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Dealing With Gray Days

Dealing With Gray DaysIt’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.


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
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.

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