Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Cloudy Day Photography

 Nikon D90, 18-105mm lens @ 18mm, 1/10 sec, f8, 200 ISO

Adult life does not always slot sufficient time for our leisure pursuits, but when it does I like to think I'm still building on any momentum gained during my last allotment. My previous entry or two went on about the benefits I derived by reading Brian Peterson's book "Understanding Exposure". Ever since I've been turning over in my mind, when it isn't preoccupied with more pressing matters, his instruction regarding metering, aperture, and shutter speed.

The overall lesson I'm deriving from that, and from just making pictures in general, is that if I want really good, I mean really technically good (composition is a subject for a different blog entry some day) photographs, then I must drive the camera. Yep, take that dial on your DSLR and spin it on around to "M". Up until recently I was content to set my D90 on "P" mode, thinking with it there I could just concentrate more on composition and not worry as much about metering and so forth. What I overlooked was that, if you think about it, driving the camera manually in a sense is part of composing the photograph!

Can the camera in "P" or "auto" mode read my mind and know what depth of field I want? Can it know how I want to manipulate the light in the scene I want to capture; does it fathom whether I want the shadows to be a bit deeper, or the sky a richer blue, or everything before the lens to be tack sharp (or not)? Of course not. The best it can do in its automatic modes is execute its programming to deal with the dynamic range of light in the scene before it. Programming I had no say in, and which does for certain purposes work just fine, otherwise it will make choices contrary to how I wish the scene before me to be captured.

All right, I entitled this entry "Cloudy Day Photography", so let's get with it. In the city of Fort Worth, Texas, where I live, there's a wonderful place called the Botanic Garden. Within this wonderful place is a Japanese Garden. Ever since visiting this place as a child in grade school, I've loved it. It wasn't until after moving to Fort Worth years later did I visit it again, and have been going back frequently since. The place presents nearly inexhaustible photo opportunities, if one opens one's eyes to look for them. Yesterday my wife and I went there before she had to go on to work. The day was cloudy and chilly, which apparently kept many away from the garden that morning. Suited me fine; less chance of someone walking into my shot at the wrong moment.

Anyway, armed with what I've personally derived from Peterson's teachings, and my never ending curiosity to try something like that out first hand (like during the snow day), I now wanted to see how it, and I, would do driving the camera in manual mode on a cloudy day. I'll start out with pasting in a shot and letting it open up the conversation:

Nikon D90, 22mm, 1/60 sec, f/8, ISO 200

First of all, I'm sure photographers have various opinions on cloudy day light. Yes, it's pretty even. Sure, it can also be kind of flat. It can make everything appear cooler instead of warmer. And so on. What I've also seen, in looking at many other photographs done on cloudy days (some of those being my own), is that even with flat, even light, the photographer managed to produce a flat, dull photograph, sometimes even with blown out highlights! While dynamic range is less extreme on a cloudy day, it's still there, as the above photo illustrates. A slate gray sky, fairly bright, luminous greens of freshly sprouted spring foliage, white buds, deep shadows beneath the trees and shrubs, and a splash of red in the center for good measure.

One might ask, "How could you blow that exposure?" Easy. Just set the camera on P or A and fire away. You could either blow out the sky, or everything will be underexposed (or both, save the sky). You might get lucky and get a shot like above, but why chance it? "But today's DSLRs are so much more sophisticated!" I hear someone reply. "It shouldn't have any problem with a scene like that." Well, often, that's right. You point and shoot and everything looks pretty decent. Even so, I found something lacking more often than not when I shot that way. If I wanted a point and shoot camera I wouldn't have plunked down a healthy chunk of change on a mid-range DSLR. If I want a digital camera that has a great sensor that responds very well to doing SLR photography the old fashioned way, looks like I'm on the right track.

Sometimes I must wonder if the complexity of a modern DSLR is overly complex. My wife complains about this with her D3000. She picked up photography years ago with a film SLR of 70's vintage. Adjusting to digital is an uphill climb from the start; now we throw in autofocus points and different types of metering selections and Active D lighting and white balance selections and...

