Using Light - When is Overcast Better?

Using Light - When is Overcast Better?

I often hear wildlife photographers talking about which lighting is better, overcast or sun. There are many different reasons given for one being better then the other. Over the years I’ve found my own opinion changing and only more recently do I feel like I’ve got a much better handle on which is truly better. The short answer is that it depends on the location and subject.

During the spring of 2017 I spent a lot of time in the forest trying to photograph warblers. For this location and subject I think overcast is the perfect light. I’ve found many advantages to overcast light for birds in the forest when compared to a sunny day. First and most importantly is the lack of heavy shadows with overcast light. When photographing birds that like to hang out deep in the trees, leaves and shrubbery as warblers tend to, not having to contend with harsh shadows and bright sunny spots either on the subject or in the background is key. It allows me to photograph these birds on any perch they decide to land on as long as it’s unobstructed and has a nice background. You also have the advantage of much longer shooting times because the light generally stays the same all day when overcast. On a sunny day sometimes only an hour or two after sunrise the light can already be harsh and unflattering for wildlife photography. It’s great to be able to shoot for 4–5 hours and still have usable light.

Secondly, the colors of the forest really start to pop in overcast light. Without really bright and dark spots from sun, all the leaves of the forest take on a soft saturated green that usually makes a colorful bird stand out. Add to that a light rain and the forest really takes on a lush look. I spent a few mornings in a good soaking rain photographing birds and I was thrilled with the results. 

I personally enjoy trying to photograph birds by shooting through foreground elements such as this Chestnut-sided Warbler below. He was perched in some cover but I was able to find one small clearing to shoot through and it gave me this wonderful out of focus foreground. Again, thanks to overcast light the foreground leaves and branches I was shooting through were not really bright and allowed the bird to stand out in the image. 

One of the downsides to overcast lighting can be the overall lack of light. It is true that having a fast lens (low aperture number) and a camera body that can handle higher ISOs is certainly a benefit when in the forest without much light. If however you don’t have access to either or both of those, working the edges of a forest along a field or road can still give you the benefits of the soft overcast light but give you a little more light to work with. 

Another concern with overcast lighting can be a lack of direction to the light which can result in flat or colorless images. Finding birds in the forest can help to create some direction to the light as it shines in from under a tree or through an opening in the dense leaves. Hopefully some of the included examples show you how you can still get some direction and “shape” to the light on overcast days. 

There are however locations when overcast is not ideal. Below are two examples of when I feel overcast light is not ideal. When photographing shorebirds on an open beach overcast light becomes very dull, flat and lacking contrast. While both of the photos below are sharp and well exposed they do not have much dimension to them. I wouldn’t say they are bad photos but I do think they could certainly be improved with some nice morning or evening sun. 

For me when photographing shorebirds, waterfowl or any species that can generally be found in a wide open space, sun is the light for me. I think it’s tough to beat those first 30–60 minutes of morning sun shining on a beautiful shorebird or duck. The sun creates a wonderful warm glow, the colors really stand out and most importantly in a wide open space we are able to get some dimension to the photos. The sun creates shadows and we can now use them to our advantage to make the subject stand out or make the background fade away. Below are some examples of photos that take advantage of great sunlight and I feel these same photographs if taken with overcast lighting conditions would be nowhere near as good. 

You do have to keep in mind that on sunny days taking advantage of golden hour is key. My friend Scott Keys recently wrote up a guest post here on the blog discussing Golden hour and “harsh” light so check that out to read more about the best use of sun in your wildlife photos. 

So my overall self-imposed guidelines for the best lighting conditions are flexible. I love overcast soft light when photographing warblers, songbirds or any species that likes to hang out in the forest or dense undergrowth. When I find myself in a wide open space such as a lake, beach or marsh all I want to see is that sun crest over the horizon to shine some golden morning light onto my subject. Of course this is not always 100% the case as I’ve seen and taken some great photos of warblers and songbirds in the sun and a great behavioral or action shot of a shorebird or duck in overcast light can still be beautiful. As with most things in photography this is just a suggestion and never a hard and fast rule. So the next time you see a forecast for clouds all day long or maybe even a little rain, think about what you can photograph to take advantage of that light.

Nature photography has become a very passionate hobby of mine and whenever I get a chance I love to get outside and enjoy being outdoors. I am also the co-owner of KGM Expressions, a wedding and portrait photography business, with my wife Kim. This is how we make our living and I love that we get to do that together.