoots together, some outdoor, some indoor, all using outdoor lighting, some featuring her, some nature, all very enjoyable. You're the artist, use your creativity to bring some of the warmth in you to the images you create.

  • David Genac January 21, 2011 05:14 am

    Gray days provides a better opportunity to bring out the detail in subjects that are bright white. If the ground is covered with snow, the darker gray the sky, the better. Bright colors generally look very nice against a gray background, too. Rather than switching over to b&w on gray days, just look for subjects to photograph that are going to be complemented by the gray. That way, you are not limiting yourself creatively, but expanding your creativity. The great color photo can always be converted to a b&w photo afterward, but don't limit yourself to shooting stuff that will only look good in b&w, or that's what you'll end up with.

  • Jenny Dammann January 21, 2011 03:59 am

    Personally, I am giddy when a grey day comes along. Makes shooting on the clear setting SPECTACTULAR!! I much prefer to shoot on grey days versus sunny days.

    Maybe odd, but i do. :)

  • jmonhollen January 18, 2011 06:11 pm

    Wonderful article! I also live in Washington, and was just thinking the other day about getting out to take pictures in the grayness. I didn't even think of making these days B&W days! Love the timeliness of this article, considering we only get about 2 months of real sun.

  • ScottC January 18, 2011 09:57 am

    Good tips, a white or slate gray sky is a challenge, no color, no cloud texture, no nothing...and the camera "sees" even less than we do.

    I try to take as much sky out of the photo as I can, or put something between my camera and the sky if possible.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5292577625/

  • Lovelyn January 18, 2011 03:20 am

    This is a timely article for me. I just returned to the UK from a six week vacation in Florida. In Florida I wanted to photograph everything. Now that I've returned home to grey skies and dreary weather I don't even want to get my camera out of its bag.

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer January 18, 2011 03:05 am

    Being a west coast Florida photographer, many clients choose the beach for their photography session location. Though this is the sunshine state, there are cloudy and even rainy (like today) days......but as mentioned in the post, the beach on an overcast day I think is still a great location to use. For example, I photographed this family on a totally overcast day:

    http://jasoncollinphotography.com/blog/2009/11/25/honeymoon-island-state-park-candid-portrait-photography-lind.html

    I thought the clouds added some drama to the scene.

  • Bernd Ruecker January 18, 2011 01:35 am

    Nice Idea! I am adding a picture refering the beach-theme at a beach next to Barcelona / Spain. Hope you like :-)

    [eimg link='http://www.flickr.com/photos/8355896@N08/5363683270/' title='Grey imminence' url='http://farm6.static.flickr.com/5161/5363683270_bbb916e387.jpg']

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/8355896@N08/5363683270

  • dee_gee January 18, 2011 01:32 am

    You're lucky you only get two months of cloudy weather. In the UK we're lucky if we get two months of blue skies!

    Continuous dark grey overcast skies really does sap your motivation for outdoor photography, as everything just turns out looking crap! (In my case anyway). But thanks for the great article and suggestions which I will keep in mind.

    This is why I love this site as there's nearly always an article that's relevant to me in some way.

  • dee_gee January 18, 2011 01:31 am

    You're lucky you only get two months of cloudy weather. In the UK we're lucky if we get two months of blue skies!

    Continuous dark grey overcast skies really does sap your motivation for outdoor photography, as everything just turns out looking crap! (In my case anyway). But thanks for the great article and suggestions which I will keep in mind.

    This is why I love this site as there's nearly always an article that's relevant to me in some way.

  • Maik-T. Šebenik January 17, 2011 11:35 pm

    Very interesting article. Although I rather like to take photos on sunny days with a clear blue sky the "gray days" have their charm.
    Interestingly you wrote about shooting on Hawaii for perfect sunny pictures. Well, that's not a guarantee! ;-)
    Here's a photo of Diamond Head beach on a cloudy day:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/38524442@N05/3818745414/in/set-72157618884984717/
    Actually it bothered me to have no sun on that day, but I converted the image to black and white - and now I'm quite content how this picture turned out.

  • Kathy January 17, 2011 09:29 pm

    I live in England for 4 months now and all I've known since we've moved here is overcast and gray days. Our days become dusk at 4 pm each day. I don't know if I know how to shoot anything other than gray days. The real adjustment will be when the sun actually decides to peak through the clouds. I'm a baby photographer and just beginning to learn about photography. THis website has been instrumental in my learning process. I'd like to say "Thanks a ton for all you've taugh me and all you will continue to teach me". Has anyone bought the ebooks from Amy and is a subscriber to Focus mag? Wondering if it's worth the $97...thanks!