Not to say that any of that is worthless or should be disregarded. Of course not. I must wonder, however, if the tendency is to rely too much on all those features. I know when I did I wasn't getting as consistent results as I now think I am by driving the camera manually.

Nikon D90, 26mm, 1/25 sec, f/8, ISO 200

The above shot was one of my favorite from the day's outing. For a scene void of people or animals, it still has motion to me. The one point perspective of the deck and rails leading the eye forward, the dark tree arching sharply overhead, other trees nearby sculpting the gray sky with curving trunks and branches interspersed with fresh green leaves, the interplay of light and shadow. This was one of those "ah ha!" moments where I had to capture it pretty fast before someone walked into the scene. Fortunately I had already shot nearby under similar light so I didn't need to do much tweaking of the camera before I composed and fired.

Nikon D90, 62mm, 1/25 sec, f/8 ISO 200

To get the above shot (another of my favorites from the day) I clamped my little Joby Gorilla Pod tripod to a deck railing. Would have been real dicey to use the slower shutter speed listed above and hand hold the camera. I made several shots during this outing using the Joby and reduced shutter speeds. I think this approach allows me to capture the right amount of dynamic range for the scene to show well as a photograph. No HDR with its multiple exposure bracketing required.

I've been at this DSLR photography game for over a year now, and I have yet to see any need or desire to delve into HDR (high dynamic range) techniques to get the degree of dynamic range I'm after in my shots. HDR has its uses; it's especially useful for interior shots of buildings to make such photos look their best, as for real estate advertisements, etc. Otherwise I see a lot of overly applied HDR technique, and it looks awful. More like a cartoon than a photograph. In the shots I've pasted here I did do a little post processing of light levels and color warmth/saturation, but that's about it.  I only mention HDR at all here because sometimes I wonder if it's used as a compensation for an inadequate understanding of good exposure techniques.

Nikon D90, 26mm, 1/50 sec, f/4, ISO 200
This was one of the first shots I took upon entering the garden. I just now noticed the wider aperture setting of f/4 (isn't metadata handy?); had I to do it over I'd go with f/8. Regardless it came out all right; the overcast day saved it. Had the sun been out, just slightly, this shot would have likely been overexposed at 1/50 of second at f/8. I like how the shot came out, as the trail that winds beneath the trees is clearly visible, yet in the diffuse light cast by the overhead canopy of greenery. The tree trunks and branches overhead also etch interesting patterns against the sky. This shot is admittedly a bit busy, but hopefully not overwhelming. Lots for the eye to explore, which is what being in this garden is all about. 

One other aspect about the above shot; it may not be outright noticeable, but to me this shot has just a little less color depth than the others taken with the aperture set to f/8. Hmm...think I'm onto something?

In summary, I'm finding that cloudy day photography can be rewarding, if one works at it. For all the shots shown here I did post process each one, but as already stated it mainly entailed color warmth and saturation adjustments, minor cropping, and a little unsharp mask if it seemed necessary. Some folks get all hung up over wanting to get the perfect shot "in camera". All I can say at this point is that I'm out in bright light making shots and looking at a dinky LED screen to see (aka "chimp") what I just shot to see if I'm even in the ballpark of where I want to go. Once I'm in the comfort of my home, if the shot was good I then have more ability and desire to "buff it out" to my liking. Meaning that when I'm in the field I'm mainly concentrating on technically capturing well what my mind's eye is telling me is an interesting scene to photograph. The ever intricate dance between artistry (composition) and technique (driving the camera).

Finally I'll leave you with the following shot. For all of the shots where gray sky is visible, all of them posed the potential to blow that part of the photo out, yet because I'm learning how to meter and manipulate the camera manually, I think I'm gaining ground on not only preventing this from happening, but obtaining more pleasant results in all three phases of photographic lighting; i.e. low and mid tones, and highlights. It's an ongoing learning adventure, one I hope to pursue for many years to come.

Nikon D90, 30mm, 1/50 sec, f/8, ISO 200


  1. Nice article. Heading to Ireland soon, so I think your perspective will be quite helpful. Thanks

  2. Japanese Gardens has never looked so good. Expert job...

  3. You've captured some very nice colors in these shots. Most overcast photos are a bit gray and bland. These are striking in comparison.