Photography in bad light

Photography in bad light

Sometimes (but not very often) landscape photography can be easy. The light, location and weather come together to create dramatic pictures and it can be almost effortless. Other times however, well….it’s just not like that.

The first books I read on photography always preached the same mantra…it’s all about the light. And of course it is, great light can transform almost any scene into photographic nirvana and in an ideal world, we’d all only get our cameras out of our backpacks when in beautiful light.

Unfortunately though, the weather does as it pleases and good light can be transient and ephemeral. We can be in a wonderful location, set up and composed, and the light never comes to illuminate the scene. Heavy, overcast cloud cover which extends to the horizon can cut out all directional light making even a great location seem flat and unappealing photographically. This can be particularly annoying when you’re on a photography trip away from home and you only have a limited time in which to photograph the locations you were hoping to shoot. What can you do if the weather and light don’t cooperate? Not take the shot, just pack up and go home, cursing the weather Gods? Adaptability is a huge part of landscape photography (well, ALL forms of photography actually), and accepting that, OK, you might not be able to get the shot with the fantastic warm light painting the scene in a warm glow that you’d envisioned, but there’s still an interesting shot to be had, can reap substantial rewards.

On a trip to Scotland last year I tried to give myself as much chance as possible of getting good light by staying in each location for three days – that’s three dawns and three sunsets, which I hoped would give me at least one chance of shooting one of the locations in favourable conditions. As it turned out, for the three days I was in Glen Coe, there was constant rain and overcast skies all the time except for the middle of the afternoon on one of the days (the shot of Rannoch Moor below, was actually taken in bright midday sunshine). In Skye, there was one stunning sunrise (which I was fortunate enough to make the most of), and then the rest of the time was nothing but thick cloud. So what was to be done? I knew it would be a long time before I returned to Scotland, and I didn’t want to go home with just one morning’s worth of shots on my CF cards. There’s only one thing you can do really, and that’s take photos anyway.

There are certain approaches you can take when shooting in bad light to try to get more out of a scene, and one of my favourites and most effective is the use of long exposures. The shot at the top of this article is an example of this. The Old Man of Storr on the Isle of Skye is a classic UK dawn location. The rocks face east and catch the first rays of the sun, so a photographer can climb to a position alongside them, wait for the first rays of sun to illuminate the rocks and grass infront, and hopefully have an attractive sky overhead. That’s the ideal, but the weather on the west coast of Scotland is rarely predictable. It’s a stiff climb to the location, and not having been there before, I didn’t want to do it for the first time in the dark of pre-dawn, and then be racing against the sunrise looking for a composition, so I made the climb for the first time on the previous afternoon a little after lunch. It’s not a great time for photography, but I took all my gear with me anyway to get an idea of how demanding the climb would be with a full backpack. I certainly didn’t have any serious ideas about making a photo. After scouting around a little, I found the location I wanted to shoot from, and thought I’d do a test shot to see how it worked out. The light was flat, the whole scene overcast with thick heavy cloud cover, but at the same time, there was something about the scene which evoked a certain mood that really suited the location. At the same time, I was aware that I would only have one chance to shoot the location at dawn, as it was my final day, the two previous dawns having been spent shooting further north on the island.

So I decided to try to get a shot in the flat, overcast light of mid afternoon. The first thing was to use a 9 stop neutral density filter, slowing the exposure right down and creating a lot more drama in the sky, which before had looked flat and uninteresting. I took a couple of shots, which looked fine on the camera’s LCD screen, and walked back down. The following day, after climbing up again, the entire scene was shrouded in fog and cloud. The Storr wasn’t visible at all, and the sunrise never really happened, so the only shots I had from this iconic location were the ones I’d taken in the middle of the afternoon on the previous day. Working on them on my computer at home, the first thing I did was increase the contrast on the sky, and then convert the image into black and white with some dodging and burning on the landscape. The result might not be the one I had in mind before I went there, but it was certainly worth the effort of the walk up to the Storr to photograph it. Of course, I want to go back and photograph the location again with good light, but in the meantime, I’m happy with the shot I got in “bad light”.

So “bad light” can actually sometimes be good light if it fits the mood of a scene, and a similar thing is true of the scene above. This is the Piano Grande, in the Sibillini Mountains, Umbria, Italy. I’d given myself three nights to get decent conditions. The first day was just grey, the second day rained hard all day and we nearly didn’t bother making the long drive up to the plain. However, in the end we did, and just before the end of the day, it stopped raining enough to be able to contemplate taking a picture. Again, I’d hoped for golden light, and again I didn’t get it, but the location and mood were pretty strong, and with the clouds racing across the sky I thought I could get a long exposure to frame the clouds moving around the mountain, with the same scene reflected in the pool in front. Again, this scene didn’t work at all as a “normal” length exposure, it’s the long exposure which blurs the clouds into a smooth coloured layer around the white peaks of the mountain that makes the image work for me. As it turned out, on the following evening there (which was also my last) the light and sky finally cooperated giving me the conditions that but despite that, I’m still very pleased with the shot taken in poor light, and think it’s deserving of a place in my portfolio.

