Creating A Compelling Image When the Light Doesn't Cooperate
If you've ever talked with a photographer you know how much they obsess over good light. And while many of those photographers might tell you how important it is to have good light, I believe it's even more important to know how to find good images even when there is "bad light". Going out to photograph a place you've wanted to visit for a long time only to have no light can be pretty disappointing, especially if you've traveled far and won't be able to return to the location for a long time. That being said, this only makes the instances when the sky does light up in an array of colors even more special. Everyone loves that moment when you realize the sky is cooperating and you've got something really special. The images below are good examples of when everything came together. But when the light isn't great instead of being disappointed, if you’re able to find a good image it can be just as rewarding.
There are really two types of light that photographers consider to be bad light. The first one I want to talk about is when it's an overcast day with heavy clouds. While the clouds block any chance of having a colorful sunrise or sunset, it does have some opportunities to create good photos.
Having a dark overcast sky can really add to the mood of an image. In the first picture I think the dark sky works well to contrast the colorful landscape, and the rain from the clouds created a rainbow as well. It helps create a mood and depth to the image. In the second picture at Chimney Rock, the low clouds are creating a nice atmosphere that places the viewer into the image. Another benefit of clouds like these is that it really makes the fall colors pop.
Another benefit of overcast skies is that you can stay out photographing longer. While you don't get the nice golden light after sunrise, the light under an overcast sky is appealing as well and last much longer throughout the day. There are no harsh shadows like during midday under the sun. Instead you get nice soft light that makes it possible to photograph during the day.
I've found that many subjects look great under this light, especially forests. Forests are usually pretty busy scenes with tree branches all over the place, adding hard shadows of those branches and leaves during the midday sun only makes the photo more harsh. But under soft light they look much simpler and better.
Another example of this is with waterfalls. Many waterfalls look very pleasant under soft overcast light. The even lighting simplifies the scene making a more balanced image. An overcast sky is especially helpful if your composition wasn't planning on having the sky in it anyway. You can see that in both images, there are no heavy shadows that are distracting from the composition. For both waterfalls, the light looks very even all around the image. If light was shining on certain areas of these images it might take the focus away from the waterfall to other areas.
The last thing I'll look for when the sky is overcast is I'll look to photograph wildlife. Wildlife photography looks great with nice soft light of an overcast sky. I love photographing wildlife. It's a way to try something new and make the most of the weather. Similar to waterfalls and forests, wildlife also looks exceptionally well under nice soft light. While it is always better to photograph wildlife under great light, the soft light from overcast clouds can create great images as well.
While many photographers dislike overcast skies, I've heard even more proclaim that the worst type of light for photography is when there are no clouds in the sky at all. But just because there is no color in the sky doesn't mean you can't take a good picture. If the sky is looking pretty boring I'll just try to find a composition where the sky is not a focus. In the picture at window arch in Arches National Park, the sky certainly wasn't that spectacular so we went to this arch where the sky wasn't the focus. There was some nice sunlight hitting the side of the arch, which is a benefit of having clear skies. With no clouds, the sun light wont be disrupted resulting in nice direct light. The next image at Lake Isabelle in the Indian Peaks Wilderness shows the direct alpenglow light hitting the mountains. It also shows how having a crazy sky isn't a necessity, especially if you have a complex busy scene. With this composition there is a lot going on with the waterfall, alpenglow, and grass that having a simple sky can actually be beneficial. These images aren't mind blowing in any forum, but they are good examples of pictures that work well without a crazy colorful sky.
Another thing you can do when the sky is clear is stay up a little later and do some astrophotography. Having a cloudless sky is ideal for astrophotography so that you can see as many stars as possible. Many times when I'm out photographing a sunset my plan is to shoot sunset and if there are no clouds and the sunset is boring I'll stay to photograph the stars or ideally, the Milky Way. This allows me to either get a nice image of the sunset or stars at a location. The Maroon Bells image on the left and the Moraine Lake image on the right are two occasions where I either showed up early for a sunrise or stayed up late for a sunset and ended up getting two images of the night sky at these two iconic locations. Astrophotography is a great way to capitalize on a clear sky and is a great way to find a new take on iconic images.
Being able to adapt to the conditions is important and having a plan in photography is also important. I'll often have a photo in mind that I'm trying to capture but rarely does the sky and the weather cooperate which makes it even more important to be able to adapt and react to the light. Often the best images are the ones you can't plan for, when the light surprises you and does something you couldn't have planned for.