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Making Hay When the Sun Doesn't Shine


Keywords: shooting, conditions, guides, tips

"Too bad it's such a bad day for taking pictures."

I'd just gotten my tripod set up and the camera locked in when she rode by on her bicycle.

"Well, I suppose that depends on what you're taking pictures of," I replied. But she was gone, pedaling away down the winding backroad.

You see, I live in Vermont, in the northeastern United States. And come late September/early October every year, the leaves turn colors and the hills are ablaze in vibrant oranges, yellows and reds. Leaf peepers descend on my home state, as well as photographers. Lots of photographers. 

This year, though the colors have been phenomenal, the weather hasn't been cooperative. In fact, it's been overcast and rainy straight through the first week of what Vermonters call "peak," the point at which the colors are most vibrant. And just like that, many photographs of blue skies, billowy clouds, fire orange hills and classic New England villages won't be created.

That's what she meant by "bad day."

Then again, as a photographer, I try to not see any day as a bad day for making photographs. Rather, I look at the weather and choose an approach that will work. Clear blue morning skies -- hike up and get the pano. Overcast and rainy -- well, that's a different story.

Goodbye sky

Heading out I knew the shots I'd be going for were going to be framed tight. I figured I'd do my best to eliminate the sky from most of my shooting, unless I got lucky and the cloud cover proved interesting. 

The lead photo for this post I spotted while driving along County Road in Calais. Looking out the car window I was struck by the vertical lines of the tree trunks and because the road is slightly elevated from the forest floor, which gave me the feeling of being in the canopy. Incidentally, it was while setting up for this shot that the bicyclist rode past. As I said, it depends on what you're taking pictures of...

Along the same lines, I knew that I could get some "classic" shots of dirt roads framed with autumn colors if I spent enough time hunting for the right spot. So what would make the right spot? Again, very little sky -- with all of the shade from the trees and the sky being white, the contrast is too high to avoid majorly blown out highlights. In Woodbury I found something I was happy with.

It's in the details

There are a couple of things I really like about this photograph. First off, it's unusual. That is a barn entrance running over the public road, which you really don't see everyday. Second, it is a classic Vermont foliage scene -- dirt road, barn, autumn colors.

It's in the details


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George Zullich (Sawfish) on February 19, 2013

My humble opinion is there are no 'bad' days. Dull days are great, better colour. When its grey and the laddscape blends into the sky its time to think B&W ...

Jan Otto (jcotto) on November 3, 2012

It's been twenty years since I left Vermont (Montpelier/East Montpelier), but I remember all those places where you took your photos. Nice work, good directions for getting out of the "clear blue sky" mentality. Thanks for the memories...

User on October 25, 2012

Nice photos. I really like the one with the red leaf. We up here in the Pacific Northwest are going into the fall/winter season. That means there will be plenty of opportunity for shooting where the sun doesn't shine. This is a just-in-time post. Helps get the creative juices flowing. Thanks Josh!

User on October 25, 2012

Thanks for reading Oliver. I haven't used ND filters extensively, but I was certainly glad to have one with me on this particular day!

oliver kilayko (okilayko) on October 24, 2012

Great article. True, there isnt a "bad" day for taking pictures. It's all in your frame of mind! Nice pictures!! I'll be getting another set of ND filters !