Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone. As a street photographer from the UK I should be pretty familiar with my country’s glorious weather. But I must confess that the sight of a leaden grey cloud-filled sky still fills me with dread. And even more so if I’ve got my camera in hand. As someone who’s fallen in love with the magic potential of powerful natural light my shoulders drop when it’s cloudy, and I lose my mojo. But I’ve resolved to do better, as I can’t forsake all the photo opportunities out there just because the weather is pants. And living in the UK, with our miserable weather, I can’t afford to either, as I can’t expect all that much sun year round here. So, if you’d like to join me on my quest to better my street photography when the clouds come rolling in, read on for my top tips for street photography in cloudy weather and flat light. And, if you’re a really hardy soul who’s not in the mood to let a spot of rain dampen your spirits, don’t forget to check out my tips for street photography in rain and bad weather too.
Be prepared to use your AF system
From a technical perspective, one thing you may need to come to terms with when shooting in cloudy weather or flat light is how it affects your exposure. Bright direct sunlight makes a massive difference to exposure, and having to rely on diffused light really limits your options. Of course you will probably want to keep your shutter speed pretty high – I tend to favour around 1/500 as this allows me to shoot fast without worrying about my movement (camera shake, especially if I’m raising my camera quickly from my side) and also the movement of my subject. Of course with such a fast shutter speed I have to bump my ISO to compensate, and there’s only so high I can go with that until I reach the limit of what my camera can do. Which leaves aperture. I like to keep this as small as possible in order to give me a big depth of field so I can easily use manual focus and particularly zone focusing and the hyperfocal distance technique, but of course if the light is poor I have no option but to open my aperture up. Naturally this shrinks depth of field, often to the point where it can be very difficult to use zone focusing. When this happens, you sometimes have to be prepared to fall back on using your autofocus system on your camera. This isn’t the end of the world – with some careful use (particularly looking for high contrast areas) you can learn the strengths and weaknesses of your autofocus system and make it work for you.
Think about shadows and skin tones
One of the good things about shooting in cloudy weather and flat even light is the effect it has on shadows. In contrast to strong sunlight which produces high contrast and powerful shadows, cloudy weather gives a nice soft light, and with it a great opportunity for nice skin tones and gentle light fall off in the shadows. You can use this to your advantage to focus your attention on darker areas, or catch some great shots of people in places that you wouldn’t normally consider if you were paying attention to where the sunlight was falling.
One of the big challenges I find in flat light is separating my subject from their background. Without the high contrast effect of strong natural light I often find that all the layers of my shot blend together, which looks very boring. One of the best ways to overcome this is to focus even more on composition, and really work the layers. Try hard to find ways to lead your viewer’s eye around the frame, and watch the interplay of each dimension and layer in the frame. That way you can create a sense of three dimensions and depth in photos without the need for strong light and contrast. This has the added benefit of being useful across all aspects of street photography – and will also look great when shooting in sunlight too!
Spot clever links with Backgrounds
While you’re thinking about backgrounds for layers you can also look for interesting and clever links between your background and subject, which again, works well for any type of street photography, but is particularly useful in flat light because of the softer shadows. So you can spot clever or funny interplays and ‘interactions’ between things like posters, billboards or shop windows and a subject or person in your frame. The opportunities here are almost limitless, but it does require a lot of patience to execute sometimes – the perfect type of shot then for those times when you’re not trying to chase the light!
Look for Bright Colours
It’s very easy for street photos in cloudy weather to sometimes lack a bit of drama and punch. If you’re someone who shoots colour street photography you can use colour to its maximum potential to help inject some drama into your photos. Look out for people wearing brightly coloured clothing and make them the subjects of your street photos. The brighter and stronger the colour the better – things like hi-vis or day-glo jackets are perfect – like you see on labourers and often joggers too. The colours don’t have to be everywhere either – you can even spot flashes like hats, scarves or gloves that are enough to grab your viewer’s attention and make for a more interesting street photo. If you can work a link between those bright colours and your layers or background, then all the better!
Windows – Look Inside
Weaker light outside means that what’s going on inside takes on a whole new level of importance. Lights and scenes in shops can make for very interesting things to focus your attention on, sometimes with a good contrast to your ‘dull’ outside world too. So keep your mind open to the possibilities away from the street too, and particularly consider ways you can combine a subject on the street with a window display, or person inside a shop too. Or even just focus entirely on the window as a frame into an abstract inside world.
Use Artificial Light
If using the limited natural light isn’t working then you can explore your options with artificial light. Out on the streets there’s a host of artificial light sources you can work with to illuminate subjects for increased drama and contrast. Examples include light from those windows I mentioned above, street lamps, signs, car headlamps, cigarettes and lighters, and of course smartphones and phablets. Sometimes you can scope and pick these locations with artificial light and choose a spot and wait for a subject, other times you can just happen to spot something and act quickly to catch it, so always keep your eyes peeled!
Bust out the Flash
If all else fails and you’re feeling totally and utterly frustrated – don’t give up! With practice you will start to see more and more and be able to use the conditions to your advantage. But if all else fails, you can always bust out your flash and practice some off-camera flash street photography. Balancing your flashlight as a fill flash with a little exposure for your sky and background will give you some amazing punchy photos and best of all, you can keep on shooting and shooting for as long as you like!
What Are Your Experiences Shooting Street Photography in Cloudy Weather?
Hopefully you’ve found a few of my tips for cloudy weather and flat light street photography useful. It is something I admit I find very challenging, but a skill I feel I must develop if I am to further my ability as a street photographer. If you have any tips of your own for street photography in these conditions, drop us a comment below!