3 Ideas for When Skies Won’t Cooperate for a Photo

3 Ideas for When Skies Won’t Cooperate for a Photo

I'm envious of the fortunate people who live near Maine's beautiful landscapes. This proximity provides numerous opportunities to capture the perfect shot of some of my favorite lighthouses. But what happens when you make the trek and the skies simply don't want to cooperate?

I have a fondness for lighthouses, evident from the unusual number of posts on my Instagram page. That's why I've been making annual trips to Maine to photograph its many lighthouses located close to each other. This year, however, Mother Nature was uncooperative during my trip. Day after day, I pursued sunrises and sunsets that were disappointingly lackluster, with little drama in the sky.

What's a photographer to do? There I was, perched on a rock in the dark, off the beaten path, needing to shift my focus away from the sunrise. Here are some alternative shots to consider when the skies won't cooperate.


Looking up to the sky proved fruitless, and so, I looked down at the puddles formed by rising and lowering tides. At just the right angle, I was able to catch the lighthouse in some of the pools of water made by the rocks. Depending on the wave activity and my shutter speed, I was able to get some shots where the lighthouse looked like an abstract painting in the reflection, a mirror image, or somewhere in between.

Not a single cloud or point of interest in the sky, but there were certainly some interesting reflection opportunities.
This is a generally good strategy wherever you find puddles, looking for reflections, especially when the main attraction, like a sunrise, isn't impressive.

Long Exposures

When the sky isn't captivating, the water can be the focal point. It's easier to use a longer shutter speed during the dim light before and after sunrise and sunset, creating a misty, foggy effect on the water:

A 25-second exposure makes the water take on a completely different look.
If it gets too bright, though, such as shortly after the sun is up, there’s no need to waste that wonderful spot you climbed up to. While it’s possible to slightly drag the shutter by stopping down, it’s not always the best way, as you’ll change your depth of field and likely reveal all the dust spots on your sensor with a smaller aperture — not to mention the loss of detail due to diffraction, depending on your sensor size.

Instead, try a neutral density filter, such as the one I frequently use and abuse, which is the B+W MRC Nano Master #810 ND3.0 Filter. It lets me really drag out the shutter, sometimes for minutes depending on the light. Here's an example of that concept in play at Watkins Glen, New York, where I was able to make a 60-second exposure of water in broad daylight:

To make a long exposure in daylight, a neutral density filter is an essential tool.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that you’ll need a tripod to make sharp photos this way. I’m a big fan of the Peak Design Travel Tripod for its very small profile and very light weight.

Return at Night

If the sky doesn’t want to tango during the day, maybe the stars at night will be better a better dance partner?

Returning to a location at night gives it a totally different character. In the case of Cape Neddick Light in Maine, I was able to catch Christmas lights and a beautiful sky full of stars that was less interesting just a couple of hours before.

While clear skies during the day can be a disadvantage, at night, the opportunity to shoot stars presents itself under the same conditions.
Like a long exposure, you’d definitely want a tripod to get a shutter speed that’s able to catch the stars and still keep everything sharp. A large sensor camera and a fast lens are also good ideas. In this case, I was using a Canon EOS R5 and Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM Lens. An f/2.8 or faster would be an even better choice.

Do you have tips to share when the weather makes for a bland photo? Share them in the comments below.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Wasim Ahmad is an assistant teaching professor teaching journalism at Quinnipiac University. He's worked at newspapers in Minnesota, Florida and upstate New York, and has previously taught multimedia journalism at Stony Brook University and Syracuse University. He's also worked as a technical specialist at Canon USA for Still/Cinema EOS cameras.

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1 Comment

I live in Washington State and the sky seldom cooperates. These are good ideas.