I love gray skies. They’re a giant soft source, wrapping the world in flattering light that is nearly perfect for photography. Given that it’s still spring in western Washington, we’ve had a lot of gray skies and rain lately. The forecast has been rain, alternating with showers, a bit of drizzle, some mist, and an occasional sun break. It’s a perfect time to head outdoors with a camera.
Woodland garden under overcast sky
On one of the last days of May I paid a visit to the native plant demonstration garden on Memorial Highway a few miles west of Mount Vernon. The weather was overcast with intermittent light rain. In other words, ideal for photographing specimen plants and flowers.
So what is it that makes overcast skies so nice for photography?
Soft, diffuse light reduces the contrast range to more closely match what your camera’s digital sensor can record (this applied equally to slide film). There are no bright highlights or harsh shadows. Light filters around things and illuminates shaded areas.
Vine maple seeds, photographed with soft backlight
Colors appear more saturated under soft light. That’s because there are fewer reflections off the surfaces of leaves and petals. Subtle differences in hue, brightness, and saturation are easier to record, revealing more detail.
When you photograph people under soft gray skies, facial imperfections are more hidden. An added benefit is that people are less likely to squint, so they appear more relaxed.
Of course, as with everything in life, there are trade-offs when photographing on dull days.
I try to keep the sky out of the frame. Since it’s the brightest thing in the scene, a gray sky will usually record as pure white. That’s both boring and attention-grabbing. Find a vantage point that hides the sky.
Highbush cranbery blossoms
The light level is lower. I compensate by setting a higher ISO on my camera so I can use a shutter speed that’s fast enough to stop any motion. I used ISO 400 when photographing in the native plant garden. I also work with my camera on a tripod.
Rain can ruin expensive cameras. I don’t mind working unprotected in a light drizzle, but it’s a good idea to keep a plastic bag over your camera to keep it as dry as possible. Watch out for raindrops on the front of the lens, too. You probably won’t notice their effect until review your pictures on your computer later. Raindrops on the lens look like blurry blobs in the picture. I use a soft cotton handkerchief to wipe the raindrops off.
The advantages of photographing under gray skies far outweigh the problems. Soft shadows, muted highlights, and saturated colors are a winning combination. Instead of cursing the spring rain, get out and enjoy it with your camera. Harsh summer sun will be here soon enough.
The Salal Chapter Washington Native Plant Society demonstration garden is adjacent to the Washington State University Research Station and the Master Gardeners demonstration garden at 11650 Memorial Highway. It’s worth a visit when you’re in the neighborhood.
For this garden visit, I photographed with my Canon 1Ds Mark II camera body and used my 24-105mm and 100mm macro lenses. You can see the full set of images on my PNW Flowers website in the Salal Demonstration Garden gallery.