Digital SLR Photography

How to photograph overcast portraits

By Daniel Lezano. Posted

One of the main challenges you face when shooting portraits outdoors is having to control directional light, but this task isn't one you face when taking pictures on overcast days. Blankets of cloud act like giant diffusers, converting harsh sunlight into non-directional light that's flattering for portraits. Along with the light's soft nature, another advantage of this soft ambient light is that you can face your subject in any direction, without having to worry about the position of the sun, giving you more scope for shooting on location and to make the most of autumnal backgrounds.

silver reflector

That said, even on overcast days, you should still be able to make out the sun's position, so use this when angling reflectors to bounce light on to your subject. You'll want to have one or two reflectors to hand when shooting in diffused light because, while its soft nature is appealing, it can be rather flat. Reflectors allow you to bounce additional light on to your subject's face, illuminating detail and a catchlight. When heavily overcast, a silver rather than white reflector proves more efficient, while a gold or Sunfire finish can add a touch of warmth. On days where there are gaps in the cloud and the sun breaks through, you'll have to switch between natural diffusion and having to use diffusers, which can be a pain, but generally means light levels are higher, so you've less risk of shake spoiling your images. In these conditions, flick an eye to the sky regularly to anticipate when the sun may appear and plan your next move.


Even though the sky is completely overcast, the light falling on Evelina's face isn't entirely even. The light is quite flattering, but the eyes are a little in shadow. The use of a reflector should improve the result.

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I start with a white reflector and the image shows definite signs of improvement, with light now revealing the subject's eyes. However, while the effect is nice, it's a little too subtle for my taste.

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I lose the white reflector and switch to using a Sunfire finish. Its higher efficiency results in a stronger effect. While the light is even, the golden warmth of the reflectance is a little too unnatural.

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A SoftSilver (silver/white) finish provides a cleaner, more neutral reflectance that provides a very flattering light. But held so close to my subject, its efficiency proves a little too strong.

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