Shoot on Cloudy Days to Add a Little Drama to Ordinary Portraits

There are a lot of photographers that put their cameras away when the clouds roll in, but for others, that’s when the fun’s just getting started.

In today’s post I will provide some tips and tricks that will help you make the most of shooting on cloudy days.

Shoot in RAW

Using clouds as your background can cause exposure headaches, especially when you have the sun behind them. You’re likely going to have very bright sections along with very dark ones. Shooting in RAW Mode will allow you recover a lot more detail. I use Photoshop’s “Shadow/Highlights” tool along with some masking to give me a better range of contrast.

This is important because you don’t want blown-out areas in your clouds, they’ll look a lot richer if they have detail.

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Use Flash

When you place your subject against a bright background, either their face will be underexposed or the sky will be overexposed. Using off-camera flash is a great way to brighten them up and really make your photo pop, but it also introduces a new variable. Not only do you have to get the correct exposure in your skies, you’re also going to need to figure out the flash exposure on your model.

The easiest way to do this is to expose for your sky before you do anything else. Start off at with an aperture of f/8.0, ISO 100 and a shutter speed of 1/200.  Put your model where you think you want them and take your shot, (make sure to get a lot of the sky in your shot, this may require you to shoot from below in some cases).

Next, take a look at the back of your camera, if you’re over exposed, try stopping down your aperture to f/11 or f/16. Keep stopping down until you’re where you want to be.

Then bring in your lights. If you’re using small flashes, you most likely won’t be able to use any light modifiers, you’re going to need all the power you can get. You may be forced to use a bare flash at a very close distance. I wrote a blog post a few months ago that offered a suggestion on how to get around this limitation.

Hint, in very bright conditions where the sun is present in your scene (or just behind the clouds), you may have trouble darkening your skies enough. Try placing your model so that they’re between your camera and the sun. This usually eliminates the problem plus it gives your  subject a really cool glow.

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Go Wide

I like to shoot wide when I have a lot of good detail in the sky so that I can fit more of it in my image. I think it looks more dramatic that way. A word of warning though, when you shoot wide and you’re down low, you’re probably going to have to do some perspective correction in Photoshop to compensate for the distortion. I use the Transform Skew tool for the job.If you’re lucky enough to own a perspective tilt (or shift tilt) lens, this would be a good time to consider using it.

napa wedding photographerWatch Your White Balance

Be sure to take white balance into consideration. On cloudy days, your shadows can take on a blue hue.  In some cases, you may have to warm up your flash a little with a 1/2 cut CTO gel.

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Plan Your Shoot Soon 

Certain times of year seem to produce more dramatic skies that others, usually you see the most interesting clouds in the late winter or early spring.

That’s it for today, thanks for visiting.

The Napa Photographer

About The Napa Photographer

I am a Napa California area photographer specializing in portrait and wedding photography. I would describe my style as “environmental portraiture”, I like to shoot on location and try to seek out the most interesting backgrounds.

I am the organizer of a local group, I provide bi-weekly lighting and portrait workshops, you can find my group at:

My main photography site is:

I use a Canon 5D and about a dozen Canon 550EX’s triggered with Pocket Wizard Flex TT5′s.

Category(s): ambient light, exposure, off-camera-flash, photoshop, portrait photography

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