Making good wildlife photos in bad light

I was disappointed to see cloudy skies during my first visit to San Diego, California. I was there for the NANPA Nature Summit, but I had carved out some time […]

Written By Rob Knight

On March 6, 2015

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I was disappointed to see cloudy skies during my first visit to San Diego, California. I was there for the NANPA Nature Summit, but I had carved out some time to do some digiscoping with my buddy Clay Taylor from Swarovski Optik.

We set out early on Saturday morning and ended up in a park Clay knew along the San Diego river. There were several herons, egrets and ducks looking for breakfast in the shallow water. The only bad news was the grey ugly sky. I ended up getting some shots I really like, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to share some ideas for making the best of less-than-optimal shooting weather.

Don’t include the sky in your frame.

It may sound rudimentary, but it makes a big difference. If the sky isn’t pretty it probably won’t improve your photo. Just as you might compose a street shot to exclude a telephone pole or unwanted car, change your composition to leave out the ugly sky.


Before… grey background, flat contrast and dull colors

Warm up your white balance.

Overcast days tend to be very blue. If you use the cloudy white balance preset in your camera you will notice that it adds yellow. Sometimes that is enough, but you can also adjust the color temperature and tint in Lightroom or Photoshop to fine tune the color to your liking.

Add contrast in post.

Overcast days can be great for shooting portraits because the diffuse light creates soft flattering shadows. Wildlife subjects on the other hand usually look better with a little POP. Fortunately for us we can add that pop when we post-process the photos. You can add contrast using the Contrast and Clarity sliders, or make more specific adjustments with the Curves tool.


After… Colors and contrast pop with a few simple adjustments in Lightroom.

Add Vibrance to bring out the color.

Just as an overcast day softens the contrast it also tends to dull the color in the scene. I find that a little vibrance adjustment can help the color stand out against a grey background.


I hope that gives you some food for thought the next time you go shooting on a cloudy day. Even “bad light” can be good if you know how to work with it. Overcast skies make it easy to capture a lot of information without clipping shadows or highlights. After that you just have to know how to do some simple editing to end up with photos you’ll be proud of.

We don’t always have sunny days during my photo workshops, but that’s half the fun. I like to show my guests creative ways to work with the light we DO have instead of waiting for the perfect conditions. I would love to help you with your photography in the field. Visit my Events page or for a list of upcoming photo adventures. Also check out my new Lightroom Essentials app for your iOS device.


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