When Bad is Good

What makes good weather for photography is often not what people consider good weather in general. A bright, sunny day usually makes for poor photographs because of the deep, harsh shadows that appear. Our eyes and brain compensate for this automatically when we look around a scene but once it’s been captured by a camera, the exposure is fixed. Theres nothing that our eyes can do, then, to help.

Lighthouse on the Pacific OceanWhat you need when bright sunlight abounds are huge, overhead, translucent diffusers. Meteorologists call these “clouds”. Yes, clouds are a photographer’s friend. They scatter the light so that there are no shadows, or at least no deep shadows. A camera can then record the entire dynamic range and produce images that look right when printed.

So don’t be afraid to go outside when it’s cloudy or threatening rain. That’s often when you’ll get your best pictures. The sky, too, can be more interesting this way than the nice, deep blue of clear day.

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8 comments to When Bad is Good

  • I thought you didn’t like shooting in the rain??? I love shooting in bad weather, although I’m nervous that I’ll drown my D80.

    Brian, Scotland trip is off.. California instead.. Let me know when you head out that way, maybe we can spend a day shooting.


  • I don’t like being out in the rain! I’m a fair-weather outdoorsman by nature. But, I can brave some clouds now and then for shots like this one. I got lucky, really… It would rain for a while and then stop for a while. I just wish I’d had my lens hood. There were a few tiny drops on the front of the lens, but they didn’t seem to affect the picture quality.

    I’m in CA until late February, and then back from mid-March to mid-May.

  • Thanks for commenting on our blog, Brian. You are right, of course, about blaring sunlight creating too dark shadows. We should have added that pictures should be made early in the morning or in afternoon to avoid bright sunlight.

  • Well.. I’d say – it depends. Many years ago, me photography teacher used to say that cloudy day is best day to shoot. And i always agreed with him. But then times passes and you hitting places like Moab, where you getting best colours on clear sky and morning/evening angles.. Or you getting in places like sand dunes – where you getting true and interesting shapes only when sun hit them just right.

    So in my opinion – it always just depends on type of things you trying to shoot. Light is just paintbrush. You cant use same brush to draw all the pictures in the world.

    And to help with some harshness – you can always use HDR for digital, and film pushing for.. well.. film 🙂

  • A good point. The best conditions depend first on what you are trying to photograph. If the play of sunlight on the land, and the harsh shadows that can come from it, are part of the effect then cloudy weather will just ruin it.

  • I can’t agree more to what you said about sunny bright day being too harsh to us, the photographer. I live in Malaysia where you will get almost summer all year round and almost daily sunny spell. That’s why sometime I have to shoot outdoor scene by hiding under the tree. And of course I will loose the dynamic range and unable to produce images that look right when printed. But I have no choice as I don’t own that expensive filters and diffusers. See sample of photo I took in Malaysia, here: http://item.slide.com/r/1/0/i/OnbYna_jqChM07qVOvWjry8QxA6_Sv9k/

  • Another option is to try HDR. Basically, you capture several images at different exposure and then merge them in a computer. You can then play with curves to your heart’s content or use “tonal mapping” to compress the dynamic range by skipping those ranges that are almost empty. (That’s a very simplified explanation.)

    I have an article I’m writing on that… Stay tuned.

  • […] drove up to San Francisco on Saturday, but it wasn’t a very good trip. The weather was bad (too bad to be “good”) to the point where I didn’t even want to get out of the car. As night came though, the rain […]

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