As is probably becoming clear, when I’m faced with bad light, my default solution is to try a long exposure which will lift the scene into something surreal and different. Another example is the shot I took at Elgol, on the Isle of Skye below.

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Once more, I had one chance to shoot this location, and I’d hoped for strong directional light on the mountain sides across the bay. I’d hoped for colourful clouds around the peaks of the Cuillin mountains. Sadly, I got overcast cloud which obscured the sun completely, and for most of the time I was there, I could barely see the mountains. I spent a while getting the composition right, as the rocks in the foreground needed to be arranged in the frame correctly or they’d just be a distracting mess, and then I set up for a long exposure. The water wasn’t rough, so wave movement added nothing to the scene, and a long exposure gave the water a more interesting misty feel around the rocks as well as making the water mirror the sky, as the tones and textures of the blurred clouds were similar to those of the sea. The long exposure also enhanced the movement of the clouds swirling around the peak, something that wasn’t evident or particularly visible in a shorter exposure.
A more extreme example of this is shown below in the shot of the Lisbon Port authority building, about 10 minutes drive from my home.

As I said before, I think that in certain conditions with flat uninteresting skies, long exposures can introduce some dynamism and pull something out of a scene, elevating it from the dull reality that we see with our eyes, into something surreal and an image worth making. Once again, as with the Old Man of Storr shot at the beginning of the article, a black and white conversion was needed to give the scene some drama as the scene lacked any colour or real contrast to engage the viewer. Like long exposures, black and white conversions are a regular go-to solution for scenes that seem flat, or lacking in contrast or colour.

However, sometimes overcast skies can bring out the colour of a scene just as well as excellent lighting. This is particularly true when shooting in shaded locations, like a forest stream, however, the same principal can also work out in the open. The image below was taken (again) in Scotland on (another) cloudy, rainy day. There wasn’t much sky in the shot, so I didn’t overly concern myself with the lack of contrast or interest there, but instead looked to build an image around texture and colour. The wet black rocks contrasted with the different colour moss and lichen, and the reds of the heather and bracken on across the loch. The flat grey light actually brought out the colour saturation in a way that direct light wouldn’t normally do at this time of day. I composed the shot around these different elements, and the heavy weather actually helps to create a mood that is appropriate to the scene and location.

So sometimes looking for splashes of colour which are highlighted by the greyness of the light can make a shot work in lighting conditions that we normally wouldn’t take a photograph in. The image of the piers at Carrasquiera, in Portugal, at the bottom of this article is a similar example. Also, when time is limited, don’t be afraid to go out and shoot in the middle of the day. The image near the top of this article of Rannoch Moor reflections was taken around midday under quite bright sunlight. As the image is mostly filled with the blue of the sky and the white of the clouds, the direct lighting hasn’t really had a negative effect at all, and the scene works under midday light. However, with the shot below, taken about an hour later on the same day, I used a black and white conversion, as the overhead light did nothing for the colour in the scene, making it look washed out and flat. With a black and white conversion though, I find it’s possible to push contrast much further than we would in a colour image. I darkened the shadow areas quite a bit, particularly on the bank, to increase the separation between the river rocks and the sky. I also worked on the highlights and shadows on the mountain side, brightening the highlights and darkening the shadows to increase the depth of the mountain, and enhance the drama of the light (which actually wasn’t even remotely dramatic). Finally, the trusty long exposure introduces a different texture and feel to the water and clouds.

So, don’t let flat, uninviting conditions stop you from setting up your camera, particularly if you’re in a place where you know your opportunities to shoot it might be limited. Getting a shot in bad light is always better than getting no shot at all, and sometimes it may actually turn out a lot better than the reality of the conditions led you to expect it would do. Long exposures can introduce a drama and dynamism into a scene which seemingly lacks any, and move a scene away from a dull reality into something that catches the viewers attention. Black and white conversions allow you to push the contrast a lot harder, or compensate for a scene which has flat, washed out or uninteresting colours. Alternatively, dull wet weather can in fact bring out saturation and texture in some scenes. Look for strong textures and clean compositions, and most of all, don’t make the mistake of thinking that the weather is no good for photography, just readjust your expectations, and you may be surprised at what you get.

Andy Mumford Official Website:

6 Responses to “Photography in bad light”

  1. Brent Pearson

    Hey Andy
    I couldn’t agree with you more. I recently did a 3 day trip down the South Coast of NSW, and it was cloudy and overcast the entire trip. I also decided to have some fun with my 10stop ND filter and was really happy with the results. Had I tried to make a conventional seascape, it would have been very dull and flat.

    Lovely job with the magazine Andy

  2. Martin Stainsby

    A great article Andy. Very inspiring with some excellent examples. I’m almost looking forward now to being out in some “uninviting conditions”. Thanks.

  3. Ian Parry

    Great work Andy, some of the most inspirational and emotive shots I’ve come across .Ian.

  4. Olga Celle

    Great article Andy, thank you so much! I live in an area where we seldom have good light, so I really appreciate your lesson.

  5. dennycooper

    great work

  6. Nat.Images

    Grande articolo,sono d’accordo.

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