Working with overcast light

When the weather is overcast and light is not great, street photographers (myself included) usually lose motivation to continue shooting. After all, light plays a vital role in producing results. With less than ideal lighting, there is no opportunity for the widely practiced deep shadow and highlight play, silhouette shots or even dramatic high contrast shots, both in color or black and white. I do envy photographers in regions further away from the tropics (Japan, Australia, Northern European countries), where directional beautiful light is more common and present for an extended period of the day. In Malaysia where I reside, if there isn’t tropical afternoon showers, then we have to contend with haze or harsh light for most of the day. Directional and interesting light is confined to mornings and just before sunset.

Here is a scenario: I have made plans with a few friends for a small group street shooting session, and we don’t have a whole lot of time to spare or to reschedule if the weather is not in our favor. We show up but alas it’s an overcast day with dull, uninteresting light. We can choose not to touch the camera since we know that bad light equals to bad photos, and go on doing what Malaysians do best in mornings with lazy weather – sit down somewhere and have an unusually long brunch session while we gossip about politics. I choose to pick up the camera and challenge myself to get good shots despite the unattractive lighting situation. I push myself to work harder to obtain interesting results.

Here are a few suggestions on what to do and how to beat overcast light when shooting on the street. Firstly – break out of the stereotypical street photography style and do something different. I train myself to spot unusual subjects, things that are out of place and attention grabbing at the same time. For example, the opening shot of the man carrying a baby monkey, or the following shot of a man in full head to toe “neon green” apparel. These are rare occurrences that immediately spark curiosity. Instead of focusing on how to shoot, finding “what” to shoot can make a difference when light is not great. Next, diffused, soft light is great for portraits and I take advantage of this to continue shooting my portraits of strangers by approaching interesting people. Taking things a step further, there are creative plays that have always worked regardless of light, such as using reflections off the window, having repetitive patterns within a shot or matching colors or actions between several subjects.

When you stumble on a block, do you stop shooting, or do you push through the obstacles and find creative ways to continue shooting?


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  1. John Rodriguez says:

    My interest was piqued by the title – I had a shocking day’s shooting once, covering a 1940s retro day, it was a really bad day and I knew it the moment I left the house. I’ll put a link to the pics below and you’ll see what I mean. I see you’ve mainly gone for very colourful subjects, and also some tighter shots – a suggestion I was given for poor light was to shoot closer/tele. I’m not sure I had any better ideas!

    • In a strange way, it suits the subject matter – but perhaps that’s just my impression/expectation of the 40s being not exactly happy with the wars and all…

  2. Nice street portraits Robin! We tropical photographers must be the authorities in overcast lighting! Yeah! ; )

  3. Very interesting set of photos. I really enjoyed them.

  4. “You’ve been in Fiji for four weeks and I’ve not seen a single one of your photos,” said my manager while I was on one of my very long business trips. “We’ve been under this massive cloud, constantly,” I replied. Paradise does indeed have its drawbacks. Useful article and great photos – thanks. Alas, I’ve discovered the value of winter light, here in Manchester. I’m addicted! I try to get all my weekend stuff squeezed into the week, on the off chance we have (sometimes very) rare light at the weekend.

    • The tropics tend to be worse because of temperature and humidity – you seldom get clear sunsets unless you’re near the sea or the right side of a mountain with some breeze. In KL, sitting in a bowl? Forget it.

    • Robin Wong says:

      I have to agree with MT on this, the sky/weather can get a bit frustrating to work with. Especially now at the end of the year, when chances of rain every day is high!

  5. Paul Tirajoh says:

    I prefer overcast light for portrait photography

  6. A perfect example of the rule that transcends everything you’ve ever read or heard about technique: put something interesting in front of the lens. Works almost every time.

  7. Paul Wilson says:

    Love 4 & 6 – great portraits, working well in the light! 7 is a wonderful capture of an intriguing scene – what is going on?!

    Nice work as always.


    • Robin Wong says:

      Thanks! I think that guy was just stretching, coincidentally his hand tilted the same direction as the slanting pole.

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