  • Sherry Ott January 16, 2011 09:31 pm

    Love the advice about adding graininess..never had thought about that before!

  • Jesse January 16, 2011 08:25 pm

    I live in Seattle and, sure enough, today is gray too. Just like yesterday. And the day before. And the day before. I just take it as an opportunity to use the light coming in through windows for inside shots.

  • Rick January 16, 2011 07:34 pm

    If you're going to show grain, I'd just that it be of the film variety (real or otherwise). Digital noise is just plain ugly.

  • KellyG January 16, 2011 03:33 pm

    Thank you so much for this inspiring article. Living in the Pacific Northwest certainly challenges the photographers eye. Just this morning, I peeked out the window and dismay came over me as it is once again -raining. But now I think I'll go out and shoot anyway! At least when the rain gives us a break for just a few moments! Thank you : )

  • beth January 16, 2011 03:14 pm

    I spent 3 months in Monterey, CA this summer. The sun is rarely seen for most of June and July, especially along the coast. I loved going to a nearby rocky beach (Asilomar State Beach for anyone who knows the area) and shooting the crashing waves on the rocks. My favorite days to do this were the cloudy, gray days; they impart a sense of restlessness in the ocean that the bright, sunny photos just don't capture.

  • Vladimir Krzalic January 16, 2011 01:49 pm

    This grey light has its own advantages over a sunny days:

    - You can easily sync with flash when working outside due to a low light levels
    - Beautiful diffuse light for life portraiture. No harsh shadows or blown out highlights too (that big soft box above your head)
    - Long exposure landscape shots that require much less ND filtering
    - Morning and evening foggy conditions for nice atmospheric shots
    - Easy BW foliage and macro, as mentioned...

    Hope though that you'll soon have some sunlight.. not for photographic purposes but for your own. Sun makes people smile more often and that is a huuuge difference!
    Cheers!

  • Gerald Boerner January 16, 2011 11:44 am

    Great ideas... It also works well on foggy mornings.

  • Valerie January 16, 2011 11:34 am

    Living in Western New York we surely have our share of Grey Days in the winter too. Although our days of darkness aren't quite as long as yours - maybe 14-15 hours on the longest days - it is hard to get motivated to go out and shoot more grey - white - brown shots. I miss my garden of flowers!

    Last year I made 2 collages (I am so very much an amatuer photog) 1 of the colorless winter and 1 a colorful winter. The colors are there (although I found they are much easier to see when the sun is shining) - the muted yellow and reds are all still there -

    Here is the link http://www.valeriescollages.blogspot.com/2010/02/blog-post_20.html if you want to see the comparisons.

  • Mike January 16, 2011 10:27 am

    I love shooting on grey days. The quality of light takes on a whole new dimension and it's one that you can work with throughout the day, not just during the "golden hour". Images taken under a grey sky can look flat but if you learn how to use this light it will transform your black and white photography.

    [eimg url='http://mikeholley.net/images/pier' title='pier']

    img]http://mikeholley.net/images/pier 2[/img]

  • Leo Mangubat January 16, 2011 09:57 am

    Yeah you're right. We all need extra motivation to shoot during gray days. But you know what? Why don't we add this to our weekly assignments to push us all to practice shooting on gray days. This will be fun don't you think so?

  • Nicky Heppenstall January 16, 2011 09:56 am

    We have more grey days in the UK than any other kind! Dull overcast is the norm, low oppressive bland grey skies. It's exciting when some sunshine breaks through! I will be shooting in b/w more to see if I can get more out of my grey surroundings.

  • Vrinda January 16, 2011 08:42 am

    We in gloomy England thank you for a little reminder that photography does not have to grind to a halt in the dullness of our winter. Great tips and call to action. Thanks!

  • Sophia January 16, 2011 08:29 am

    Great tips, the sunny days are just starting to return here in Paris. I now wish I didn't over look all the grey winter days as bad shooting opts. But I'm sure we will have a few gray days during the Spring and now I'm looking forward to them!

  • Kat Landreth January 16, 2011 07:54 am

    Thanks for the reminder that gray days are good for shooting too. Here in LA we get plenty of hazy overcast days, but like you've pointed out that just makes the sky a giant soft box. Hitting the beach is a great idea too. The clouds could make it look extra moody. Thanks for the inspiration.

  • Scott Speese January 16, 2011 07:14 am

    Great tips. I look forward to gray days as my Black and White days. Although we do have some industrial sites in my area, I also like looking for old forgotten buildings along rivers and streams. You could also look for rusted out decades old cars/trucks as well. Anything that seems to have a moody trait that just can't be captured properly on a beautiful sunny day would make for a great subject throughout the winter. Happy Shooting!!