5 Ways To Shoot Colour Street Photography On Cloudy Days
Some colour street photographers, myself included, can sometimes lose the will to shoot street photography on cloudy days. I hear it both from those who I teach and also from photographer friends on social media, so I know I am not alone with feeling my mojo fade to match the colour of the sky on a grey overcast day. And living in London with limited opportunities to travel over the pandemic has meant I have had more than my fair share of pesky clouds to deal with, although of course clouds are available in other cities around the world too!
The easiest way to photograph a dull day is probably to ditch colour altogether. I pretty much always photograph in colour now, but black and white was part of my repertoire before dedicating myself to the pursuit of the rainbow so sometimes I do revert back to thinking in monochrome. It’s definitely a different way of seeing, as you have to be more mindful of contrast to make sure your subjects stand out, and about the tone of different colours and how they look in monochrome.
But I’m married to colour right now and I don’t want to cheat!
So to overcome this aversion to grey skies, without resorting to shooting in monochrome, I first had to figure out what the deal was… And after a bit of pondering I realised that it’s actually easier to do street photography on sunny days.
Why? Well, aside from there being more activity outdoors (always good), and more energy because people are in better moods when the sun is shining, but also colours are brighter, plus you have shadows, silhouettes and light pockets to play with. And your own mood is elevated too, and with a spring in your step you are chasing shadows and bouncing around nailing high contrast colour popping visually pleasing photos all over the place!
Plus you have the luxury of shooting at fast shutter speeds and deep depths of field so you can be sure you are freezing motion and getting all the layers you desire. On less bright days you need to slow down more so you can shoot with as deep a depth of field as possible without getting blurry movement (unless that’s a deliberate choice). [I usually set my camera up at around F5.5 - F8 with a shutter speed of 1/250-1/500 and then bump up the ISO, which is what I am most willing to compromise on — and thankfully Fujifilm cameras handle higher ISOs really well!]
So, basically making street photographs on sunny days boils down to feeling good and having more options of what to photograph. The problem is it’s easy to get hooked on light and shade and colour, and become dependant on the aesthetic. Don’t get me wrong this isn’t a bad thing as photography is literally “painting with light” and why not use all that glorious lovely sunlight and paint to your heart’s content.
So what happens when you take away the option of all those lovely sunny goodies? I’m afraid you do have to work harder because you no longer have the visual aesthetic to fall back on. Your observation needs to be concentrated on story and content. And most importantly your mindset needs to shift from thinking: “There’s nothing to photograph” to “I shall not be beaten by these darn clouds!”
I overcame my own aversion by setting myself non-sun dependant mini-projects. I would either decide what I was going to concentrate on photographing before I left the house, or I would evaluate the situation in a particular location, or a combo of both!
"To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them." — Elliot Erwitt
Here are 5 ways how to shoot street photography on a cloudy day and still get colour street photographs you are happy with...
01 — DON’T STOP ’TIL YOU COLOUR POP
Inspired by the work of documentary photographer Raymond Depardon and his Glasgow series, I seek out people who were wearing bright colours against a relatively monochrome backdrop on a dreary day. In winter adult people in the UK do tend to wear dull coloured or dark clothing (leaning into the overall mood!), whereas as kids can often be dressed in lovely bright hues year round, plus they are generally on the move, being busy running or playing, which is great movement and activity to capture for street photography.
Beach Kids — I spotted these little ones in action on the Thames River beach on London’s Southbank. The railings create a great frame as well as leading lines and the kids have wonderful motion, and of course those super brightly coloured clothes.
NOTE: Please never ever “colour pop” in Photoshop — and by this I mean make the majority of the image black and white leaving only your subject in colour. This is a crime against photography.
02 — COLOURING IN
In the absence of the sun making everything colourful find the most colourful location you can and try and cut that boring old sky out as much as possible. This could be a poster backdrop, a fairground, a graffiti wall, a shop window, or just a painted colourful wall. Then set up your frame as your backdrop to make sure it’s filled with glorious colour and wait for some people to come along and add human life to the backdrop (this is called “fishing” in street photography).
Camouflage — It was a bit of a crazy coincidence to find a tourist in Spain (yes they have clouds too!) wearing the same colours as this house, which is also the Spanish flag. I had to do a lot of mental calculation to line everything up in this particular shot, but you don't have to wait for something as exact as this with a colourful wall to play with!
03 — BE A DETAILS PERSON
You can distract your own and everybody’s attention from the fact it’s a dull day by focussing on finding an interesting and / or colourful detail about someone, such as the clothes they are wearing, or a way they are using or holding their hands, and literally getting as close as you can (or crop a bit later) and fill that frame! I like to collect colourful close-up details and they look really great as a set together.
T-Shirt Face — The brightly colour green and yellow jackets were the first thing I spotted but I was super excited to see the face on the t-shirt. So I engaged “stealth mode” and casually strolled up towards the couple before quickly turning to take the shot before carrying on.
Pink Fur — This bright magenta coat was very eye catching as you can imagine and as she was walking at quite a pace I had to be quick to keep up with her whilst trying to frame the shot in the LCD screen of my X100V whilst holding it out in front of me as far as my arms would stretch. I must have looked strange to anyone paying any attention to me!
04 — GET CROWDY
The sun does have a habit of casting shade and obscuring faces, so on a sun-free day you don’t have to worry about shadows getting in the way and you can practice making sure as many faces as possible are visible in groups of people in busy places. This type of photograph is tough to make though because there are a lot of moving parts, so don’t be disheartened if it’s a bit tricky. In fact you can just make it into a game, and see how many people you can get into the frame with as little overlapping of faces.
Trafalgar Twins — I spotted the matching outfits of this family who all got the memo of what to wear for a day out in London! I was in Trafalgar Square so I already had some good activity in the background so I just had to try and get plenty of visible faces, along with the layers, and an overall balance throughout the frame.
Day Out with Darth — While in Leicester Square I saw another family who enjoyed colour co-ordinated dressing having their pictures taken with Darth Vader, so I waited until they had finished and captured them along with someone walking into the frame at the back and someone walking into the frame at the front giving me more of the layers I was looking for.
05 — LEG’S GO!
Of course legs are great to photograph in all conditions, but at least on overcast days there aren’t any strong shadows you have to take into consideration, as they are a critical thing to think about as well as the legs themselves and the background. Getting a good leg shot it’s always the easiest thing to do, although people often assume they will be super easy to photograph.
Red Welly — It was hard to miss the coloured markings on the floor, and there were a few kids running around so I decided to try and combine the red and white striped welly boot with one of the red stripes. A lot of trial and error ensued…
Fancy Boots — Naturally I was drawn to the bright yellow fur coat but on closer inspection seeing it was paired with some sequinned boots was too much to resist, and with the added bonus of a yellow wheel of a shopping trolly I was well and truly satisfied!
It’s tougher to work sun-free but ultimately that’s a good thing as the challenge will make you a better street photographer as you will have to be more creative in your approach, without the reliance on the sunny day aesthetic. My best advice is to decide on what you are going to photograph before you leave the house, and also tell yourself you’ve got this! Who needs sunshine anyway?! Pfff.
If you want to take better photos and are looking for more ideas, inspiration and insights like these then grab your self access to The Street Photography Playbook — a digital resource I created especially for budding street photographers.
Words and pictures © Polly Rusyn | All Rights Reserved